3 Physicists, Including American, Share Nobel Prize for Work on Quantum Science – NBC4 Washington

Three scientists on Tuesday collectively won this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on quantum information science, a “completely insane” field that has significant applications, including in the field of encryption.

Frenchman Alain Aspect, American John F. Clauser, and Austrian Anton Zeilinger have been cited by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for discovering how invisible particles like photons can be connected, or “entangled,” even when they are separated by great distances.

“Being a little bit entangled is like being a little bit pregnant. The effect grows on you,” said Clauser.

It all goes back to a feature of the universe that baffled even Albert Einstein, linking matter and light in intricate, chaotic ways.

Information or matter that used to be juxtaposed, although now separate, has a connection or relationship – something that can potentially help scramble or even teleport information.

“It’s so strange,” Aspect said in a phone conversation with the Nobel Committee. “I accept something completely insane in my mental images.”

But the trio’s experiments showed that it happens in real life.

“Why this is happening I don’t have the slightest bit,” Clauser told The Associated Press during a Zoom interview in which he received the official call from the Swedish academy a few hours after friends and the media told him. “I have no understanding of how it works, but the entanglement seems very real.”

Clauser, 79, received his award for a 1972 experiment cobbled together with looted equipment 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.”

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Aspect said Einstein may have been technically wrong but deserves credit for asking the right question that led to experiments proving quantum entanglement.

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.

“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.”

“I’ve struggled my entire life to understand quantum mechanics,” Clauser added, noting that he invented what may have been the first video game in the 1950s while he was in school. “And I still don’t get it.”

Zeilinger said he doesn’t understand how it works either. “And you can quote me on that,” he said in an interview in 2000.

But he has shown that it is possible.

“During my first experiments, I was sometimes asked by the press what they were good for,” Zeilinger told reporters in Vienna on Tuesday. “And I proudly said: It’s no good. I’m doing this out of curiosity because I’ve been absolutely blown away by quantum physics since I first heard about it.”

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.”

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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 we don’t see anything by looking at it,” 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 be useful in everything from encryption to superconductors, he said.

The Nobel Prize-winning experiments observe a relationship that exists between particles or light that used to be next to each other but are no longer, said Johns Hopkins University physicist Sean Carroll. It’s not something you can see or touch, and while scientists can observe it, they have a harder time explaining why and how it happens, he said.

At a press conference following the announcement, Zeilinger said he was “still kind of shocked” to hear he’d received the award.

“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.

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The Nobel Committee said Clauser developed quantum theories that were first put into practical experimentation 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 carried by an object to another place, where the object is reconstituted, so to speak,” says Zeilinger. That only works for tiny particles.

“It’s not like in the Star Trek movies (where you are), transporting 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 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 Monday with Swedish scientist Svante Paabo receiving the Medicine Prize on Monday for unlocking the mysteries of Neanderthal DNA, which provided important insights into our immune system.

It continues with chemistry on Wednesday and literature on 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 1895.


Jordans reported from Berlin. Borenstein of Kensington, Maryland. Maddie Burakoff contributed from New York.

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