David Wineland has also received the National Medal of Science; President George W. Bush presented him with the medal in 2008. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
STOCKHOLM -- A French-American duo shared the 2012 Nobel Prize in physics Tuesday for inventing methods to observe the bizarre properties of the quantum world, research that has led to the construction of extremely precise clocks and helped scientists take the first steps toward building superfast computers.
Serge Haroche of France and American David Wineland opened the door to new experiments in quantum physics by showing how to observe individual quantum particles without destroying them.
That was previously thought impossible because single quantum particles lose their mysterious quantum properties when they interact with the outside world, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said.
A quantum particle is one that is isolated from everything else. In this situation, an atom or electron or photon takes on strange properties. It can be in two places at once, for example. It behaves in some ways like a wave. But these properties are instantly changed when it interacts with something else, such as when somebody observes it.
Working separately, the two scientists, both 68, developed "ingenious laboratory methods" that allowed them to manage and measure and control fragile quantum states, the academy said.
"Their ground-breaking methods have enabled this field of research to take the very first steps towards building a new type of superfast computer based on quantum physics," the academy said. "The research has also led to the construction of extremely precise clocks that could become the future basis for a new standard of time."
Wineland traps ions -- electrically charged atoms -- and measures them with light, while Haroche controls and measures photons, or light particles.
Haroche, of the College de France and Ecole Normale Superieure, said he was out walking with his wife when he got the call from the Nobel judges.
"I was in the street and passing a bench so I was able to sit down," Haroche told a news conference in Stockholm by telephone. "It's very overwhelming."
Wineland is a physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colo.
The physics prize was the second of the 2012 Nobel Prizes to be announced, with the medicine award going Monday to stem cell pioneers John Gurdon of Britain and Japan's Shinya Yamanaka. Each award is worth 8 million kronor, or about $1.2 million.
Only two women have won the physics prize since it was first awarded in 1901: Marie Curie in 1903 and Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963.
The prizes are always handed out on Dec. 10, the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel's death in 1896.