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NIST Researcher David Wineland Wins 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics

David Wineland leans over a table of lasers to adjust a laser beam

NIST physicist David Wineland adjusts an ultraviolet laser beam used to manipulate ions in a high-vacuum apparatus containing an "ion trap." These devices have been used to demonstrate the basic operations required for a quantum computer. Such computers, by relying on quantum mechanics rather than transistors to perform calculations or store information, could someday solve problems in seconds that would take months on today's best supercomputers. 

Credit: ©Geoffrey Wheeler

David J. Wineland, a physicist at the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), has won the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics. The honor is NIST's fourth Nobel prize in physics in the past 15 years.

Wineland shared the prize with Serge Haroche of the Collège de France and Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, France. In announcing the winners today, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences cited Wineland and Haroche "for groundbreaking experimental methods that enable measuring and manipulation of individual quantum systems."

The Nobel citation notes that Wineland and Haroche's methods have enabled science to take "the very first steps towards building a new type of superfast computer based on quantum physics. Perhaps the quantum computer will change our everyday lives in this century in the same radical way as the classical computer did in the last century. The research has also led to the construction of extremely precise clocks that could become the future basis for a new standard of time, with more than hundred-fold greater precision than present-day cesium clocks."

"We're so excited for Dave, along with his many colleagues and friends around the world, for this recognition of decades of world-leading research," said Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology and NIST Director Patrick Gallagher. "Dave's work embodies NIST's mission to pioneer new measurement science that will substantially advance technology and innovation."

Wineland has worked at NIST for 37 years and is internationally recognized for his research on trapped ions, which are electrically charged atoms. He conducted landmark experiments on laser cooling, which involves the use of lasers to cool ions to near absolute zero. This led to the development of laser-cooled atomic clocks, the current state-of-the-art clock in time and frequency standards; advances in experimental quantum computing, which use the rules of quantum physics to potentially solve important problems such as breaking the best data encryption codes, which are intractable using today's technology; and ultraprecise next-generation atomic clocks based on single ions.

Wineland achieved the first demonstration of laser cooling in 1978 and has built on that breakthrough with many experiments that represent the first or best in the world—often both—in using trapped laser-cooled ions to test theories in quantum physics and demonstrate crucial applications.

Wineland was the first to successfully demonstrate the building blocks of a practical quantum computer. In 2004, his was one of the first two research efforts (simultaneously with a group in Innsbruck) to demonstrate quantum teleportation of information among massive particles, providing a potentially crucial method for efficient transfer of information within a large-scale quantum computer. In 2005, he demonstrated the first "quantum logic atomic clock", which is now the world's most precise atomic clock and would neither gain nor lose one second in about 4 billion years.

For more, see the Oct. 9, 2012, NIST news announcement, "NIST's David J. Wineland Wins 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics." 

Released October 16, 2012, Updated March 9, 2018