The Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded this Tuesday (4th) to the Frenchman Alain Aspect, the American John Clauser and the Austrian Anton Zeilinger, three pioneers of the revolutionary mechanisms of quantum physics.
The trio was awarded for their discoveries about “quantum entanglement”, a mechanism in which two quantum particles are perfectly connected, regardless of the distance between them, the jury said in a statement.
The discovery of this astonishing property paved the way for new technologies for quantum computing and ultra-secure communications, as well as ultra-sensitive quantum sensors that would enable extremely precise measurements, such as gravity in space.
This perplexing mechanics was predicted by quantum theory. But Albert Einstein didn’t believe it either: two particles joined from the beginning – as twins might be – can retain the mark of a shared past and behave in a coordinated manner at a distance.
Each of the winners “performed innovative experiments using entangled quantum states, in which two particles behave as a unit even when separated,” the Nobel committee said.
— Nobel Prize (@NobelPrize) October 4, 2022
“It is increasingly clear that a new kind of quantum technology is emerging,” Anders Irback, chairman of the Nobel Committee for Physics, said in a statement.
Aspect Clauser and Zeilinger, who jointly won the prestigious Wolf Prize in 2010, were recognized for advancing the work of John Stewart Bell, who in the 1960s “developed the mathematical inequality that bears his name.”
– Quantum computers –
Zeilinger, a 77-year-old professor of physics at the University of Vienna, said he did not expect to be awarded.
“I was very surprised to get the call,” Zeilinger said by phone during the news conference.
The Austrian scientist was recognized for his work on “quantum teleportation, which makes it possible to move a quantum state from one particle to another over a distance,” the jury said.
“It’s not like the ‘Star Trek’ movies or anything like that,” Zeilinger said. “But the point is that by using entanglement, you can transfer all the information carried by the object to some other place where the object is reconstituted,” he explained.
Aspect, a 75-year-old associate professor at the University of Paris-Saclay, expressed pride at being associated with physics giants such as Einstein, who he gave “part of the credit” for the discovery of entanglement.
Quantum mechanics is a counterintuitive science that describes the world on an extremely small scale, where things can simultaneously exist, not exist, and be somewhere in between.
Tech giants like Google are mobilizing a large number of researchers to create the next generation of so-called “quantum computers”, whose computing power should make it possible to solve problems that would otherwise be impossible to solve.
“The first quantum revolution gave us transistors, semiconductors, computers and lasers,” Mohamed Bourennane, professor of quantum computing at Stockholm University, told AFP.
“But the other, based on superposition and entanglement, will allow us in the future quantum computers or quantum inscriptions useful for obtaining images or sensors,” he added.
The three winners, who will share an amount of SEK 10 million ($901,500), will receive the prize from King Carl XVI Gustaf at a ceremony in Stockholm on December 10, the anniversary of the death in 1896 of scientist Alfred Nobel, who created the prize in his will.
Last year, the Swedish Academy awarded Syukuro Manabe, an American of Japanese origin, and Klaus Hasselmann, a German, for their work on physical models of climate change, as well as Italian Giorgio Parisi for his work on the interaction of disorder and fluctuations in physical systems.
Only four women have won the Nobel Prize in Physics, established in 1901: Marie Curie (1903), Maria Goeppert Mayer (1963), Donna Strickland (2018) and Andrea Ghez (2020).
Meet the winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics
– John Clauser (USA) –
Born in 1942, John Francis Clauser’s first memories are of marveling at the equipment in his father’s lab, which spawned the aeronautics department at Johns Hopkins University, he told the American Institute of Physics (AIP) in 2002.
Clauser, an electronics buff who created some of the first computer-controlled video games in high school, chose to study physics in college.
In the mid-1960s, he became interested in the ideas of quantum mechanics pioneer John Bell, who sought to better understand the phenomenon of entanglement, that is, when two particles behave as one and can influence each other even over great distances.
“I thought it was one of the most amazing articles I’d ever read, and I was like, God, where’s the experimental evidence?” Clauser told PBS in 2018.
Clauser believed he could test Bell’s ideas in the laboratory, but the leading physicists of the day responded with widespread disdain.
He proposed the test independently of his radio astronomy thesis and performed it with collaborators in 1972 while at the University of California, Berkeley.
By aiming lasers at calcium atoms to emit entangled photons and measuring their properties, he was able to prove with hard data that what defied even the great Einstein’s imagination was true.
– Alain Aspect (France) –
Like Clauser, Alain Aspect was seduced by the “crisp clarity” of Bell’s theorem.
“Quantum weirdness has dominated my entire life as a physicist,” he told AFP in a 2010 interview.
As a doctoral student, Aspect drew on Clauser’s work, refining the experiment to eliminate potential flaws in his design. He published his studies in 1982.
The son of a professor, Aspect was born in 1947 in a village in Gascony and is currently a professor at the Institut d’Optique (Augustin Fresnel Chair), the University of Paris-Saclay and the Ecole Polytechnique.
But his interest in the quantum world arose at a time in his life when he was away from academia: he went to Cameroon to complete three years of volunteer service as a teacher.
During his free time, he came across a book written by Claude Cohen-Tannoudji on the subject (Cohen-Tannoudji won the Nobel in 1997), which in turn led him to Bell.
In a telephone interview with the Nobel Foundation on Tuesday, Aspect highlighted the international makeup of the prize-winning trio.
“It is important for scientists to maintain their international community at a time when (…) nationalism is being consolidated in many countries,” he emphasized.
– Anton Zeilinger (Austria) –
Dubbed the “quantum pope”, physicist Anton Zeilinger, born in 1945 in the city of Ried im Innkreis, became one of the most famous scientists in his country when, in 1997, he was the first to succeed in the quantum teleportation of light particles.
A success they were quick to compare to the “teleportation” of the Star Trek TV series.
Using the properties of quantum entanglement for cryptography, Zeilinger encrypted the first bank transaction in this way in Vienna in 2004.
In 2007, his team created pairs of entangled photons and fired one of each pair over 144 kilometers between the Canary Islands of La Palma and Tenerife, to generate a quantum cryptographic key.
Zeilinger’s fame stems in part from his tireless talent for teaching: always eager to popularize his knowledge among the general public, he even launched the Dalai Lama in 2012 with infectious enthusiasm.
From the University of Vienna, Zeilinger has the face of a scientist: gray hair, a thick beard and small round glasses.
He had already received numerous awards and did not really believe that he would ever win the Nobel. “There are so many other candidates,” he told the Austrian Press Agency (APA) a few years ago.