NIST physicist, CU-Boulder lecturer wins Nobel

NIST physicist David Wineland adjusts an ultraviolet laser beam used to manipulate ions in a high-vacuum apparatus containing an “ion trap.” These devices have been used to demonstrate the basic operations required for a quantum computer. Such computers, by relying on quantum mechanics rather than transistors to perform calculations or store information, could someday solve problems in seconds that would take months on today’s best supercomputers. Photo by Geoffrey Wheeler/NIST.

David J. Wineland, a lecturer in the University of Colorado Boulder physics department, has won the 2012 Nobel Prize in physics.

Wineland is a physicist with the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder and internationally recognized for developing the technique of using lasers to cool ions to near absolute zero.

His experiments have been used to test theories in quantum physics and may lead to the development of quantum computers. He shared the prize with Serge Haroche of France.

As a lecturer in the Department of Physics at CU-Boulder since 2000, Wineland oversees graduate students who work in his laboratory.

The Nobel Prize committee stated that  both scientists “have opened the door to a new era of experimentation with quantum physics by demonstrating the direct observation of individual quantum particles without destroying them.”

For single particles of light or matter, the laws of classical physics cease to apply and quantum physics takes over, the committee noted, adding. “But single particles are not easily isolated from their surrounding environment and they lose their mysterious quantum properties as soon as they interact with the outside world. Thus many seemingly bizarre phenomena predicted by quantum physics could not be directly observed, and researchers could only carry out thought experiments that might in principle manifest these bizarre phenomena.”

Both Haroche and Wineland and their research groups have measured and controlled very fragile quantum states that were previously thought inaccessible for direct observation, the Nobel committee stated. The new methods allow them to examine, control and count the particles.

“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. Perhaps the quantum computer will change our everyday lives in this century in the same radical way as the classical computer did in the last century,” the committee continued.

The research has also facilitated the building of extremely precise 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.

In a telephone interview with Nobel Media early Tuesday morning, Wineland noted the historical reason scientists worked to build more-accurate clocks. “The better clocks we have, the better navigation we can do,” he said, adding that precise timing is also useful in communications.

Wineland brushed off the notion that he was “the first to observe this new world of quantum states.” Wineland said, “I wouldn’t put myself in the first. Maybe we’re among the first. But there are many good people working on these things. It’s certainly a big enterprise by now.”

At the same time, Wineland acknowledged the thrill of woking in what might be called uncharted territory. “It’s generally true in science, to be near the leading edge, I suppose. It’s always been great, really exciting to be in this field.”

Paul Beale, professor and chair of the CU-Boulder Department of Physics, said the department was “thrilled” about Wineland’s Nobel Prize.

“His research using trapped ions to study quantum entanglement, now recognized for the groundbreaking work it is by a Nobel Prize, acknowledges his great successes,” Beale said. “David is an important member of our graduate faculty who has been both a key graduate adviser for our students and a strong member of our graduate student recruiting team. His laboratory at NIST has allowed our graduate students to engage in world-class research, and it’s an honor for our department to be associated with him.”

Wineland learned of the award in a pre-dawn call from Stockholm. “I was sleeping, and my wife got the call and woke me up,” he said. “It was a wonderful surprise, of course. We probably won’t go back to sleep for a while.”

In a late-morning news conference, Wineland said someone pointed him to a web site where the Nobel Prize was on the same page as news about Lady Gaga. “So I guess I have really arrived.”

Born 1944 in Milwaukee, Wisc., Wineland earned his Ph.D. in 1970 from Harvard University. He is the 2007 recipient of the National Medal of Science.

To view photos from the news conference at NIST’s Boulder labs, see

The CU Office of News Services contributed to this report.

Oct. 9, 2012

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