Three scientists in their 70s have won the Nobel Prize in Physics for translating the outlandish predictions of quantum theory into the foundations of a practical discipline in information and communications technology.
Alain Aspect from France, John Clauser from the US and Anton Zeilinger from Austria share the SKr10m ($900,000) prize for “demonstrating the potential to investigate and control particles that are in ‘entangled states’,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said.
When two particles are “entangled” — the scientific term for quantum linking — what happens to one of the pair has an instantaneous effect on the other one, however far apart they may be.
Albert Einstein was sceptical about the idea of quantum entanglement, the 20th century physicist dismissing it as “spooky action at a distance”. But the three laureates carried out experiments with entangled photons — light particles — which confirmed that the early quantum theorists were correct in their predictions that the phenomenon would turn out to be real.
Zeilinger, who works at the University of Vienna, said after hearing of his award: “The point of using entanglement is that you can transfer the information carried by an object to another place at which the object is reconstituted.”
This transfer of instantaneous information is often referred to as teleportation but Zeilinger said it should not be confused with the unrealistic science fiction idea of teleporting large solid objects, as in the Star Trek series. Teleportation experiments with entangled photons have demonstrated quantum communications over a 7,600km satellite link between China and Austria.
“Perhaps the most transformational application will be that of quantum computing, which opens up our access to doing complex calculations efficiently and quickly,” said Michael Moloney, chief executive of the American Institute of Physics.
“Real-world applications may in time include developing drugs and vaccines faster, improving the efficiencies of batteries, increasing the accuracy of weather forecasts and securing data with quantum encryption, among others,” Moloney added.
An early application of quantum technology is in the growing field of cryptography, the practice of building digital codes to ensure secure communication. If anyone intercepts an encrypted quantum signal, the entanglement is lost and the message disappears.
“This prize is an encouragement to young people,” said Zeilinger, who is 77. “It would not be possible without more than 100 young people who worked with me over the years.”
Aspect, 75, works at the Université Paris-Saclay and École Polytechnique, Palaiseau, while Clauser, 79, runs his own company in California.
“This is an area of physics with ongoing, profound impact, at a fundamental level to help understand the world around us . . . and for use in highly novel technologies for sensing and communication today,” said Professor Sheila Rowan of Glasgow university, who is president of the UK Institute of Physics.
Only four of the 221 Nobel laureates in physics since 1901 have been women.
The physics award is the second of this year’s six Nobel Prizes to be revealed, after Svante Pääbo won the medicine prize on Monday for decoding the DNA of ancient humans. Prizes for chemistry, literature, peace and economics will be announced in the coming week.