A trio of researchers known for their experimental work in the weird realm of quantum mechanics have been awarded the 2022 Nobel Prize in physics, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced on Tuesday.
The prize, worth 10 million Swedish crowns or about $1.2-million, will be shared equally by Alain Aspect, 75, of France, John F. Clauser, 79, of the United States, and Anton Zeilinger, 77, of Austria.
All three conducted research that demonstrates the quantum nature of reality, including phenomena that seem to defy common sense notions of causality.
In particular, their work confirmed that pairs of particles of matter or light can become linked through a quantum process called “entanglement” even after they are widely separated. The connection can allow for unusual outcomes, such as “quantum teleportation,” the apparent instantaneous transfer of information.
While far removed from everyday experience, the experiments devised by all three scientists are now regarded as establishing the field of quantum information science and setting the stage for a future in which quantum computers tackle problems that are beyond the reach of conventional computer systems.
That work began in the 1970s when Dr. Clauser, who was then at the University of California at Berkeley, conducted the first experimental test of Bell’s inequality, a mathematical relationship that is the basis for entanglement. His partner in the work, physicist Stuart Freedman, died in 2012.
In the early 1980s, Dr. Aspect took the study of entanglement further while obtaining his PhD at Paris-Sud University.
Collectively, the discoveries “opened the eyes of the physics community” to the central importance of entanglement in quantum mechanics, said Thors Hans Hansson, a professor of theoretical physics at Stockholm University and member of the Nobel physics prize committee.
The method and tools developed through the research were taken up in the 1990s by Dr. Zeilinger, who is known for a series of spectacular laboratory demonstrations of the quantum nature of reality.
Reached by telephone during the prize announcement, Dr. Zeilinger credited his supervisor, Helmut Rauch, at the University of Vienna.
“He provided the freedom to do these experiments, which at the time were completely philosophical, without any possible use or application,” Dr. Zeilinger said.
Since then, entanglement has opened the door to more practical developments in quantum information science, including those by researchers such as Gilles Brassard of the University of Montreal. Dr. Brassard’s groundbreaking work in quantum cryptography has frequently been described as Nobel-worthy. Last week Dr. Brassard was named a co-winner of the Breakthrough Prize in fundamental physics for his contributions to the field.
Following Tuesday’s announcement, Prof. Hansson hinted that future Nobel prizes in the quantum area may be on the horizon but said that this year “we wanted to go back and honour the people who laid the ground for what was to come.”
Since the physics prize was first awarded in 1901, it has been won by Marie Curie (1903), Albert Einstein (1921) and Enrico Fermi (1938), among other luminaries who helped to lay the foundations of modern physics.
More recently, the prize has recognized researchers working at the frontiers of physics, including those studying the complexity that underpins the Earth’s climate and the origins of the universe.
In the past decade, the prize has twice been awarded to Canadians. Arthur McDonald of Queen’s University won in 2015 for his measurement of neutrinos produced by the sun while Donna Strickland of the University of Waterloo won in 2018 for developing a method of amplifying laser light.
A week of Nobel Prize announcements kicked off Monday with Swedish scientist Svante Paabo receiving the award in medicine Monday for unlocking secrets of Neanderthal DNA that provided key insights into our immune system.
They continue with chemistry on Wednesday and literature on Thursday. The 2022 Nobel Peace Prize will be announced on Friday and the economics award on Oct. 10.
With files from The Associated Press.