National Physical Laboratory

Congratulations to the winners of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics

The 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded to Serge Haroche (France) and David J Wineland (USA) for 'Ground-breaking experimental methods that enable measuring and manipulation of individual quantum systems'.

Ion trap / microtrap
NPL strontium ion trap
NPL strontium ion trap

Serge Haroche's experiments involve the interaction of highly-excited 'Rydberg' states in an atom as it passes through a superconducting microwave cavity. David Wineland's approach has concentrated on single or several ions confined in an electromagnetic trap and laser cooled to near absolute zero temperature. These latter ion trapping experiments have led to demonstrations of optical clocks and quantum information processing.

Both of these topics are also part of NPL's research programme. Professor Patrick Gill explains the work that led to the award of the prize:

"What Serge Haroche and David Wineland have done is demonstrate near complete control over the quantum state of a particle (ion or atom). They have developed ways of holding the particle, preparing it in a particular quantum state and watching it evolve over time in response to stimuli such as pulses of light."

Pure quantum states are very fragile and will readily dissolve into a mixture of thermal states due to environmental perturbations such as temperature fluctuations, electromagnetic field noise or collisions between the particles. However, by cooling ions down to temperatures near absolute zero, scientists can then use tailored laser pulses or microwaves to prepare the particle in a particular quantum state and manipulate it.

"This is exciting because it allows physicists to watch and control the interface between the quantum world and the macroscopic world," said Patrick Gill.

This work has directly contributed to the first demonstrations of quantum computing based on qubits, rather than bits. This offers a potentially huge increase in computing power for certain mathematical algorithms with significance for finance or security applications, where codes are based on very large numbers.

The work has also led to the development of super-accurate atomic clocks based on optical frequencies, some of which already surpass the best microwave clocks such as the NPL caesium fountain clock which realises the SI second in the UK. These optical clocks could soon demonstrate uncertainties a 100 times lower than these microwave clocks and are already capable of demonstrating in the laboratory the effects of special and general relativity.

NPL sends its warmest congratulations to Serge Haroche and David Wineland on being awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Find out more about NPL's research into Optical Frequency Standards and Metrology

Find out more about NPL's research into Quantum Detection

Contact: Patrick Gill

Last Updated: 26 Nov 2014
Created: 10 Oct 2012