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Alain Aspect, John F. Clauser and Anton Zeilinger have won the Nobel Prize in physics for their landmark achievements in quantum mechanics – the study of the behavior of particles and atoms – the organizing committee announced in Stockholm on Tuesday.
The trio won for their experiments with what’s known as entanglement – a mind-boggling phenomenon when two particles behave as one and affect each other, even though they can be at a vast distance to one another, on opposite sides of the planet or even the solar system.
It’s been one of the most debated elements of quantum mechanics and was memorably described by particle physicist Albert Einstein as “spooky action at a distance.”
Decades after Einstein’s death, experiments by the three physicists showed that quantum entanglement was real, not just theoretical, and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said the work of the trio “has laid the foundation for a new era of quantum technology.”
Aspect, Clauser and Zeilinger were born in France, California and Austria respectively. Their discoveries have added to and furthered the work of John Stewart Bell, whose theorem changed the scientific world’s understanding of quantum mechanics.
“I’m still kind of shocked but it’s a very positive shock. I was actually very surprised,” Zeilinger, a professor at University of Vienna, Austria, told journalists in Stockholm shortly after hearing he’d won the prize.
The winners’ work confirmed that “quantum mechanics actually has utility in real-world applications,” Michael Moloney, CEO of the American Institute of Physics, told CNN.
“It’s not just this theory to explain all the counterintuitive nature of the quantum world. It showed that by measuring some of the predictions we can engage in applications like quantum computing and quantum cryptography.”
Moloney said the trio’s discoveries are “potentially going to change our world in terms of really practical things, like being able to do quantum computing; solutions that will help us with everything from vaccines, to tech, to weather prediction.”
“There’s just so many different types of computations that we can do through quantum information science that we can’t do with classical computers,” he added.
Tuesday’s winners have been highly regarded within academia for several decades. Analytics company Clarivate said Tuesday it had forecast Clauser, Aspect and Zeilinger would win a Nobel Prize in 2011, “based on a series of highly cited and independently published papers that appeared in the 1960s, 1980s, and 1990s, respectively.”
“Our selection also recognized the obvious importance of their experimental verification of ‘spooky action at a distance,’ a phenomenon of quantum mechanics that strains our imagination,” the company said.
Physicists had struggled to explain how quantum mechanics allows two particles to affect each other’s behavior.
“That these two particles are entangled in a way that, no matter how distant they are from each other, making a measurement on one determines the measurement on the other. That sort of blows your mind as a physicist,” said Moloney.
“So 100 years ago or so, when Einstein came up with this, it was really like … this just doesn’t make sense. The speed of light is, you know, is the classical limit so how can they do this? So that’s what they were struggling with for a long time.”
The phenomenon could allow the secure transfer of information across huge distances between quantum computers using the features of entanglement – a process that Zeilinger described as “quantum teleportation.”
Despite the science fiction connotations, he dismissed the idea of teleporting people.
“It’s not like in the Star Trek films transporting something – certainly not a person – over some distance, but the point is using entanglement you can transfer all the information carried by an object over to some other place … where the object is reconstituted. So far (it’s) only done with very small particles.”
Zeilinger also praised the contribution of the more than 100 students he had worked with over the years. His advice to young people was to “do what you find interesting.”
“I have to say I was always interested in quantum mechanics from the first moment I heard about it. I was struck by the theoretical predictions that did not fit the usual intuition one might have.”
He added that much still remained unknown about quantum mechanics: “I’m curious to what we will see in the next 10 or 20 years.”
The three scientists will share the prize money of 10 million Swedish krona ($915,000).
The prestigious Nobels are being handed out throughout the week; on Monday, Swedish geneticist Svante Pääbo won the medicine award for pioneering the use of ancient DNA to unlock secrets about human evolution.
Nobel laureates in the fields of chemistry, literature and peace will be announced later this week, and the 2022 slate will conclude on Monday with the award for economics.