Two physicists who developed techniques to get a closer look on the most intimate relations between light and matter won the Nobel Prize in Physics on Tuesday, October 9th. Serge Haroche, of the Coll�ge de France and the �cole Normale Sup�rieure, in Paris, and David J. Wineland, of the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the University of Colorado received their award today in Stockholm.
Dr. Haroche and Dr. Wineland, who have been good friends for 25 years, have approached the relationship between matter and light from two different experimentations. Dr. Haroche traps photons in a finely polished mirrored cavity that one photon will bounce back and forth for a tenth of a second before leaking out or being absorbed. Then he sends in a single atom, as a spy, to interact with the light. Usually, to detect light is to destroy it, but in one case, by observing subtle effects of the light on the atoms, he and his colleagues could count the photons without destroying them.
Dr. Wineland’s work has focused on the material side of where matter meets light. Dr. Wineland and his colleagues trap charged beryllium atoms, or ions, in an electric field and cool them with specially tuned lasers so that they are barely moving. Atoms of any particular variety vibrate and emit light at very precise frequencies, and the colder or stiller those atoms are, the less the frequency of that light is blurred by atomic motions. As a result, Dr. Wineland and his colleagues have used their trapped ions to make the world’s most accurate clocks.
David Wineland, left, and Serge Haroche. They will split eight million Swedish krona, or about $1.2 million. Their work allows scientists to directly observe some of the most bizarre effects predicted by the quantum laws that could lead to quantum computers and super accurate clocks. Scientists have known for a hundred years now that atoms behave oddly. Quantum mechanics are physical systems that are represented by mathematical formulations called wave functions that predict all the possibilities of some event or object.
Light, or a subatomic particle like an electron, could be a wave or a particle depending on how you want to look at it and causes are not guaranteed to be linked to effects. An electron could be in two places at once, or everywhere until someone measures it.
Until recent years this was all philosophy, and physicists could comfort themselves with the realization that quantum mechanics works so spectacularly well that for some of them the real problem is why the ordinary world does not work that way. Why? Okay, for example, your iPhone is not simultaneously in the car, in your purse or on the shelf when you want them.
Now scientists are able to direct experiments and catch nature in the act of being quantum, hence exploring the boundary between quantum reality and normal life. Their work involves isolating atoms and the particles that transmit light, known as photons, and making them play with each other.