Nobel Prize to Haroche and Wineland

Nobody comes to these parts (at least, they shouldn’t) looking for insight into atomic physics, quantum optics, and related fields, but hearty congratulations to Serge Haroche and David Wineland for sharing this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics. Here are helpful stories by Alex Witze and Dennis Overbye.

One way of thinking about their accomplishments is to say that they’ve managed to manipulate particles one at a time: Haroche with individual photons, and Wineland with trapped ions. But what’s really exciting is that they are able to study intrinsically quantum-mechanical properties of the particles. For a long time, quantum mechanics could be treated as a black box. You had an atomic nucleus sitting there quietly, not really deviating from your classical intuition, and then some quantum magic would occur, and now you have several decay products flying away. The remoteness of the quantum effects themselves is what has enabled physicists to get away for so long using quantum mechanics without really understanding it. (Thereby enabling such monstrosities as the “Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum mechanics, and its unholy offspring “shut up and calculate.”)

These days, in contrast, we can no longer refuse to take quantum mechanics seriously. The experimentalists have brought it up close and personal, in your face. We’re using it to build things in ways we wouldn’t have imagined in the bad old days. This prize is a great tribute to physicists who are dragging us, kicking and screaming, into a quantum-mechanical reality.

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37 Responses to Nobel Prize to Haroche and Wineland

  1. Joah says:

    Sean, do you have any place you can point me to where you explained why the Copenhagen Interpretation is monstrous? I understand that you have a Many Worlds affinity, but there are certain aspects of the Copenhagen Interpretation I’ve always liked. It seems to me that Copenhagen gives a straightforward explanation for things such as the Born Rule and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle while I don’t see a simple explanation for this coming out of my basic understanding of Many Worlds. Do you just find its ontology aggravating?

  2. CERNicist says:

    It’s a shame more physicist aren’t interested in interpretations of quantum theory, but as I understand it very few interpretations make testable predictions (or at least ones that would set them apart from other interpretations). So we can’t really blame physicist for wanting to do science rather than philosophy (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

  3. Sean Carroll says:

    Joah– The objection to Copenhagen is just that it’s completely incoherent. It imagines a distinct “classical” realm, doesn’t tell you what’s in that realm and what’s truly quantum, doesn’t explain when wave functions collapse, etc. The Born Rule isn’t “explained” at all — it’s just postulated. And the Uncertainty Principle is exactly the same in MWI as it is in Copenhagen, so I’m not sure what the distinction is there.

    MWI has its own issues, certainly, as do all other known versions of QM. But at least it’s well-defined, whereas Copenhagen is kind of a joke.

  4. Pete says:

    Copenhagen Interpretation is “monstrous”? Please collapse my assumptions as to it’s usefulness.

  5. Pingback: Premio Nobel de Física 2012 « Series divergentes

  6. Markk says:

    What version of the Copenhagen interpretation are you using? There is no idea of “classical” or “Quantum” in it that I understand – just models and observations. You calculate models, make observations which cause the function in the model to change “quantumly” that is discontinuously. That was the whole point – observations rule and models are just models. The idea of discontinuity is built into the Copenhagen interpretation, but removed from many worlds or hidden. I find that troubling.

  7. Brett says:


    I think your first sentence is exactly the problem with the Copenhagen interpretation.

    I think the problem with MWI is that people try to explain it in terms of classical mechanics.

  8. Here is a simple ,non technical description on the basic science upon which this years NP winning work in Medicine is based on-
    Please do read and leave your reply!

  9. Jeff says:

    Haroche and Wineland are very deserving, but wasn’t this the year when Peter HIggs was supposed to win the prize? At 83, he’s not getting any younger.

  10. Ysan says:

    I also thought of this. It would be a a it tragic considering one of the other people already wasn’t around anymore for the discovery. But from what I’ve seen they seem to wait a bit before handing out the prize. Nevertheless this is a great discovery and I had no idea that they managed to do this.

  11. Joah says:

    Thanks for clarifying, Sean.

    My (perhaps flawed) understanding of the Copenhagen Interpretation is that observables are all that matters and the underlying formalism is just that. This reminds me of Phasor Diagrams in that the actual observable values of the current, charge, or voltage are only the real parts of the particular phase vector that you are considering while in quantum mechanics it is the value of the observable operator when it operates on the wavefunction. It’s the emphasis on the operator being important that I found most satisfying in my elementary quantum mechanics courses. The Born Rule seems to me to fall out of the mathematics rather nicely: since solutions to the Eigenvalue Equation are constants that are subject to normalization, they must be simply the probabilities. This isn’t to say that the Many Worlds’ Interpretation doesn’t emphasize the operator, only that I find the proposal that there is somehow a split to p percentage of alternative timelines at every instance of the operator being applied to be a bit hard to justify in terms of Ockham’s Razor.

    To me, Copenhagen has encouraged me to look at concepts like commutators and the associated concepts of uncertainty as something closely related to calculability. That is, I see the fact that a Fourier Transform of a function in position space yields a function in momentum space to satisfactorily explain the problems with switching back and forth and why a uncertainty inequality should exist.

    I guess it’s true that Many Worlds doesn’t deny this perspective any more than Copenhagen requires it: it’s only that I’m not sure that given Many Worlds as a concept the connections that I made that help me understand how quantum mechanics works would have been apparent. Then again, maybe other concepts I do not have would be more clear.

    I will have to look more into this, but I’m afraid of falling down this rabbit hole (perhaps being an unfortunate acolyte of the unholy shut up and calculate brigade).

  12. Rick says:


    “I find the proposal that there is somehow a split to p percentage of alternative timelines at every instance of the operator being applied to be a bit hard to justify in terms of Ockham’s Razor”

    But doesn’t this “fall out” of the math rather nicely as well? As for Ockham’s Razor, I would think that putting in a non-physical collapse of the wavefunction by hand (since it really doesn’t “fall out of the math” at all), is a much bigger issue as far as that goes.

  13. Jess Tauber says:

    In atomic physics Pascal’s Triangle is behind much of the math- all the spherical nuclear magic (mostly weak) numbers are double tetrahedral numbers- and the other batch (mostly strong) involving spin-orbit splits are double tet minus double triangular numbers directly above them in the Pascal Triangle. I’ve now found similar links to the shifted magics in deformed nuclei. People already knew that the Pascal Triangle’s horizontal rows link to NMR effects. And there is much more besides (and also in the electronic system). I’m still trying to work out exactly how the Triangle’s internal systematicity relates to the quantum equations, but any such link must be quite regular. What does this ultimately reveal about the quantum world?

  14. Roger says:

    So Sean promotes MWI and says that Copenhagen is an incoherent monstrosity? Sean is the one who refuses to take quantum mechanics seriously. MWI is a fantasy.

  15. Brett says:

    meh, trolls.

  16. Mike Pirnat says:

    Can someone please correct “sitting their quietly” to use “there” instead? My spelling OCD would appreciate it.

  17. David says:

    It has always shocked me how people tend to say MWI goes against Ockham’s razor because it predicts multiple universes. This is like saying a line goes against Ockham’s razor because it has infinite points: you’re forgetting a line can be described with a single equation, which defines how simple it is.
    The same goes for MWI: you’re removing a postulate, period. It’s simpler than Copenhagen and definitely more coherent (define “classical observer”!). It doesn’t matter how many universes it predicts. It has less postulates. End of the story.

  18. “Haroche and Wineland are very deserving, but wasn’t this the year when Peter HIggs was supposed to win the prize? At 83, he’s not getting any younger.”

    Well, it is not yet clear that the Higgs Boson has actually been detected. So, the committee wisely didn’t jump the gun. Also, the rule “at most 3” applies here; Higgs has the name recognition, but there were three others who did similar work at the same time, so the question is whom to leave out.

  19. Rezso says:

    “The objection to Copenhagen is just that it’s completely incoherent. It imagines a distinct “classical” realm, doesn’t tell you what’s in that realm and what’s truly quantum, doesn’t explain when wave functions collapse, etc.”

    Decoherence theory explains these things!!!

    During the measurement process, the system, the measuring device and the environment become entangled, and when you trace over the environment degrees of freedom, you obtain a density operator with the classical probabilities. So, you get wave function collapse in an effective way.

    The MWI is not needed to explain the measurement process.

  20. Lee says:

    David, I agree completely.

    The idea that MWI is ontologically heavy strikes my as a subtler shade of a gentleman, stuck at a fork in the road, shaking his head in incredulity, “the road doubles, surely this violates conservation of mass!” Or maybe Zeno’s paradox echoing down the ages.

    My interpretation is that the universe comprises all possible states and all possible transitions between those states. Nothing is ever created or destroyed, it only looks that way from narrow perspectives.

    That may seem ontologically heavy to some, but no moreso than the endless variety of mathematical “stuff” which must exist simply because there is no reason for it to be otherwise.

  21. martenvandijk says:

    I guess that US wineproducers are happy also with this Nobel Prize. Wineland and a Frenchman probably make France happy enough to continue the right of US wineproducers to put ”Chateau” on their bottles. 🙂

  22. the clayton peacock says:

    A couple typos: in the first paragraph “atomic nucleus sitting *their* quietly” and in the last paragraph “We’re using ** to build things” (were you intending to write an “it” where the asterisks are?).

    In related news, I sure hope Peter Higgs doesn’t pass away in the next calendar year.

  23. Gene says:

    The pioneers of the Copenhagen interpretation were nothing short of heroic in their interpretation of quantum mechanics. The only thing “missing” in CI is the modern understanding of decoherence, the rest is prejudice. Contrary to what is widely believed, Bohr did not need to explain how the wave function collapsed because it was never, to him, a physical wave to begin with.

  24. Kostas says:

    all comments seem very interesting to me. To understand it better, as my knowledge is very basic: the results by Haroche and Wineland mean that “Copenhagen interpretation” is now severely weakened in favor of MWI theory ? Or that is not clear yet (i.e. both are applicable) ?