Alfred Nobel was a man who felt so guilty that his invention of dynamite was used as a weapon of war that he spent the rest of his life trying to atone for what he had done. In his will, he created the Nobel Prize to honor the greatest minds humanity has to offer, and winning one of these in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, economics or peace is considered one of the greatest achievements a person can make in their entire lifetime, and not just for the nice trip to Stockholm.
Last year the award ceremony for the Nobel Prize took place in Stockholm and recognized the best minds of 2012. The Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded to two scientists. Separately, both scientists discovered methods for observing quantum particles without changing their state of matter. American David J. Wineland used light to slow down ions, which are electrically charged atoms. Frenchman Serge Haroche trapped photons, which are particles of light, to examine them.
Before you go cross-eyed, here’s a simpler version.
In quantum physics, it’s hard to observe quantum particles because previous methods would change the state the particles were in. Imagine if you wanted to analyze a glass of orange juice, but the act of analyzing it turned it into an avocado. Maybe you like guacamole, but justifying your government grant depends on analyzing that glass of juice. Using either Wineland or Haroche’s method keeps your orange juice orange juice.
Wineland and Haroche opened the door for quantum physics by allowing quantum scientists to finally see what they’re studying. Future discoveries using their methods aren’t going to make the subject any more approachable, but they may ground the science so that it seems less arbitrary and magical. Quantum physics is now a tangible, observable science, and quantum physicists can finally see what they’ve been working on all these years. What are they going to do with these breakthroughs? Apparently, make very accurate clocks.