Just ask the Nobel Prize committee: is quantum physics some sort of speculative new science? (A smart educated woman asked me, just a week ago, `What do you think about that quantum physics stuff?’, as though it were in the same category as theories of consciousness, speculations about the origin of life, and string theory.) No way: it’s all over your computers and cell phones; it’s in many modern light bulbs; it’s the laser that reads the prices at the grocery store and your ticket at a concert; it’s the heart of the best timepieces and the eyes of the best microscopes; it’s what makes solids solid and liquids flow, and powers chemical reactions and radioactivity; it’s probably playing a big role in biology that we’re just starting to understand; and it’s sunshine and moonlight and the glowing auroras borealis and australis. It’s the foundation and fabric of your world.
And though it may be bizarre, it is by no means abstract. Maybe in the early 1930s one could still say it was abstract; but already for many decades particle physicists have passively observed individual particles, one at a time, behaving in quantum mechanical ways. Today scientists can control individual quantum objects, things whose behavior can only be predicted by accepting the odd rules and counter-intuitive implications of our quantum world. In particular, physicists have learned to capture and manipulate individual photons (particles of light), atoms, and ions (atoms with an electron removed or added, to make them electrically charged — see the Figure below.) It is for their work advancing these capabilities, making possible new classes of experiments and opening up the potential for new technologies, that Serge Haroche and David Wineland have won the Nobel Prize for 2012. Read about it here (brief press release or summary for non-technical readers)… using your preferred quantum-mechanical device.