Nobody comes to these parts (at least, they shouldn’t) looking for insight into atomic physics, quantum optics, and related fields, but hearty congratulations to Serge Haroche and David Wineland for sharing this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics. Here are helpful stories by Alex Witze and Dennis Overbye.
One way of thinking about their accomplishments is to say that they’ve managed to manipulate particles one at a time: Haroche with individual photons, and Wineland with trapped ions. But what’s really exciting is that they are able to study intrinsically quantum-mechanical properties of the particles. For a long time, quantum mechanics could be treated as a black box. You had an atomic nucleus sitting there quietly, not really deviating from your classical intuition, and then some quantum magic would occur, and now you have several decay products flying away. The remoteness of the quantum effects themselves is what has enabled physicists to get away for so long using quantum mechanics without really understanding it. (Thereby enabling such monstrosities as the “Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum mechanics, and its unholy offspring “shut up and calculate.”)
These days, in contrast, we can no longer refuse to take quantum mechanics seriously. The experimentalists have brought it up close and personal, in your face. We’re using it to build things in ways we wouldn’t have imagined in the bad old days. This prize is a great tribute to physicists who are dragging us, kicking and screaming, into a quantum-mechanical reality.