A Northern California scientist and two European researchers received the Nobel Prize in Physics on Tuesday for work on quantum mechanics with important applications – for example in the field of encryption.
American John F. Clauser, Frenchman Alain Aspect, and Austrian Anton Zeilinger have been cited by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for discovering how particles known as photons can be connected, or “entangled,” themselves if they are far apart distances. Clauser lives in Walnut Creek, California; Aspect works in Paris and Zeilinger in Vienna.
“Being a little bit entangled is like being a little bit pregnant. The effect grows on you,” Clauser told the Associated Press over the phone.
It all goes back to a property of the universe that baffled even Albert Einstein, linking matter and light in a tangled, chaotic way.
Clauser, 79, received his share of the prize for a 1972 experiment that helped settle a famous quantum mechanics debate between Einstein and famed physicist Niels Bohr. Einstein described “a spooky action at a distance” that he thought would eventually be disproved.
“I bet on Einstein,” Clauser said. “But unfortunately I was wrong and Einstein was wrong and Bohr was right.”
Clauser said his work on quantum mechanics shows that you can’t confine information to a closed volume, “like a little box that sits on your desk” — although even he can’t say why not.
“Most people would assume that nature is made up of substances that are distributed across space and time,” Clauser said. “And that doesn’t seem to be the case.”
Quantum entanglement “has to do with taking these two photons and then measuring one over here and immediately knowing about the other over here,” said David Haviland, chairman of the Nobel Committee on Physics. “And if we have this property of entanglement between the two photons, we can establish shared information between two different observers of these quantum objects. And that allows us to do things like secret communications in a way that wasn’t possible before.”
Therefore, quantum information is not an esoteric thought experiment, said Eva Olsson, a member of the Nobel Committee. She called it a “living and evolving field.”
“It has far-reaching and potential implications in areas such as secure information transmission, quantum computing and sensor technology,” Olsson said. “Its predictions opened doors to another world, and it also shook the foundations of our interpretation of measurements.”
Anything in the universe could be entangled, but “usually the entanglement just washes off. It’s so chaotic and random that when you look at it, we don’t see anything,” said Harvard professor Subir Sachdev, who has worked on experiments looking at quantum-entangled material made up of up to 200 atoms.
But sometimes scientists can unravel just enough to make sense, and that’s useful in areas like encryption and superconductors, he said.
At a press conference following the announcement, Zeilinger said he was “still kind of shocked” to hear he’d received the award.
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“But it’s a very positive shock,” said Zeilinger, 77, who works at the University of Vienna.
Clauser, Aspect and Zeilinger have been the subject of Nobel speculation for more than a decade. In 2010 they won the Wolf Prize in Israel, which is considered a possible precursor to the Nobel Prize.
While physicists often tackle problems that at first glance seem far removed from everyday concerns—tiny particles and the vast mysteries of space and time—their research provides the basis for many practical applications of science.
The Nobel Committee said Clauser developed quantum theories that were first presented in a practical experiment in the 1960s. Aspect, 75, was able to fill a gap in these theories, while Zeilinger demonstrated a phenomenon called quantum teleportation, which effectively allows information to be transmitted over distances.
“Through entanglement, you can transfer all the information that an object carries to another place, where the object is sort of reconstituted,” says Zeilinger, adding that this only works for tiny particles.
“It’s not like the ‘Star Trek’ movies [where one is] To transport something, certainly not the person, over a certain distance,” he said.
When he began his research, Zeilinger said the experiments were “entirely philosophical, without any possible use or application.”
Since then, the work of the award winners has been used to further develop the areas of quantum computers, quantum networks and secure quantum-encrypted communication.
A week of Nobel Prize announcements began on Monday when Swedish scientist Svante Paabo received the Medicine Prize for unlocking the mysteries of Neanderthal DNA, which provided important insights into our immune system.
The awards continue with Chemistry Wednesday and Literature Thursday. The 2022 Nobel Peace Prize will be announced on Friday and the economics prize on October 10.
The prizes are worth 10 million Swedish kronor (almost US$900,000) and will be presented on December 10th. The money comes from an estate of the prize’s creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, who died in 1896.