Alain Aspect, John F. Clauser and Anton Zeilinger have won the Nobel Prize in Physics for their groundbreaking achievements in quantum mechanics – the study of the behavior of particles and atoms – the organizing committee announced in Stockholm on Tuesday.
The trio won for their experiments with what’s known as entanglement — a mind-boggling phenomenon when two particles behave as one and affect each other, even though they may be at great distances from each other — on opposite sides of the planet or even the solar system.
It is one of the most discussed elements of quantum mechanics and was memorably described by particle physicist Albert Einstein as “ghostly action at a distance.”
Decades after Einstein’s death, experiments by the three physicists showed that quantum entanglement was real, not just theoretical, and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said the trio’s work has “laid the foundations for a new era of quantum technology.”
Aspect, Clauser and Zeilinger were born in France, California and Austria respectively. Their discoveries have complemented and furthered the work of John Stewart Bell, whose thesis changed the scientific world of quantum mechanics.
“I’m still a little shocked, but it’s a very positive shock. I was actually quite surprised,” Zeilinger, a professor at the University of Vienna, Austria, told journalists in Stockholm shortly after learning that he had won the award.
The winners’ work confirmed that “quantum mechanics actually have utility in real-world applications,” Michael Moloney, CEO of the American Institute of Physics, told CNN.
“It is not just this theory to explain all the counterintuitive nature of the quantum world. It showed that by measuring some of the predictions we can apply applications such as quantum computing and quantum cryptography.”
Moloney said the trio’s discoveries “may change our world in terms of really practical things, like being able to do quantum computing; solutions that will help us with everything from vaccines to technology to weather forecasting.”
“There are just so many different kinds of calculations that we can do through quantum information science that we can’t do with classical computers,” he added.
Tuesday’s winners have been highly regarded within academics for decades. Analytics firm Clarivate said Tuesday it had predicted Clauser, Aspect and Zeilinger to win a Nobel Prize in 2011, “based on a series of widely cited and independently published papers published in the 1960s, 1980s and 1990s, respectively.”
“Our selection also recognized the obvious importance of their experimental verification of ‘spooky action at a distance,’ a quantum mechanics phenomenon that strains our imaginations,” the company said.
Physicists struggled to explain how quantum mechanics causes two particles to influence each other’s behavior.
“That these two particles are so entangled that, however far apart they are, a measurement on one determines the measurement on the other. As a physicist, you love that,” says Maloney.
“So 100 years ago or so, when Einstein came up with this, it was really like… this just doesn’t make sense. The speed of light is, you know, is the classic limit, so how can they do this? So that’s what they struggled with for a long time.”
The phenomenon enables the secure transmission of information over great distances.
The three scientists will share the prize money of 10 million Swedish krona ($915,000).
The prestigious Nobels are awarded throughout the week; on Monday, Swedish geneticist Svante Pääbo won the medicine prize for pioneering the use of ancient DNA to unravel secrets about human evolution.
Nobel laureates in chemistry, literature and peace will be announced later this week, and the slate for 2022 will close on Monday with the prize in economics.