UC Berkeley alumnus wins Nobel Prize in physics

UC Berkeley alumnus David Wineland was one of two recipients of the 2012 Nobel Prize in physics announced Tuesday.

Wineland, along with French physicist Serge Haroche, was awarded the prize “for ground-breaking experimental methods that enable measuring and manipulation of individual quantum systems,” according to the prize website. Wineland is currently a physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and a lecturer at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Wineland developed methods to control isolated, electrically charged atoms using light particles called photons. Haroche used the opposite approach, measuring photons using atoms.

By allowing physicists to isolate and study trapped ions or photons that simultaneously occupy two different energy levels, Wineland and Haroche pioneered the idea that experiments can be conducted with single atoms, other researchers said.

“This is something that is really very exceptional,” said Hartmut Haeffner, an assistant professor of physics at UC Berkeley. “People thought you’d never be able to experiment with a single atom.”

According to physicists, this research can be used to improve the accuracy of atomic clocks to lose only about one second every 3 billion years or create powerful computers with quantum bits — called qubits — that could store vast amounts of information.

Additionally, Dmitry Budker, a campus professor of physics, said the research methods can be used to verify predictions of the general theory of relativity and whether fundamental constants of nature may actually be changing over time.

While well-known in his field, Wineland is not one to “toot his own horn,” said Daniel Slichter, a postdoctoral research fellow at NIST who works with Wineland.

“Dave is very modest and approachable, with a bit of an ‘aw, shucks’ style that belies how much he knows,” Slichter said in an email. “Dave is all about the science, and he loves doing it.”

Wineland transferred to UC Berkeley from UC Davis as a junior physics student for the Berkeley campus’s larger, “big time” physics department, he said in an email. He graduated from in 1965 and completed a doctoral degree in physics at Harvard University in 1970.

“Berkeley was a frightening, impersonal place to me at the time, but I loved it and the challenge it presented,” Wineland said in an email. “I didn’t conduct any research and was just focused on doing well in my classes.”

During his time at UC Berkeley, Wineland lived in Norton Hall at Unit 3 and was a part of the campus’ ski club and multiple honor societies, according to his yearbook entry.

Looking back at his undergraduate career, Wineland offered some words of advice for UC Berkeley students.

“I know it sounds trite, but I’d just advise to find something interesting (even if you change your mind) and go for it,” Wineland said an email. “Don’t work to be on the second string.”

Contact Megan Messerly at [email protected]