‘Chemistry and physics: one needs the other’

“Quantum theory has opened to us the microscopic world of particles, atoms and photons,” explained Nobel Laureate Serge Haroche, who shared the 2012 Nobel Prize in physics with David Wineland. In this sentence, Haroche answered why two physicists certainly belong onstage at the 63rd Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting for chemistry. Haroche’s talk, called ‘Controlling Photons in a Box, Quantum,’ dovetailed with Wineland’s lecture just before on ‘Superposition, Entanglement, and Raising Schrödinger’s Cat.’ (“Though in half an hour, it’s very difficult to give you details,” quipped Haroche.)

Serge Haroche explaining how physicists and chemists help each other. Photo by Kathleen Raven

 

During his presentation late Monday morning, Haroche offered at least one concrete example of how physics propelled chemistry research forward: magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Chemists working today have Felix Bloch and Edward Mills Purcell — both awarded the Nobel Prize in 1952 — to thank for their tireless puzzling (and discovering) about nuclear magnetic properties.

 

David Wineland just after his lecture in the morning.
Photo by Kathleen Raven

Throughout their speeches, Haroche and Wineland dipped into bodies of research as deep as Lake Constance herself. Most of the terms became entangled and stayed superimposed over my head, much like the atomic ions and energy states Wineland described in his talk. The researcher sitting next to me in the audience nodded his head enthusiastically when Wineland showed a slide with the ideal “controlled-NOT” gate between internal states.

Wineland’s presentation slide on “alumina gold trap.”
Photo by Kathleen Raven

 

I heard some low murmurs of agreement when we moved on to the possibilities that exist with “gold-coated alumnia wafers.” But I appreciated Wineland’s main message: We are ever closer to entering the world that Schrödinger dreamed about. He wanted scientists to test his theories in experiments with just one electron or atom or other small molecule.

 

Thought experiments and taxi drivers

Before delving into the famous Bohr-Einstein debate at the 1927 Solvay conference, in which those two great minds debated quantum mechanics using thought experiments, Haroche offered the audience a real-life application. On the topic of atomic clocks and GPS, Haroche explained that such technology could lead to geo-localization accuracy to within 1 meter anywhere on Earth. “Taxi drivers everywhere use quantum physics!” Haroche said to laughter in the audience.

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