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Nobel Prize for Physics rewards 'groundbreaking' quantum experiments

Frenchman Serge Haroche and American David Wineland, who share the 2012 Nobel Prize for Physics, worked independently to develop a way to watch quantum behavior of particles.

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In this combination of photos made Tuesday, American physicist David Wineland (l.) poses at his home in Boulder, Colo., and French physicist Serge Haroche speaks to the media in Paris, after they were named winners of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Ed Andrieski (l.) and Michel Euler/AP

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A French and an American physicist are sharing the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics for, in a sense, letting a cat out of the box. And not just any cat, but one that is dead and alive at the same time.

Welcome to the odd world of quantum physics.

Each winner independently demonstrated something long thought impossible: measuring and even controlling the weird, quantum properties of a subatomic particle without instantly forcing the particle to shed its quantum behavior.

In announcing the winners – Serge Haroche, with the College de Paris and the École Normale Supérieure, and David Wineland, with the US National Institute for Standards and Technology – on Tuesday, the Nobel Prize committee termed the duo's work "ground-breaking experimental methods."

The experiments were conducted in 1995 and '96. They have helped pave the way for more-accurate atomic clocks, whose exquisitely accurate ticks are based on vibrations of atoms instead of the swing of a pendulum or the geared unwinding of a spring. And they have led to rudimentary forerunners of logic circuits for quantum computers – the next major advance researchers are pursuing as they seek faster, more-capable number-crunching hardware.

Hearing from the winners that the award was a surprise has almost become a cliché. Yet for Dr. Wineland, "it really was a surprise," he said during a press conference Tuesday afternoon.

In past years, he had heard "rumblings" that he was a potential winner, "but this year I hadn't, honestly, heard any rumblings. So I thought, Well, maybe my time has passed."

A phone call from Stockholm at 4 a.m. Mountain Daylight Time proved otherwise.

As for Dr. Haroche, he told reporters he and his wife were out for a walk in Paris when his cell phone rang and he saw the Swedish country code on caller ID.

"I was in the street and passing near a bench, so I was able to sit down immediately," he recalled. The realization that he'd was a co-recipient this year was overwhelming, he said.

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