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French and American scientists win Nobel Physics Prize

“I was walking with my wife [and] when I saw the Swedish area code, I realised,” said one of this year’s winners.

Serge Haroche (right) with his aide Igor Dotensko pictured in Paris in 2009
Serge Haroche (right) with his aide Igor Dotensko pictured in Paris in 2009
Image: AP Photo/CNRS/Christophe Lebedinsky

SERGE HAROCHE OF France and David Wineland of the US have won the Nobel Prize for Physics today for their work in quantum physics that could one day open the way to revolutionary computers.

The pair were honoured for pioneering optical experiments in “measuring and manipulation of individual quantum systems,” the Nobel Physics jury said in its citation.

“Their groundbreaking methods have enabled this field of research to take the very first steps towards building a new type of super-fast computer based on quantum physics,” it said.

“Perhaps the quantum computer will change our everyday lives in this century in the same radical way as the classical computer did in the last century.”

The research has also led to the construction of extremely precise clocks that could become the future basis for a new standard of time, with more than hundred-fold greater precision than present-day caesium clocks, it said.

Haroche, 68, said the award was “fairly overwhelming”.

“I was in the street, passing near a bench, and was able to sit down immediately,” he told journalists via a live link to Stockholm.

“I was walking with my wife, when I saw the Swedish area code, I realised.” He added:

I think we will have champagne.

The two scientists specialise in quantum entanglement, a phenomenon of particle physics that has been proven by experiments but remains poorly understood.

When two particles interact, they become “entangled,” which means one particle affects the other at a distance. The connection lasts long after they are separated.

In entanglement, particles also go into a state called superposition, which opens the way to a hoped-for supercomputer.

Today’s computers use a binary code, in which data is stored in a bit that could be either zero or 1.

But in superposition, a quantum bit, known as a qubit, could be either zero or one, or both zero and one at the same time.

This potentially offers a massive increase in data storage, greatly helping number-crunching tasks such as running climate-change models and breaking encrypted codes.

However many technical hurdles remain to be overcome.

Haroche and Wineland’s achievement has been to measure and control these very fragile quantum states, which were previously deemed inaccessible, so that the particles can be observed and counted, the jury said.

- © AFP, 2012

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