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You wouldn't be surprised to learn that a laboratory run by the U.S. Department of Commerce is working on more precise methods to measure stuff.
However, you might not expect it to be at the cutting edge of the mind-bending world of quantum physics. But on Tuesday, David Wineland became the fourth employee at the National Institute for Standards and Technology, a federal lab, to win a Nobel since 1997. Wineland learned he will share the Nobel Prize in physics with Frenchman Serge Haroche for work that's both esoteric and practical.
When Wineland started working in his laboratory at NIST, in Boulder, Colo., he was trying to build a better atomic clock.
These days, the best clocks aren't made from gears and pendulums; they're made from atoms that vibrate with great regularity. So, Wineland got down into the weeds of quantum mechanics, which is what governs the behavior of atoms.
"Turns out that we were trying to make certain quantum states of these atoms that would make for better clocks, and this new field just sort of fell into our laps," says Chris Monroe, who was working in Wineland's lab at the time.
The field they discovered is something that didn't even have a name at the time, but has since been dubbed "quantum computing." The idea is still quite speculative, but the hope is you can make amazingly powerful computers by tapping into the spooky, quantum mechanical nature of atoms. The basic concept is that atoms can be in many different states at the same time, and that can be manipulated in mind-boggling ways.
"We are starting to put together 10 to 20 atoms — sounds pretty small, 20 atoms — but with 20 atoms, we can store a million numbers at the same time, and there are some interesting things you can do with that, that are very hard to do otherwise," says Monroe.
Those interesting tasks include breaking the toughest codes. It's an idea that is still likely decades away. But it has inspired a generation of scientists, like Monroe, who now has his own lab at the University of Maryland.
"In the '90s there was one group in the world that could do this, and that was ... Dave Wineland's group in Boulder. And now there are ... probably about 30 other groups in the last 10 years that have started," Monroe says.
"I can't take for credit all that," says Wineland, living up to his reputation for being humble and eager to share the credit. He says one reason he succeeded is that his boss — and his boss's boss — simply let him follow his nose, without worrying too much about where it was all leading.
"We've been encouraged to kind of think out of the box, so to speak, and develop some of these new, basic ideas," Wineland says.
Sure enough, that led to new, improved atomic clocks. But it also pushed him toward the world of quantum computing. There was no light bulb, no aha! moment, Wineland says.
"We push as hard as we can on one idea, and usually it leads to some other avenue that it will develop into," he says. "But in my case it's been a slow, gradual procession."
Wineland will share the prize with Haroche, his friend and friendly competitor, who is at the College de France in Paris. Haroche also delves into the world of quantum physics; he's figured out how to trap particles of light — photons — and measure them without destroying them.
"This is actually very hard to do," physicist Per Delsing said during the Nobel announcement Tuesday morning. "For instance, when I look at the people in this room right now, the photons that [reach] my eyes are absorbed by my eyes, and therefore destroyed," he said.
Nobel Laureate Haroche devised a way to study these light particles without destroying them, by trapping them between two mirrors. And this work is related to what's happening in Colorado, because these light particles, like atoms, live in a realm that defies our intuition.
Monroe says probing this netherworld is about as basic as it gets when you think about basic science. But he says it also happens to be leading somewhere practical. And, yes, it's your tax dollars at work.