Scientists Alain Aspect, John Clauser and Anton Zeilinger win the prestigious prize for experiments in quantum mechanics that laid the groundwork for rapidly-developing new applications in computing and cryptography.
Three scientists have jointly won this year’s Nobel Prize in physics for proving that tiny particles could retain a connection with each other even when separated, a phenomenon once doubted but now being explored for potential real-world applications such as encrypting information.
Frenchman Alain Aspect, American John F. Clauser and Austrian Anton Zeilinger were cited by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences on Tuesday for experiments proving the "totally crazy" field of quantum entanglements to be all too real.
They demonstrated that unseen particles, such as photons, can be linked, or "entangled," with each other even when they are separated by large distances.
It all goes back to a feature of the universe that even baffled Albert Einstein and connects matter and light in a tangled, chaotic way.
Bits of information or matter that used to be next to each other even though they are now separated have a connection or relationship — something that can conceivably help encrypt the information or even teleport.
A Chinese satellite now demonstrates this and potentially lightning-fast quantum computers, still at the small and not quite useful stage, also rely on this entanglement.
Others are even hoping to use it in the superconducting material.
"It's so weird," Aspect said of entanglement in a telephone call with the Nobel committee. "I am accepting in my mental images something which is totally crazy."
Yet the trio's experiments showed it happens in real life.
'Bohr was right'
The three said they can't explain the how and why behind this effect. But each did ever more intricate experiments that prove it just is.
Clauser, 79, was awarded his prize for a 1972 experiment, cobbled together with scavenged equipment, that helped settle a famous debate about quantum mechanics between Einstein and famed physicist Niels Bohr.
Einstein described "a spooky action at a distance" that he thought would eventually be disproved.
"I was betting on Einstein," Clauser said. "But unfortunately I was wrong and Einstein was wrong and Bohr was right."
Aspect said Einstein may have been technically wrong, but deserves huge credit for raising the right question that led to experiments proving quantum entanglement.
'Out of curiosity'
"With my first experiments I was sometimes asked by the press what they were good for," Zeilinger, 77, told reporters in Vienna. "And I said with pride: 'It's good for nothing. I'm doing this purely out of curiosity.'"
Clauser, Aspect and Zeilinger have figured in Nobel speculation for more than a decade. In 2010 they won the Wolf Prize in Israel, seen as a possible precursor to the Nobel.
The Nobel committee said Clauser developed quantum theories first put forward in the 1960s into a practical experiment.
Aspect was able to close a loophole in those theories, while Zeilinger demonstrated a phenomenon called quantum teleportation that effectively allows information to be transmitted over distances.
"Using entanglement you can transfer all the information which is carried by an object over to some other place where the object is, so to speak, reconstituted," Zeilinger said. He added that this only works for tiny particles.
"It is not like in the Star Trek films (where one is) transporting something, certainly not the person, over some distance," he said.
A week of Nobel Prize announcements kicked off Monday with Swedish scientist Svante Paabo receiving the award in medicine on Monday for unlocking secrets of Neanderthal DNA that provided key insights into our immune system.
The prizes carry a cash award of nearly $900,000 and will be handed out on December 10. The money comes from a bequest left by the prize's creator, Swedish dynamite inventor Alfred Nobel, who died in 1895.