UA Theory Leads to Nobel Prize
A UA researcher’s work inspired a Nobel Prize winner to experiment and discover a quantum physics observation.
In the early 1990s, Julio Gea-Banacloche, a physicist and professor in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences, calculated that a single atom placed into an existing electromagnetic field would “split” the field, allowing it to exist in two states at once, said Melissa Blouin, director of science and research communication.
“He showed a new way to realize one of the fundamental problems in quantum physics, observing a particle in multiple states, leading one of the current Nobel Prize winners in physics to successfully do so in his experiments,” Blouin said.
In 1935, Nobel Laureate Erwin Schrödinger was the first to experiment with this puzzling piece of quantum physics labeling his experiment, “Schrödinger’s cat.” This thought experiment was explained by Gea-Banacloche in a research paper as he made his own assertions on the experiment.
“Imagine you have a cat in a cardboard box. Without direct observation, the cat could be thought of as existing in two states at the same time — both alive and dead — until the minute someone observes it, when it must be either alive or dead,” Gea-Banacloche explained.
“In the same way, quantum particles can have multiple states at once, but when a scientist tries to observe these multiple states, they collapse into one,” said Gea-Banacloche.
In 2003, 12 years after Gea-Banacloche’s published his findings, a team led by Serge Haroche, one of this year’s Nobel Prize winners in physics, published experimental findings showing the theoretical predictions of Gea-Banacloche to be true, said officials with the National Institute of Standards and Technology in a press release.
“Haroche and his team had made ‘cat’ states before by other methods, but they found my proposal intriguing enough to pursue,” Gea-Banacloche said. “Their experiment was beautiful. They essentially were able to see ‘Schrödinger’s cat’ in the two states inside the box.”
Haroche, along with fellow colleague David J. Wineland, of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colo., won this year’s Nobel Prize in physics for their work in measuring and manipulating individuals quantum systems applying principles that Gea-Banacloche theorized and worked on in his paper.
Gea-Banacloche has continued work in quantum theory, but has moved from cats to computing. He spent the past 15 years looking at the theory behind quantum computing – a revolutionary way of using simultaneous multiple quantum states to generate and store vast amounts of information using only a tiny number of quantum particles, said Matt McGowan, UA science and research writer.
The Nobel citation notes that Wineland and Haroche’s methods have enabled science to take “the very first steps towards building a new type of superfast computer based on quantum physics,” according to officials with the Nobel Prize committee.
“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,” said Patrick Gallagher, secretary of commerce for Standards and Technology and NIST Director. “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 cesium clocks.”