A Nobel for teasing out the secrect life of atoms


Two physicists who developed techniques to peer in on the most intimate relations between light and matter won the Nobel Prize in Physics on Tuesday. They are Serge Haroche, 68, of the College de France and the Ecole Normale Superieure, in Paris, and David J. Wineland, also 68, of the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the University of Colorado.

Their work, enables scientists to directly observe some of the most bizarre effects—like the subatomic analogue of cats who are alive and dead at the same time—predicted by the quantum laws that prevail in the microcosm, and could lead eventually to quantum computers and super accurate clocks.

On the smallest scales of nature, the common-sense laws of science are overthrown by the strange house rules of quantum mechanics, in which physical systems are represented by mathematical formulations called wave functions that encapsulated all the possibilities of some event or object.

Light or a subatomic particle like an electron could be a wave or a particle depending on how you want to look at it, and causes are not guaranteed to be linked to effects. An electron could be in two places at once, or everywhere until someone measures it, courtesy of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which caused a cranky Einstein to grumble that God did not play dice.

Erwin Schrodinger, one of the founders of the theory, as was Einstein for that matter, once complained that according to quantum principles a cat in a box would be both alive and dead until somebody looked at it.

Until recent years this was all philosophy, and physicists could comfort themselves with the realisation that quantum mechanics works so spectacularly well—every time you turn on your computer, for example—that for some of them the real problem is why the ordinary world does not work that way; why, for example, your sunglasses are not simultaneously in the car, back at the summer cabin or on the shelf when you want them.

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