Image: David Wineland in lab
Mark Leffingwell  /  Reuters
U.S. physicist David Wineland talks about his experiment in his lab during a media tour after a news conference on Tuesday in Boulder, Colo. Wineland and French physicist Serge Haroche were awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics for finding ways to measure quantum particles without destroying them.
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updated 10/9/2012 12:54:06 PM ET 2012-10-09T16:54:06

A French-American duo shared the 2012 Nobel Prize in physics Tuesday for experiments on quantum particles that have already resulted in ultra-precise clocks and may one day lead to computers many times faster than those in use today.

Serge Haroche of France and American David Wineland showed in the 1990s how to observe individual particles while preserving their bizarre quantum properties, something that scientists had struggled to do before.

Image: Serge Haroche
Michel Euler  /  AP
French physicist Serge Haroche discusses his role in Nobel-winning research during a news conference at the College de France in Paris on Tuesday.

A quantum particle is one that is isolated from everything else. In this situation, an atom or electron or photon takes on strange properties. It can be in two places at once, for example. It behaves in some ways like a wave. But these properties are instantly changed when it interacts with something else, such as when somebody observes it.

Working separately, the two scientists, both 68, developed "ingenious laboratory methods" that allowed them to manage and measure and control fragile quantum states, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said.

"Their ground-breaking methods have enabled this field of research to take the very first steps towards building a new type of superfast computer based on quantum physics," the academy said. "The research has also led to the construction of extremely precise clocks that could become the future basis for a new standard of time."

Background: Nobel-winning physics explained

Haroche is a professor at the College de France and Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris. Wineland is a physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado.

The two researchers use opposite approaches to examine, control and count quantum particles, the academy said. Wineland traps ions — electrically charged atoms — and measures them with light. Haroche controls and measures photons, or light particles, by sending atoms through a specially prepared trap.

Haroche said he was out walking with his wife when he got the call from the Nobel judges.

"I was in the street and passing a bench so I was able to sit down," Haroche told a news conference in Stockholm by telephone. "It's very overwhelming."

He said his work in the realm of quantum physics could ultimately lead to unimaginably fast computers. "You can do things which are prohibited by the laws of classical physics," he told The Associated Press.

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Haroche also said quantum research could help make GPS navigating systems more accurate.

'Got a lot smarter'
Wineland told AP he was sleeping when his wife answered the phone at 3:30 a.m. local time in Denver. He was utterly shocked even though his name had come up before. "But actually I hadn't heard anything this time around. It was certainly surprising and kind of overwhelming right now," he said. "I feel like I got a lot smarter overnight."

Wineland took pains to note that many people are working in the field. "First of all, a lot of people have been working on advanced computers and atomic clocks for a long time. It's a bit embarrassing to focus on just two individuals," he said.

Asked how he will celebrate, Wineland said: "I'll probably be pretty worn out by this evening. I'll probably have a glass of wine and fall asleep."

Christopher Monroe, who does similar work at the Joint Quantum Institute at the University of Maryland, said the awarding of the prize to the two men "is not a big surprise to me. ... It was sort of obvious that they were a package."

Monroe said that thanks to the bizarre properties of the quantum world, when he and Wineland worked together in the 1990s, they were able to put a single atom in two places simultaneously.

At that time, it wasn't clear that trapping single atoms could help pave the way to superfast quantum computers, he said. That whole field "just fell into our laps,'" Monroe said.

In an ordinary computer, information is represented in bits, each of which is either a zero or a one. But in a quantum computer, an individual particle can essentially represent a zero and a one at the same time — that is, until the result is read out. If scientists can make quantum bits, or "qubits," work together, certain kinds of calculations could be done with blazing speed.

One example is prime factorization, the process of discovering which two prime numbers can be multiplied together to produce a given number. That has implications for breaking the encryption codes that provide the foundation for today's secure financial transactions. However, quantum encryption could open the way for a new generation of secure communication tools as well.

Quantum computers could radically change people's lives in the way that classical computers did last century, but a full-scale quantum computer is still decades away, the Nobel judges said. "The calculations would be incredibly much faster and exact, and you would be able to use it for areas like meteorology and for measuring the climate of the earth," said Lars Bergstrom, the secretary of the prize committee.

The physics prize was the second of the 2012 Nobel Prizes to be announced, with the medicine prize going Monday to stem cell pioneers John Gurdon of Britain and Japan's Shinya Yamanaka. Each award is worth 8 million kronor, or about $1.2 million.

The prizes are always handed out on Dec. 10, the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel's death in 1896.

More about quantum physics:

AP science writer Malcolm Ritter in New York, Lori Hinnant in Paris, and James Anderson and Colleen Slevin in Denver contributed to this report. The report was also supplemented by NBC News.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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