by Matthew Harper.
David Wineland, a 68-year-old native of Sacramento, California, will share the $1.2 million Nobel Prize in physics this year. The other winner is Serge Haroche of France. Both men made advancements in the area of quantum computers. Although the two men will share the prize, they didn’t work together at all. They just happened to both make important steps in a very similar field, and that is why both men are being honored.
Wineland and Haroche work in quantum optics, and the official press release from the Nobel Prize website said that “their ground-breaking methods have enabled this field of research to take the very first steps towards building a new type of super fast computer based on quantum physics.” The press release also hints at a hopeful future where these incredibly powerful quantum computers might make the type of enormous impact on our lives that traditional computers did in the previous century. Not only that, though, as the work of Wineland and Haroche, according to the Nobel Prize organization, has also had an incredible impact on clocks “that could become the future basis for a new standard of time, with more than hundred-fold greater precision than present-day caesium clocks.”
The most interesting aspect of this year’s shared physics award is that the work of Wineland and Haroche is incredibly similar despite the fact that the two men worked entirely independently of one another. The two men are friends, but they approach their studies in quantum optics in totally different ways in their respective labs. Both, though, are able to individually study particles with their ions still intact. The Los Angeles Times says that these quantum properties could traditionally only be studied through mathematical formulas and theories, but “Wineland’s and Haroche’s work allows for these states to be observed directly in the laboratory by controlling the experimental conditions with precision.”
It’s an especially sweet victory for David Wineland, who didn’t really see himself having a chance to win the award. He was aware that his name had been brought up in years past, but, in his own words: “I thought maybe my time was past” (The Los Angeles Times). Wineland, despite his excitement for winning the award, is also aware that just because great advancements have been made in his field, it doesn’t mean we’re necessarily close to seeing quantum computers becoming available. In fact, he even joked about it to the L.A. Times, saying that, “at this point, I wouldn’t recommend anyone buy stock in a quantum computing company.”
Wineland remains very optimistic about the future of the technology, though, as well he should. His developments, along with those of France’s Laroche, could make a revolutionary impact in the field in our lifetimes. So, if in another decade or so you find yourself sitting in front of a computer faster than you could ever have imagined possible while wearing a wristwatch that is more accurate than could possibly be necessary, just remember that an elderly man from Sacramento and a physics professor from France are the people responsible.