Nobel Prize Winner gives public lecture Oct. 10

Oct. 2, 2013

Image of David Wineland

Nobel Prize Winner David Wineland

A recent Nobel Prize Winner who studies a mysterious world where particles don’t behave according to the classic laws of physics will visit UW-La Crosse in October.

David Wineland, 2012 Nobel Prize Winner in physics, will give a public lecture “Superposition, Entanglement and Raising Schrodinger’s Cat” at 5 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 10, in  Skogen Auditorium A, room 1400 Centennial Hall. He’ll also present a physics seminar, join students in physics classes and meet with faculty and staff.

Wineland will share his career path in physics, which began in graduate school.

“I hope I can convey a bit that this is fun — certainly the physics part has never felt like work for me,” he says. Secondly, he tries to show students that he’s a lot like them.

“There is not any magic to having won the prize,” he says. “I found something I liked and I worked hard at it.”

Wineland studies the branch of physics called quantum mechanics where the uncertainty and randomness of tiny particles of light and matter have perpetually puzzled scientists. An example of the mystery is the phenomena of superposition where a quantum particle — such as an electrically charged atom or ion — can be in two different places at once. Such a state is difficult to imagine in the macroscopic world.

A classic example of how it would enter the macroscopic world is Schrodinger’s cat — a thought experiment involving a cat in a box with a bottle of deadly cyanide. The cyanide is released only after the decay of a radioactive atom, which is also inside the box. Because the cat, bottle and atom are not observable from outside the box, people outside cannot know the state of the quantum particle or — on a larger scale — if the cat is dead or alive. If the box is opened, the environment inside the box is destroyed, collapsing the state of the cat to either dead or alive.

Wineland and French Physicist Serge Haroche were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2012 for developing ground-breaking methods to examine this cat-like state of uncertainty occurring at the quantum level. They’ve been able to trap quantum particles and measure them without destroying their state of superposition. They’ve also shown how the act of measuring can cause the quantum state to collapse and loose its superposition character.

While mathematics can explain these ideas about superposition, Wineland notes that applying them to the larger physical world can be unsettling for many.

“The idea of superposition — particularly on a larger scale — makes us very uncomfortable,” says Wineland. “There are some ideas about why we can’t see it on a larger scale. If we can find a mechanism that prevents us from seeing it, that would be a fundamental discovery. Right now we are going to push ahead and try to make larger and larger superpositions.”

Such studies have opened the doors to new experiments in quantum physics with applications in technology. This includes the beginning steps toward building super fast computers where the basic bit of information could be 0 and 1 at the same time. In other words, a perfect quantum computer would realize a macroscopic superposition state, says Wineland. “Right now there is no fundamental reason why we can’t make a quantum computer,” says Wineland. “That’s always the challenge of science. You are on the edge of technology and you have to try.”

Another application is the development of clocks that are 100 times more precise than standard atomic clocks.

Wineland is the leader of the Ion-Storage Group in Time and Frequency Division at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST.) He is the 14th Nobel Laureate in Physics to visit UW-L as part of a Distinguished Lecture Series in Physics.

“The Distinguished Lecture Series has provided intellectual academic enrichment for UW-L community,” says Gubbi Sudhakaran, chair of the UW-L Physics Department. “The Nobel Laureate visit gives an opportunity for students, faculty and community members to interact and listen to some of the best scientific minds in the world.”

Nobel Prize in Physics:
The Nobel Prize in Physics is awarded each year in October to one or more people voted by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences to have made the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics. Famous Nobel Prize in Physics winners of the past include: Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr and Marie Curie.

If you go —

What: Public lecture: “Superposition, Entanglement and Raising Schrodinger’s Cat” with Nobel Prize Winner David Wineland

When: 5 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 10. A reception starts at 4:30 p.m.

Where: Skogen Auditorium A, room 1400 Centennial Hall.

Note: Wineland will also give a physics seminar at 3:20 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 11, in Skogen Auditorium, Centennial Hall. A reception starts at 3 p.m. The seminar, “Single Atom Clocks” is about the recipe for creating an atomic clock.