The Quantum Cardinals
Haroche and Wineland win Physics Nobel
The physics prize was shared between experimentalists Serge Haroche and David Wineland, longtime leaders in the study of atom-photon interaction. In recent decades both have honed their techniques to meet the challenges and opportunities opened by “quantum information science” which aims to rebuild the theory and practice of communication and computation on quantum foundations. This change of viewpoint was led by theorists, beginning with John Bell, and was initially regarded skeptically not only by information theorists and computer scientists, on whose turf it encroached, but even by many physicists, who saw a lot of theorizing, verging on philosophy, with little practice to back it up. Haroche, working often with Rydberg atoms and microwave cavities, and Wineland, with trapped ions and optical fields, took the new approach seriously, and over many years have provided much of the solid foundation of practice that has by now has earned the field the right to be taken seriously. At the same time both researchers have done their part to restrain the inevitable hype. A decade and a half ago Haroche, in articles like “Quantum Computing: Dream or Nightmare” pointed out how difficult building a quantum computer would be, while always believing it possible in principle, and in the mean time produced, with his group, an impressive stream of experimental results and technical improvements that made it ever more practical. In the same vein, Wineland, when asked if ion traps were the right hardware for building a quantum computer, answered that whatever advantage they had was like being 10 feet ahead at the start of a 10 mile race. Then like Haroche he went ahead making steady progress in the control and measurement of individual particles, with applications quite apart from that distant goal.
Both men are consummate experimentalists, finding and adapting whatever it takes. I visited Wineland’s lab about a decade ago and noticed a common dishwashing glove (right handed and light blue, as I recall) interposed between the ion trap’s optical window and a CCD camera focused the ions within. I asked David what its function was among all the more professional looking equipment. He said this particular brand of gloves happened to be quite opaque with a matte black inside as good as anything he could get from an optics catalog, meanwhile combining moderate flexibility with sufficient rigidity to stay out of the way of the light path, unlike, say, a piece of black velvet. Indeed the cut-off thumb fitted nicely onto the optical window, and the wrist was snugly belted around the front of the camera, leaving the fingers harmlessly but ludicrously poking out at the side. The physics Nobel has occasioned a lot of press coverage, much of it quite good in conveying the excitement of quantum information science, while restraining unrealistic expectations. We especially like Jason Palmer’s story from earlier this year which the BBC resurrected to explain a field which this Nobel has suddenly thrust into the limelight. We congratulate Haroche and Wineland as deserving and timely winners of this first Nobel given to people who could fairly be described, and would now describe themselves, as quantum information scientists.