A scientist working with the federal government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology and the University of Colorado in Boulder has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced today.

David J. Wineland and Serge Haroche, a professor at Collège de France and École Normale Supérieure, in Paris, were jointly recognized for their respective work in observing and analyzing the fundamental interactions between light particles and matter.

The two Nobel laureates “have independently invented and developed methods for measuring and manipulating individual particles while preserving their quantum-mechanical nature, in ways that were previously thought unattainable,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in a statement.

Wineland has worked for NIST for 37 years, developing techniques using lasers to cool ions to near absolute zero, which has led to the development of ultra-precise atomic clocks and pushed the frontiers of quantum physics .

Winland’s and Haroche’s work has significant potential to advance the science of quantum computing, said Benjamin Ward, a physicist who formerly led research for the Laser and Optics Research Center at the US Air Force Academy and is familiar with Wineland’s work.

In the traditional realm of computing, a bit of information can exist in only one state: either off or on, or as a zero or a one. But in the subatomic world of quantum mechanics, it is possible for photons, which are subatomic particles of light, to exist in two states – a horizontal polarization and a vertical polarization – simultaneously, Ward explained.

That would make it possible for a quantum bit, or qubit, “to represent two things at the same time,” said Ward, which if fully harnessed, would dramatically increase the potential speed of computation and high performance computing.

“Imagine flipping a coin 100 times,” Ward said, by way of example. “The total number of potential outcomes would be two to the hundredth power.” In a world using qubits, it would be possible to calculate “all the possible outcomes at once,” he said, compared to more linear approach to calculation computers require today.

The challenge for scientists, is how to observe photons at work “without destroying them. Laws of physics say anytime you measure something, you affect it,” said Ward.

Wineland and his research team have been experimenting with focused laser beams to trap ions into arrays, and demonstrate the ability to manipulate qubits to create simple algorithms.

“It’s a long way before we have a useful quantum computer,” said Wineland in a telephone interview with Nobel Media’s Adam Smith. ” But I think most of us …feel that it will eventually happen.”

Dr. Haroche used a different approach, controlling photons using super-cooled mirrors.

Wineland and Haroche were both born in 1944 – Wineland in Madison, Wisconsin and Haroche in Casablanca, Morocco.

NIST congratulated both scientists “for ground-breaking experimental methods that enable measuring and manipulation of individual quantum systems,” and presented a video webcast featuring Wineland speaking with reporters.

The official Nobel Prize press release noted:

“Through their ingenious laboratory methods Haroche and Wineland together with their research groups have managed to measure and control very fragile quantum states, which were previously thought inaccessible for direct observation. The new methods allow them to examine, control and count the particles.

Their methods have many things in common. David Wineland traps electrically charged atoms, or ions, controlling and measuring them with light, or photons.

Serge Haroche takes the opposite approach: he controls and measures trapped photons, or particles of light, by sending atoms through a trap.

Both Laureates work in the field of quantum optics studying the fundamental interaction between light and matter, a field which has seen considerable progress since the mid-1980s. Their ground-breaking methods have enabled this field of research to take the very first steps towards building a new type of super fast computer based on quantum physics.

Perhaps the quantum computer will change our everyday lives in this century in the same radical way as the classical computer did in the last century. The research has also led to the construction of extremely precise clocks that could become the future basis for a new standard of time, with more than hundred-fold greater precision than present-day caesium clocks.