Physics Nobel goes to Serge Haroche and David Wineland

Serge Haroche and David Wineland Serge Haroche (l) is based at the College de France and David Wineland is based at the US National Institute for Standards and Technology

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This year's Nobel prize in physics has been awarded to two researchers for their work with light and matter at the most fundamental level.

Serge Haroche of France and David Wineland of the US will share the prize, worth 8m Swedish kronor (£750,000; $1.2m).

Their "quantum optics" work on single photons and charged atoms has opened up a whole new field of study in physics.

It could lead to advanced modes of communication and computation.

The Nobel citation said the award was for "ground-breaking experimental methods that enable measuring and manipulation of individual quantum systems".

Light and matter, when the minuscule scales of single particles are reached, behave in surprising ways in a part of physics known as quantum mechanics.

Working with light and matter on this level would have been unthinkable before the pair developed solutions to pick, manipulate and measure photons and ions individually, allowing an insight into a microscopic world that was once just the province of scientific theory.

Start Quote

I was lucky - I was in the street and passing near a bench, so I was able to sit down immediately”

End Quote Serge Haroche

Their work has implications for light-based clocks far more precise than the atomic clocks at the heart of the world's business systems, and quantum computing, which may - or may not - revolutionise desktop computing as we know it.

But for physicists, the import of the pair's techniques is outlined in a layman's summary on the Nobel site: they preserve the delicate quantum mechanical states of the photons and ions - states that theorists had for decades hoped to measure in the laboratory, putting the ideas of quantum mechanics on a solid experimental footing.

Those include the slippery quantum mechanical ideas of entanglement - the seemingly ethereal connection between two distant particles that underpins much work on the "uncrackable codes" of quantum cryptography - and of decoherence, in which the quantum nature of a particle slowly slips away through its interactions with other matter.

The prize is the second in quantum optics in recent years; the theory behind decoherence formed part of 2005's Nobel physics prize citation.

'Overwhelming'

Prof Haroche was reached by phone from the press conference. He had been told he had won just 20 minutes before telling reporters: "I was lucky - I was in the street and passing near a bench, so I was able to sit down immediately.

Ion trap Dr Wineland's work uses an "ion trap" in which charged particles are tested using light

"I was walking with my wife going back home and when I saw the... Swedish code, I realised it was real and it's, you know, really overwhelming."

Prof Sir Peter Knight of the UK's Institute of Physics, said: "Haroche and Wineland have made tremendous advances in our understanding of quantum entanglement, with beautiful experiments to show how atomic systems can be manipulated to exhibit the most extraordinary coherence properties."

The Nobel prizes have been given out annually since 1901, covering the fields of medicine, physics, chemistry, literature, peace and economics.

Speculation had been rife, in light of the discovery of the Higgs boson announced in July, that Peter Higgs or his colleagues may have been in the running for the prize, but historically the prizes tend to honour discoveries after a period of years.

The first-ever Nobel prize in physics was awarded to Wilhelm Roentgen of Germany for his discovery of X-rays, and with this year's winners the total number of recipients has reached 194.

On Monday, the 2012 prize for medicine or physiology was awarded to John Gurdon from the UK and Shinya Yamanaka from Japan for changing adult cells into stem cells, which can become any other type of cell in the body.

This year's chemistry prize will be announced on Wednesday, with the literature and peace prizes to be awarded later in the week.

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