NIST’s Wineland wins Nobel in physics

BOULDER — The Nobel Prize for physics has once again gone to a physicist who calls Boulder home, this time to a scientist who has improved the atomic clock and laid the foundation of quantum computing.

David Wineland, a researcher at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, on Oct. 9 was awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize in physics. Wineland conducts his research at NIST’s laboratory in Boulder and is a lecturer in the University of Colorado-Boulder physics department, where he also supervises the work of graduate students and post-doctoral researchers.

Wineland, who joined NIST in 1975, is the fourth NIST scientist to receive a Nobel Prize in physics since 1997. He is the fifth member of CU-Boulder’s faculty to win a Nobel.

Wineland, 68, will share the award with French professor Serge Haroche of the Collège de France and Ecole Normale Supèrieure. He will receive about $600,000 with the award.

The Nobel committee awarded Wineland and Haroche the prize “for ground-breaking experimental methods that enable measuring and manipulation of individual quantum systems.”

Wearing a fleece jacket and polo shirt and sipping from a soft-drink can at a press conference hosted by NIST, Wineland explained the project for which he won the prize and its ramifications.

Wineland uses laser beams to trap single electrically charged atoms in a vacuum and cool them to a temperature of near absolute zero, which is equivalent to negative 459.67 degrees Fahrenheit. That allows researchers to study their properties without destroying the atom. Until Wineland and Haroche made their breakthroughs, physicists could not observe individual atoms and relied on thought experiments.

The practical applications of the technology are the development of clocks that are 100 times more precise than the currently used atomic clocks. Satellites needed for GPS systems rely on atomic clocks, and more precise clocks will lead to more accurate navigation, Wineland said.

In the future, technology building on Wineland’s discoveries could revolutionize computers through the introduction of super-fast quantum computers. The enhanced computers could solve problems far beyond the capabilities of contemporary classical computers and lead to advancements in cryptography.

Building a quantum computer could be decades away, but the required technical breakthroughs might be reached in the not-too-distant future, Wineland said.

“At this point, I wouldn’t recommend anyone buy stock in a quantum computer company, but I think we’re optimistic – as technology improves over the years – this quantum computer really will bring unique capability to computing,” he said.

“We haven’t really reached the turning point … but I would say maybe in the next decade or so we’ll cross that threshold, where we’ll be able to do computations that are intractable on classical computers,” Wineland said.

Wineland admitted the Nobel Prize has been a dream for him, and in the past he paid some attention to speculation that his work was Nobel worthy.

“This year I hadn’t heard any rumblings, so I thought maybe my time has passed,” he said.

Wineland paid tribute to the researchers with whom he had worked and said there are many other worthy candidates for the award. He also put the honor in perspective.

“The real reward is the science itself and being able to look at is as a calling and keep going, not the awards you sometimes win along the way,” Wineland said.

In a press release, CU-Boulder chancellor Philip P. DiStefano said, “This is an honor for our friends, colleagues and partners at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the University of Colorado Boulder, and for the world. That our university today has five Nobel Laureates walking our halls and interacting with our students is proof positive that the University of Colorado is a world-class institution.”

Wineland and Haroche will accept their awards at a Dec. 10 ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden. Meanwhile, Wineland planned to spend a few days adjusting to his newfound fame.

“This morning,” he said, “someone pointed me to a web page where I was on the same page as Lady Gaga.”

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