Nobel in Physics for men who defined time

David Wineland and Serge Haroche awarded

By Dinsa Sachan
Published: Tuesday 09 October 2012

Dr. David Wineland Next time when you look at your wrist watch to check time, take a moment to thank David Wineland and Serge Haroche. They are the people who have made it possible to measure time very accurately through their groundbreaking work in the field of quantum physics.

The duo has also managed to measure and control very fragile quantum states and helped research take the first steps towards building a new type of super-fast computer, based on quantum physics.

Serge HarocheThese methods have also led to the construction of extremely precise clocks that could become the future basis for new standard of time, with more than hundred-fold greater precision than present-day caesium clocks.

Quantum physics deals with discrete, indivisible units of energy called quanta. Haroche and Wineland through their experimentation have directly observed individual quantum particles without destroying them, which otherwise would have been difficult.

The reason behind this is that single particles of light or matter cannot be easily isolated as they lose their quantum properties as soon as they interact with the outside world.

Haroche and Wineland were awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics on October 9. The two scientists worked independently and focused on fundamental interaction between light and matter, though their methods had many things in common. Wineland trapped electrically-charged atoms, or ions, controlled and measured them with light, or photons. Meanwhile, Haroche controlled and measured trapped photons by sending atoms through a trap.

Wineland is group leader at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, University of Colorado in the US. Haroche is a professor of physics at Collège de France in Paris.

“Wineland and Haroche are most deserving of this achievement especially Wineland, because he was the first person to propose the concept of laser cooling in the 1970s, which is the basis of atomic clocks,” says Vasant Natarajan, professor at department of physics, Indian Institute of Science in Benagluru. Ashish Agarwal, scientist at National Physical Laboratory, Delhi, says, “Wineland’s group has developed clocks which are even more accurate than atomic clocks defining the present day second, while Haroche’s group is developing new generation quantum computers based on interaction of atom and photon, the light particle.”

Wineland and Haroche’s work will pave the way for the next-generation of super-precise clocks, says Natarajan, whose lab works on quantum physics. Prize money of eight million euros will be shared equally between the laureates.

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