Frenchman, American joint winners of Nobel Prize in physics

Story highlights

  • Their research could lead to astronomically fast computers
  • The scientists worked with the principles of light and matter
  • The prize money sum dropped 20% since last year
  • The prize for physics has been awarded 105 times since 1901

French and American scientists won the Nobel Prize in physics Tuesday for their work with light and matter, which may lead the way to superfast computers and "the most precise clocks ever seen," the prize committee said.

Serge Haroche of France and David Wineland of the United States will share the $1.2 million prize, the second of six Nobel Prizes announced this month.

The award surprised those who expected the physics Nobel this year to be related to the discovery of the Higgs boson, considered one of the top scientific achievements of the past 50 years.

Read more: What is the Higgs boson and why is it important?

Wineland and Haroche work in the field of quantum optics, approaching the same principles from opposite directions. The American uses light particles to measure the properties of matter, whereas his French colleague focuses on tracking light particles by using atoms.

Both Nobel laureates have found ways to isolate the subatomic particles and keep their properties intact at the same time, scientists at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in Stockholm, Sweden.

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Usually when these particles interact with the outside world, the properties that scientists would like to directly observe disappear, leaving researchers postulating over what is going on with them.

The two have found a way around this, making direct observation possible. "The new methods allow them to examine, control and count the particles," the academy said.

Haroche is a professor at the College de France and Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, and Wineland is group leader and NIST Fellow at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the University of Colorado Boulder.

Their work has some potential side benefits to future technology.

"Their ground-breaking methods have enabled this field of research to take the very first steps towards building a new type of super fast computer based on quantum physics," the academy said.

A quantum computer, if ever invented, could process an astronomically higher number of bits of information than present-day computers.

Classic computers hold only one value at a time, albeit at a rapid pace that is steadily gaining speed.

Read about the 2011 winners of the Nobel Prize in physics here

But a relatively modest quantum computer "could hold two to the 300th power values simultaneously, more than the number of atoms in the universe," according to a background document published by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

If it were ever to be built, it would radically change our lives, but the construction of such a computer is not on the horizon.

"To build such a quantum computer is an enormous practical challenge," the academy points out.

Last year, three scientists shared the physics prize for the discovery that the universe is apparently expanding at an accelerating rate some 14 billion years after the Big Bang and is neither slowing to a static state nor preparing to contract.

The laureates were Saul Perlmutter from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California, Berkeley; Brian P. Schmidt of Australian National University; and Adam G. Riess of Johns Hopkins University and the Space Telescope Science Institute.

This year, the foundation lowered the monetary award that accompanies the Nobel Prize by 20%, from 10 million Swedish kronor ($1.5 million) to 8 million kronor ($1.2 million) because of the turbulence that has hit financial markets.

On Monday, the Nobel Assembly awarded the prize for physiology or medicine to Sir John B. Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka jointly for their discovery that stem cells can be made of mature cells and need not necessarily be taken from fetuses or embryos.

In the coming days, the prize committee also will announce prizes in chemistry, literature, peace and economics.

Since 1901, the committee has handed out the Nobel Prize in physics 105 times. The youngest recipient was Lawrence Bragg, who won in 1915 at the age of 25. Bragg is not only the youngest physics laureate; he is also the youngest laureate in any Nobel Prize area.

The oldest physics laureate was Raymond Davis Jr., who was 88 years old when he was awarded the prize in 2002.

John Bardeen was the only physicist to receive the prize twice -- for work in semiconductors and superconductivity.

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