Three scientists, including a Baltimore City school alumnus, jointly won this year’s Nobel Prize in physics Tuesday for their work on quantum information science, a “totally crazy” field that has significant applications, including in the field of encryption.
American John F. Clauser, Frenchman Alain Aspect and Austrian Anton Zeilinger were cited by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for discovering the way that unseen particles, such as photons, can be linked, or “entangled,” with each other even when they are separated by large distances.
Clauser was born in California and long associated with the University of California, Berkeley, but his personal website states he attended Baltimore Polytechnic Institute from 1956 to 1960. His family moved here after World War II when his father came to Johns Hopkins University to establish an aeronautics department, Clauser told the American Institute of Physics in a 2015 interview.
A representative of the city school system confirmed Clauser earned a high school diploma from the storied high school, which was then located on North Avenue, in the building that now serves as the school district’s headquarters. It moved to its current location on Falls Road in the Cross Keys neighborhood in 1967.
Longtime Baltimore school board member Linda Chinnia called the announcement “great news for Baltimore” and for current students.
“This is a student from a school that we have, for many years, been very proud of,” Chinnia said. “This says a lot about what our system has done, can do and what we are hoping it will continue to do.”
The school’s principal Jacqueline Williams learned of the news after several staff members texted her early Tuesday morning.
“I said ‘Go Poly,'” said the principal of 12 years, using the high school’s nickname.
Williams, who is also a Poly graduate, said the school has a 138-year history of teaching science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“We talk about Poly pride all the time,” she said. “It means a whole lot to know people like John are out there making a difference in this world.”
Clauser’s research in quantum science goes back to a feature of the universe that even baffled Albert Einstein and connects matter and light in a tangled, chaotic way.
“Being a little bit entangled is sort of like being a little bit pregnant. The effect grows on you,” Clauser said.
Bits of information or matter that used to be next to each other even though they are now separated have a connection or relationship — something that conceivably can help encrypt information or even teleport it.
“It’s so weird,” Aspect said in a telephone call with the Nobel committee. “I am accepting in my mental images something which is totally crazy.”
Yet the trio’s experiments showed it happens in real life.
“Why this happens I haven’t the foggiest,” Clauser told The Associated Press during a Zoom interview in which he got the official call from the Swedish Academy several hours after friends and media told him. “I have no understanding of how it works but entanglement appears to be very real.”
Clauser, 79, was awarded his prize for a 1972 experiment, cobbled together with scavenged equipment, that helped settle a famous debate about quantum mechanics between Einstein and famed physicist Niels Bohr. Einstein described “a spooky action at a distance” that he thought would be disproved eventually.
“I was betting on Einstein,” Clauser said. “But unfortunately I was wrong and Einstein was wrong and Bohr was right.”
Clauser said his work on quantum mechanics shows that you can’t confine information to a closed volume, “like a little box that sits on your desk” — though even he can’t say why.
“Most people would assume that nature is made out of stuff distributed throughout space and time,” Clauser said. “And that appears not to be the case.”
“I’ve been struggling to understand quantum mechanics my whole life,” added Clauser, noting that he invented what might have been the first video game while in high school in the 1950s. “And I still don’t understand it.”
Quantum entanglement “has to do with taking these two photons and then measuring one over here and knowing immediately something about the other one over here,” said David Haviland, chair of the Nobel Committee for Physics.
“And if we have this property of entanglement between the two photons, we can establish a common information between two different observers of these quantum objects. And this allows us to do things like secret communication, in ways which weren’t possible to do before.”
That’s why quantum information is not an esoteric thought experiment, said Eva Olsson, a member of the Nobel committee. She called it a “vibrant and developing field.”
“It has broad and potential implications in areas such as secure information transfer, quantum computing and sensing technology,” Olsson said. “Its predictions have opened doors to another world, and it has also shaken the very foundations of how we interpret measurements.”
Everything in the universe could be entangled but “usually the entanglement just kind of washes off. It’s so chaotic and random that when you look at it … we don’t see anything,” said Harvard University professor Subir Sachdev, who has worked on experiments that look at quantum entangled material consisting of up to 200 atoms.
But sometimes scientists can unsnarl just enough to make sense and be useful in everything from encryption to superconductors, he said.
The Nobel winning experiments observe a relationship that exists between particles or light that once used to be next to each other but no longer are, said Johns Hopkins University physicist Sean Carroll. It’s not something you can see or touch and while scientists can observe it, they have a harder time explaining why and how it happens, he said.
Clauser, Aspect and Zeilinger have figured in Nobel speculation for more than a decade. In 2010 they won the Wolf Prize in Israel.
In a 2011 interview for the Aerospace Oral History Project at The Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California, Clauser’s obviously proud father Francis Clauser noted that the Wolf Prize is often a precursor to the Nobel.
“Oh, I’d say more than half the Wolf Prize winners eventually go on to become Nobel Prize winners,” said Francis Clauser, who died in 2013.
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While physicists often tackle problems that appear at first glance to be far removed from everyday concerns — tiny particles and the vast mysteries of space and time — their research provides the foundations for many practical applications of science.
The Nobel committee said John Clauser developed quantum theories first put forward in the 1960s into a practical experiment. Aspect, 75, was able to close a loophole in those theories, while Zeilinger demonstrated a phenomenon called quantum teleportation that effectively allows information to be transmitted over distances.
Since then, the laureates’ work has been used to develop the fields of quantum computers, quantum networks and secure quantum encrypted communication.
A week of Nobel Prize announcements kicked off Monday with Swedish scientist Svante Paabo receiving the award in medicine Monday for unlocking the secrets of Neanderthal DNA that provided key insights into our immune system.
They continue with chemistry Wednesday and literature Thursday. The 2022 Nobel Peace Prize will be announced Friday and the economics award Oct. 10.
The prizes carry a cash award of 10 million Swedish kronor (nearly $900,000) and will be handed out Dec. 10. The money comes from a bequest left by the prize’s creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, who died in 1895.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.