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Quantum Particle Work With Computer Uses Wins Nobel Accolade

Haroche, Wineland Win 2012 Nobel Physics Prize
Pictures of Serge Haroche, left, and David J. Wineland, who won the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics, are projected on a screen at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm. Photographer: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images

A U.S. and a French scientist won the Nobel Prize in Physics for finding ways to manipulate quantum particles without changing their nature, work that paved the way for a new generation of precision clocks and speedy computers.

Serge Haroche, 68, from France’s Ecole Normale Superieure, and David J. Wineland, also 68, of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colorado, will share the 8 million-krona ($1.2 million) prize, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said today in Stockholm.

The two scientists’ research has led to the development of laser-cooled atomic clocks, the world’s most precise measures of time, as well as the building blocks of quantum computers, speedy machines that could solve problems such as breaking the most advanced encryption codes.

“This is the century of quantum,” Robert Byer, the president of the American Physical Society, said in a telephone interview. Haroche and Wineland have brought researchers closer to building “the next generation of computers, much more capable than the ones we use now.”

Those machines may “change our everyday lives this century in the same radical way the classic computer did in the last century,” the Swedish academy said in a statement.

The two scientists developed distinct ways to measure and manipulate quantum particles without destroying them.

‘Quiet Guy’

Wineland and his team trapped electrically charged atoms, or ions, controlling and measuring them with light. The traps “are promising to create optical clocks which are more accurate than the atomic clocks we have,” Dieter Jaksch, a professor of physics at Oxford University, said in a telephone interview.

Haroche and his colleagues instead control and measure cornered photons, or particles of light, by sending atoms through a trap.

“David has been a quiet guy in the industry,” Byer said. Haroche, by contrast, is “a power in the world,” he said.

Haroche said he was walking on the street when his mobile phone rang and he saw the Swedish country code.

“I was in the street and passing a bench so I was able to sit down,” he said on a conference call organized by the science academy. “I didn’t see this coming.” He plans to celebrate by drinking champagne with his family, he said.

Wineland holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of California at Berkeley and a master’s degree and doctorate in physics from Harvard University. He also lectures at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Haroche, born in Casablanca, Morocco, studied at France’s Ecole Normale before getting a doctorate in physics. He teaches at the College de France.

Prize Value Shrinks

Last year’s physics prize went to Saul Perlmutter of the University of California at Berkeley, Brian P. Schmidt of the Australian National University in Canberra and Adam G. Riess of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe.

Wineland and Haroche will get less than their colleagues last year. The Nobel foundation trimmed the value of the prize from 10 million kronor last year to the lowest level since 1999, according to data published on its website. The cut was needed to avoid “undermining” capital, the foundation said.

Annual prizes for achievements in physics, chemistry, medicine, peace and literature were established in the will of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite, who died in 1896. The Nobel Foundation was established in 1900 and the prizes were first handed out the following year. The first Nobel in physics was awarded to Wilhelm Roentgen for his discovery of X-rays.

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