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2012 Nobel prize in Physics — Measuring and manipulating individual quantum systems

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Image of the fluorescence emitted by three trapped Be+ ions (National Institute of Standards and Technology image gallery).

David J. Wineland, physicist at the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and Serge Haroche, professor at Collège de France, Paris, have shared the 2012 Nobel price for ground-breaking experimental methods that enable measuring and manipulation of individual quantum systems.

More precisely, David Wineland is recognized for his research on trapped ions, which are electrically charged atoms. He conducted milestone experiments on laser cooling, which involves the use of lasers to cool ions to near absolute zero. This has led to the development of laser-cooled atomic clocks, and huge advances in experimental quantum computing. Serge Haroche has conducted landmark experiments in the field of Cavity Quantum Electrodynamics, the domain of quantum optics which studies the behaviour of atoms interacting strongly with an electromagnetic field confined in a high-Q cavity..

One could say that whereas David Wineland uses light to probe the quantum nature of atoms, Serge Haroche uses atoms to probe the quantum nature of light, but their research remains both conceptually and technologically very close. Their research has implications in quantum computing, which uses the peculiar laws of quantum physics to potentially solve important problems, which are insolvable using today’s technology. Moreover, the technology developed by David Wineland has applications in the view of realizing ultraprecise next-generation atomic clocks based on single ions.

Cold-atom physics research is not directly as such at the NEEL institute, but several groups are working on generalizing the pioneering experiments by Wineland and Haroche in solid-state systems. One direction is trying to replace David Wineland’s trapped ion with a single solid-state defect attached to a nanowire. The system is formally equivalent and exhibits the same quantum signatures. Another direction is a solid-state version of Serge Haroche’s Cavity Quantum Electrodynamics, where the atom is replaced by a quantum dot and the cavity is a solid-state semiconducting micro-pillar. These experiments are extremely challenging, as solid-state systems suffer even more than single atomic systems from the phenomenon called decoherence, but progress is being made in extending this exciting field of physics to macroscopic systems. The main goal of the NEEL experiments is to see if the weird laws of quantum physics, so beautifully exposed in David Wineland and Serge Haroche’s experiments, remain valid when one goes beyond tiny quantum systems of single atoms.



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