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David J. Wineland Wins 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics Webcast Transcript

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Thomas O'Brian, Chief, Time and Frequency Division, Physical Measurement Laboratory, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), U.S. Department of Commerce

O'Brian: Good morning and welcome to the National Institute of Standards and Technology or NIST in Boulder, Colo. We are webcasting this to our Gaithersburg, MD, facility at NIST and we also have a number of people participating in a teleconference online.

So welcome to all those who are participating. We wish you could be with us in person to celebrate the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics to Dr. David Wineland of NIST and the University of Colorado for outstanding achievement in experimental research on quantum mechanics.

He shares the prize with Serge Haroche of France and we are absolutely thrilled to have what is now the fourth Nobel Prize for NIST scientists since 1997.

I'm going to tell you little bit about David Wineland in just a moment. I would like to tell you a just little bit about NIST and the University of Colorado before we begin because Dr. Wineland and Dr. Haroche's Nobel Prize was awarded, and I'm quoting, from the Nobel Committee, "for groundbreaking experimental methods that enable measuring and manipulation of individual quantum systems."

Now that might sound to some of you like a quite confusing thing, but basically it's using the fundamental properties of quantum mechanics, which is nature's instruction book for how atoms and photons behave at the individual level, to do really exciting things. And at NIST, the National Institute for Standards and Technology, we are involved in not just doing groundbreaking research such as that exemplified by Dr. Wineland, but in applying that research for technology and to enable innovation that advances national goals and advances the economy. And the work Dr. Wineland does, which we'll hear more about that in a moment, is directly related to that.

Some of the things he has worked on are related to making better atomic clocks. Atomic clocks are involved in our modern technology infrastructure in all different kinds of ways, from GPS that pretty much everyone has on his or her cell phone nowadays to telecommunication systems and a whole host of other things.

Dr. Wineland's work is also paving the way for the possibility of quantum computing, making vastly powerful supercomputers that can tackle problems we can't even think about solving now in any realistic length of time, and many other measurements which are based on these fundamental properties of quantum mechanics.

Dr. Wineland and his colleague Dr. Haroche are absolute maestros at engineering the states of quantum systems. In Dr. Wineland's case it's ions, electrically charged atoms, making them do all kinds of tricks and unique things to enable advanced measurements, advanced research, and other kinds of innovations.

Dr. Wineland also has an appointment at the University of Colorado out here in Boulder. NIST and the University Colorado share a lengthy and very productive relationship. He has supervised the Ph.D. work of a number of graduate students and post doctoral fellows. So in addition to advancing innovation, Dr. Wineland is crucial in training the next generation of scientists and innovators.

And we're delighted to have a number of folks with us from the University of Colorado, Dr. Stein Sture who is the vice chancellor for research and Dr. Paul Beale who is the chair of the Physics Department.

And we're especially delighted to have with us one of NIST's other Nobel laureates, Dr. Eric Cornell who works at JILA , the joint institute between University of Colorado and NIST. Dr. Cornell shared the 2001 Nobel Prize for his work in developing the Bose Einstein Condensate or BEC, an entirely new form of matter that's different from regular matter as laser light is different from candlelight.

Dr. Cornell is here to share congratulations and also some wisdom of how one survives the first day after getting the notice of the Nobel Prize.

I think it was about 4:00 a.m. local time when Dr. Wineland got the call from Stockholm indicating that he won the Nobel Prize.

We were fortunate to find out, among many others, shortly thereafter and as you can imagine it's been an absolutely thrilling day. Not only has Dr. Wineland pioneered research in quantum mechanics and advanced measurements for many years now, 37 years at NIST, but he also is a highly valued colleague and very humble man who collaborates and cooperates with people across the board. We are delighted to honor Dr. Wineland for his outstanding research.

I am sure Dave would be first one to say that a Nobel Prize although given to an individual always recognizes a body of work of many, many people. Dave has mentored and continues to mentor many dozens. I couldn't even count them this morning, all the people he mentored during his career and all of them should take pride and share in this Nobel Prize as should all the people who are across NIST and across JILA.

What I would like to do now is we have at our Gaithersburg site, Dr. Patrick Gallagher, who is the director of NIST and Undersecretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology. I think Dr. Gallagher would like to say a few words.

Patrick Gallagher, Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology and NIST Director:

Gallagher: Thank you, Tom. Dave, on behalf of a very proud NIST, I want to extend a very sincere congratulations to you both from NIST and from the Department of Commerce on this enormous honor. I know this has been a long day for you already. I realize it's only half over. It's probably not going to end soon. We were all very excited early this morning catching the news right at 6:00 AM as Tom mentioned. I know that was two hours earlier for you.

But this is really a richly deserved recognition of your work. This is a celebration of the scientific community on the fundamental contributions you have made to understanding how quantum mechanics can be used. It is also a richly deserved celebration of work that's at the forefront not only of science but of our measurement mission here at NIST. It's also a celebration of decades of hard experimental work that has really paid rich dividends. And I know from one of the honors I had four years ago with sharing the stage -- not the stage -- but sharing the event when you won the 2007 Medal of Science. I know from the ceremony that you are a very modest gentleman. And you are going to share the credit here widely with your many colleagues, students and collaborators. But this is your moment to shine, and we are just so proud of you. And so congratulations.

O'Brian: Thanks very much Dr. Gallagher. Let me tell you a little bit about David Wineland before we turn it over and invite you to ask questions of our most recent Nobel laureate. He did his undergraduate degree at the University of California at Berkley, went to Harvard and did his Ph.D. in physics with Norman Ramsey. Norman Ramsey shared the 1989 Nobel Prize for developing the crucial science and technology of atomic clocks. And if that weren't enough, Dave Wineland went on to do a post doctoral fellowship at the University of Washington with Hans Dehmelt who also shared the 1989 Nobel Prize for his development of unique electromagnetic traps, which helped in precision measurement and opened up new fields of interrogating quantum states.

And Dave brought that incredible expertise and pedigree here to NIST, then the National Bureau of Standards in 1975, and he has been on the NIST staff since that time, 37 years and counting. A very, very productive career. Dave is currently a NIST Fellow, which is the highest honor a scientist can have in the organization and also a leader of the Ion Storage Group. With that, we'll ask Dave Wineland to please come up and say a few words. Congratulations Dave. [applause]

David Wineland, Fellow, National Institute of Standards and Technology

Wineland: I told a couple people already that this morning someone pointed me to a web page where I was on the same page as Lady Gaga. I feel I have really arrived here.

No, this is a big honor. It doesn't happen just with a single person like me. A lot of people ... I have the pleasure to work with a lot of people over the years. Many people share in this honor. Also I think one thing that's been valuable at NIST that myself and others colleagues, we have had good support from our managers, now my boss Tom O'Brian but his boss Katharine Gebbie and many others throughout the years. I think it's also a credit to them that they provide an environment where we can pursue this kind of work. As I say, I am just one person at NIST in this mix. And a lot of people deserve credit. [applause.]

O'Brian: Thanks very much Dave. Let's take some questions. What we'd like to do is alternate between members of the press who are in the room here in Boulder and then folks who are on the telephone line. Any questions or comments for Dr. Wineland?

Question: I guess in as plain terms as possible can you describe the work that got you this Prize?

Wineland: Actually I have forgotten exactly how the citation reads. But our group does experiments with single atoms, as Tom mentioned in our case charged atoms. What we have been able to progressively do, we and other groups throughout the world, over the years we basically have been able to control their quantum properties with increasing precision. So Tom mentioned that this has applications in atomic clock. So using these techniques and we have progressively been able to make more and more accurate atomic clocks. Something that's happened in the last 15 years or so is that we have been able to also apply these control techniques to start to play games where these quantum properties might be used in a computer, a so called quantum computer. I would have to say at this point I wouldn't recommend anybody buy stock in a quantum computing company but I think we're optimistic as technology improves over the years that this quantum computer really will bring unique capability to computing.

I think actually one of the reasons the interest started in about 1995 was that a computer theorist Peter Shor came up with a algorithm that showed if you could make the quantum computer you could efficiently factorize large numbers. Meaning if you have a large number and it's the product of two smaller numbers you can find those two smaller numbers. This sounds a little bit esoteric but in fact the security of almost all encryption systems that we use derive security from the inability to factorize very large numbers, hundreds of digits.

A quantum computer, if we can make it, could actually solve that kind of problem. In fact, this problem as I say was a big impetus to get the field going. It's probably the hardest problem people have thought of where the quantum computer might come into play. I think when most physicists and other scientists feel the nearer term application for such a device is to solve problems, physical problems, that can be mapped on to this quantum computer. But problems that are intractable on an ordinary classical computer, the kind of machines we can have now.

Although we haven't really reached a turning point where we have been able do problems that haven't been simulateable on a classical computer, I would say I think maybe in the next decade or so, we'll cross that threshold where we can do problems that are intractable on a classic computer. This is maybe still a ways out. But I think as scientists we're optimistic about the future in that regard.

O'Brian: Do we have a question from our participants on the telephone? While we're waiting for them, is there another question from inside the house here?

Question: Did you ever dream you would win this award?

Wineland: Oh, sure. [laughter] Even as a kid, you know, this is kind of the biggest thing. I am sure you think about it. I think one thing to say is there are many other people that could have gotten this award besides me because there is a huge number of people working on very closely related problems. I mean, I think you learn there is a possibility but as I said, there are so many people that could have gotten this award. You don't want to bank anything on anything like that. I must say this. I have heard of the possibility before in the past, but this year I hadn't honestly heard any rumbling so I thought well maybe my time has passed. So it really was a surprise.

O'Brian: Are we ready for a telephone question yet?

Operator: We do have a question from the phone lines. We have a question from Bill Lindelof. Your line is open. Please state your affiliation.

Question: Hi. I am a reporter in Sacramento California. My question is from what all I read, you grew up here in Sacramento. Is that right?

Wineland: That's right.

Questioner: Graduated from Encina High School in '61.

Wineland: That's right.

Questioner: I wondered as I am taking into the way back machine talking about clocks here, did your interest in science and math, was it nurtured at Encina?

Wineland: I would say so. I don't think I was the best student when I was in high school. I must say there was a physics class I took my senior year and thought this is pretty cool. In fact I started as a mathematics major in college. But not very long after, I switched my major to physics. I must say this high school class in physics really got me interested and here I am.

Questioner: It is a different high school now, more ethnically diverse and the neighborhood is a little different. What message would you have for the students at Encina today?

Wineland: Just find something you like and keep going. In my case, I guess I was a pretty straight arrow in the sense that I got onto physics pretty early. And I still like it. It doesn't mean that you can't switch your interest and still be successful. I think it's important to take an interest in something and then just go for it. Takes a lot of hard work. I think that's a way to success.

Questioner: Thanks, very much.

O'Brian: Any questions from inside the house?

Questioner: Can you describe your relationship with the other winner here?

Wineland: I have known Serge Haroche for, I don't know, 25 or 30 years. We have become good friends [Cell phone rings, laughter, turns it off] I usually don't have this on.

O'Brian: Another congratulatory call.

Wineland: I must say this phone is only for my wife and I. Then I left it on today if she needed to call.

Audience member: Do you need it to tell time? [laughter]

Wineland: Yeah it's good for about another two minutes.

Audience member: You can improve atomic clocks but you can't shut off a cell phone. (laughter)

Wineland: Sorry, I lost the train there.

Anyway, actually our wives are good friends as well. I have known Serge for a long time. It's really a pleasure to be sharing this award with him. Actually, our work at first glance, maybe it doesn't look quite the same but actually the kind of work we have been doing is very closely related. The one difference I might say is that Serge and his colleagues have used atoms to probe the quantum properties of fields, that is, electric fields. And we do the opposite thing. We use electric fields from lasers to probe the quantum properties of atoms. These are very closely related. I would say one nice thing is we haven't been in some sense competitors as well as friends but it hasn't been a direct competition. It's been more of a complementary kind of thing we have. It's been really fun for that reason.

O'Brian: Do we have a question from the phone lines now? Question from inside the house?

Questioner: You mentioned that you didn't hear any rumblings. So could you go through how you were notified and what was going on this morning when you got that call?

Wineland: Actually, I slept through the phone ringing and my wife got up and handed me the phone. The message from the Nobel Academy people, it was fairly brief. I guess not surprisingly, it was just before apparently it was announced. Within five minutes I started getting calls. I have a lot of calls to answer now. I have my work cut out for me for a while.

Questioner: What are you going to do with the money?

Wineland: Oh, I don't know, but we'll will probably figure out something. I know we are allowed to take friends and colleagues with us [to the ceremony]. That will probably eat up some of the money from transportation fees, things like that. Haven't really thought of that.

Questioner: Can you describe in a few words what kind of work you've done at the University of Colorado?

Wineland: Actually, I have what's called a lectureship position. But that's a bit of a misnomer because I occasionally do lecturing, substituting when one of the professors is gone. What this position mainly allows us to do is to have graduate students from CU work in our lab. That's been the main connection with CU. We have graduate students. Right now we have four in our group.

O'Brian: Any questions from the phone lines?

Operator: We have a question from Eryn Brown. Your line is open. Please state your affiliation.

Questioner: Hi, I am from the LA times. Congratulations. I wanted to know what direction your work will be taking in the next, in the future? Are you continuing to work on the same problems? Or how does that evolve?

Wineland: I think, you know, things gradually evolve. I think it's fair to say we don't have any major changes in mind. Hopefully new things will come out of the work we're doing now. I would say even the background for the work I have been doing is as Tom O'Brian mentioned I came in 1975 and some of the first experiments we did were using lasers to cool the atoms, cool their thermal motion down. This is certainly one of the ingredients we have to rely on for the current work. What I mean to say is this is just sort of a continuous evolution. I guess my mantra would be ... and I even say this on proposals is more and better. We would like to be able to work with more, meaning larger quantum systems and to be able to control them better. I don't see this changing in a long time, certainly in my career. I don't see switching gears. I think we'll continue on this path and hopefully get better at what we are doing.

Questioner: What is it that you have to do to get better? Is there a certain problem you have to crack?

Wineland: Certainly not any single one. I think it's common in science that we are able for the most part to identify what limits us, why we can't do things with higher accuracy and things like that. It's pretty simple. They'll be the biggest thing and we'll try to knock that down first. Then if we can beat that down, there will be something else that's the biggest problem next. We just keep working that way. I think this is fairly common.

Questioner: Okay. Thank you.

O'Brian: Questions from inside?

Questioner: Can you speak some more about atomic clocks and measuring systems that you work has affected in our everyday lives?

Wineland: The question is on some of the things we are working on. For example, atomic clocks. Can we see applications in our everyday life? As far as atomic clocks go -- my career, I have always had a hand in the atomic clock work going on there in addition to this business on the quantum computing.

Over the years, I think a good example of how the technology that we develop in the lab reaches out to the real world is for example GPS. We kind of take for granted the navigational advantages that GPS provides. Actually, these days, part of the reason for success of the GPS is the satellites have on board atomic clocks that were first developed in the lab and gradually they became the technology developed to be able to make them compact in going with satellite. Actually, this worked continues. I would say certainly one of the main applications for centuries with improved clocks is in navigation. That function still continues. I think we look to that. As we improve clocks it's been true throughout history that when we have made better clocks people say why do you need to know it, have them more and more accurate? Whenever a clock has been developed, it's always been picked up and used in the field.

Questioner: The clocks on satellites, did you work on those?

Wineland: The question is with satellites, are we working on this now? I think that the clocks on the satellites, they're derived from older work in the lab. Yet of course they have to be much more rugged than our clocks in the lab. So it's a gradual process. These are the clocks on the satellites, don't utilize the latest technology. But eventually as we can prove technology and make it more rugged and robust, it will find its way into the field, satellites for example.

O'Brian: Questions from the phone? While we're waiting, any internal questions here?

Questioner: I'm guessing most people speaking of atomic clocks, would say well that's the best you can get. Can you explain in layman's terms why they are wrong?

Wineland: The performance of clocks, how steady the ticking is and things like that is fundamentally, we know there is really no limit on how stable they can be, how continuous and stable their clock rate is. It is always typically some environmental effect for example. An example I alluded to earlier is that some of the earlier atomic clocks were based on vibrations and atoms. But the atoms were moving around inside some container. This idea of laser cooling, one of its applications was to slow the atoms down. The reason for that is, when we slow them down, there are frequency shifts due to Doppler effect. People are example with the example I was given. It seems less relevant now. When a train goes by and a whistle is left on continuously, it is high pitch when its coming towards you and low pitched when its moving away. This change in pitch was a problem with atoms in the containers. It became less of a problem when we could cool them down using lasers. That's one example of how we just keep beating on these problems that limit performance. The problems never go away, but hopefully our ability to suppress them continues. That's the way it's been. You look for that continued improvement.

O'Brian: Questions from the phones? Any last questions from inside? Yes please.

Questioner: Can you please tell us what the Nobel Prize means to you? Is this like a crowning achievement?

Wineland: Obviously, it's a great honor. I don't have any plans of changing my course of action until they drag me out of here for being too old. [laughter] But I think the thing to say is, you know, the real reward is the science itself and the work with our colleagues and that's what keeps us going, not the awards you sometimes get along the way.

Questioner: You've rubbed elbows and worked with other Nobel laureates long the way. What do you hope for your students and others you've worked with?

Wineland: I think the question was, you know, I did my graduate work and then my post doctoral work both with Nobel prize winners. What about students, post doc and my colleagues who work with me? I don't think I have any great words of wisdom except I think they realize that the opportunity is there. As many of them take that opportunity and push themselves to go farther, many have already gone -- farther, many have already gone onto establish their successful groups. Even our groups with senior colleagues I have worked with over 30 years, they have their own projects and have been very successful. I don't know whether I had much to do with that. I think it's more the group aspect that enabled that.

O'Brian: Any last question?

Questioner: Have you gotten any advice from previous winners?

Wineland: The question was, Have I gotten advice from previous winners? Eric Cornell who is here, who won Nobel Prize a few years ago, he has offered me some help. I am sure there are tips I can learn before embarking on going to Sweden and the big ceremony.

O'Brian: The ceremony will be December 10 in Stockholm. We are all looking forward to that. I think at this point Dave has been absolutely overwhelmed and continues to be with lots of questions and comments. I think we will draw this to the close unless there are last comments from the phone or anything from Gaithersburg?

We will have at NIST Boulder a reception right in the lobby. I hope you will join Dave Wineland and the rest of us for a brief reception to recognize and honor Dave before we give him a break and let him recover from this wonderful marvelous happy chaos we are having out here. Thank you so much everybody for coming and congratulations. David Wineland 2012 Nobel prize winner.

Created October 9, 2012, Updated January 4, 2017