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What is an Atom?

A Nobel Prize in physics, chemistry or medicine is considered the highest scientific honour, recognising individuals who have made significant and historic contributions to their respective fields. This week, we profile the scientists amongst this year’s award winners.



Serge Haroche (Collège de France and École Normale Supérieure, Paris, France)

David J. Wineland (National Institute of Standards and Technology and University of Colorado, Boulder, CO, USA.)

Research Area:

Quantum physics deals with particles of matter or light at the subatomic level – particles so small they defy not only the imagination, but many of the standard rules of physics. Till now, collecting empirical evidence of how quarks and other subatomic particles behave has been impossible, as the very act of observation influences and changes their unique quantum behaviour. Without observable results, quantum physicists have had to depend upon mathematical models and thought experiments, and the field has developed on an informed, but necessarily hypothetical basis.

The research of the two recipients of the 2012 Nobel Prize in physics is set to revolutionise quantum physics by enabling the study of single particles still acting with quantum behaviour.

Although awarded jointly to Serge Haroche and David J. Wineland, the researchers worked independently, using very different methods to isolate the individual quantum particles. Wineland traps ions (electrically charged atoms) and controls or measures them using photons of light while Haroche controls or measures trapped photons by sending atoms through a trap. As noted by Haroche ‘I use atoms to study photons and he (Wineland) uses photons to study atoms.’

Their research lays the foundations for highly advanced quantum computing and atomic clocks of unprecedented precision. Such innovations are years away from realisation, but the pioneering work of Haroche and Wineland brings them one step closer.