“… I use atoms to study photons and he uses photons to study atoms …”
Transcript of the telephone interview with Serge Haroche following the announcement of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics, 9 October 2012. The interviewer is Nobelprize.org’s Adam Smith.
[Serge Haroche] Hello?
[Adam Smith] Oh hello, Professor Haroche?
[AS] Ah, hello, this is Adam Smith from Nobelprize.org, in Stockholm.
[AS] We have this tradition of interviewing new Laureates for just a very few minutes, so may we speak?… Thank you. Congratulations on the award of the Nobel Prize.
[SH] Thank you very much.
[AS] What were you doing when the call came, when you received the call from Stockholm?
[SH] I was walking in the street with my wife. I get ready to get back home and I was just caught by the phone – by the call on my cellular phone.
[AS] What was your first thought on receiving the call?
[SH] My first thought was amazement, you know. I realize think I had this thought, even before I got the phone, because I saw the code ’46’ for Sweden, so I knew the prize was giving today so it’s … I could not believe it! That was my first reaction: I was really amazed and of course it’s wonderful. And, then, I learned about it and it’s starting to sink in. But, it’s very … it takes some time because immediately after that I was swamped with phone calls from all over the world and I’m still trying to recuperate from that and it’s not finished!
[AS] Ha! No, I think it will go on for some time. But, yes, your heart rate must have increased very rapidly when you saw that ’46’.
[SH] Yes, yes! And, I was really overwhelmed by this. Very! And I was also very glad to share it with Dave Wineland, when I heard about the news, because he’s fine and I admire his work very much. We have been in contact with each other for many, many years and so I’m very glad to share the prize with him.
[AS] And, in some ways, there’s this lovely symmetry about it that you trap photons and he traps atoms …
[SH] Exactly, and I use atoms to study the photons and he uses photons to study atoms. So, it’s really symmetrical and, at some point during our work, we published papers back-to-back. Just by chance, it happened that we are doing similar things on his atoms and my photons. And, there are many similarities between our group and his. He’s also working on a very long range project, as I’m doing in Paris with a large team of postdocs, visitors and students. And, I’m sure he shares my feeling by saying that this prize is as much the prize of all of our colleagues who are working with us in our groups than ours. We know the rule of the Nobel Prize – it has to be given to never more than three people so it’s very difficult to share it. But, I want to stress that this is the work of two teams which have been working very hard, with a lot of very bright people in both teams.
[AS] Again, perfect symmetry, because we spoke to him earlier and he did express exactly the same feeling, that it was …
[SH] Sure, and I did not hear his! My assistant [name inaudible] told me that you had already interviewed him but I did not have a chance to hear his interview.
[AS] And, it does seem quite amazing to think that in your laboratory you arrange meetings between single photons and single atoms …
[SH] Yes, we are doing that kind of experiments and for a very long time people were working with huge collections of atoms and photons, and when you work with big ensembles the quantum properties are, so to speak, veiled. They are hidden because of statistical effects. And, if you work with single particles, as we do, then you can reveal the quantum effects in a very dramatic way, and you can learn about all these quantum processes. And, that’s what we are trying to do.
[AS] How long did it take to build the apparatus to allow you to do this?
[SH] Oh, it took a long time! The ideas which gave rise to the prize started about, I would say, more than twenty years ago in our lab. And, I’m sure the same in Dave Wineland’s lab. And, it took us many years to build the apparatus and to improve it to the point that we were able to trap the photons for such a long time. So, it’s a very long term project and I am glad that I was working in an environment which allows for this long range project to be able to mature and to flourish. I was working at the École Normale, in Paris, in a lab where we have very good students from École Normale and from other grandes écoles in France and a lot of postdocs and visitors from all over Europe and all over the world and it’s a very fantastic atmosphere to be able to develop these. And now, I have just changed. I have moved to Collège de France, which is very close to l’École Normale, in Paris, and become the administrator of Collège de France which is a very important task. And, that’s why I do not realize very well what’s happening because I will have to manage my administrative tasks with all the tasks which will come from the Nobel Prize. And, I have to organize my life. For the time being I don’t know exactly what will happen.
[AS] Let’s hope you have a good assistant administrator!
[SH] Yes, and everybody at École Normale and Collège de France are very happy and very helpful and … I hope everything will go well!
[AS] It’s nice that everyone shares in your joy. Just one last question because there is so much emphasis on application, application. But, really the work you do, it focuses on understanding the fundamentals, on understanding this frontier between classical and quantum mechanics.
[SH] Yes, exactly. And, if you were to ask me what was the application, I would tell you I don’t know. And I would just tell you that I think there will be some applications. But, whether these applications will be for the general public or applications which will help to improve some devices which will be used by scientists, it’s not clear. To take an example about the work that Dave Wineland is doing, one part of Dave’s work is to work on atomic clocks and he’s using this single ability to control single particles to develop clocks which are fantastically accurate. And, this precision could be used to develop ways to detect very small effects, like small gravitational shifts, for instance. So, this is one application. In my work I am also using atomic clocks but in a quite different context. I use clocks which are so sensitive to light that they can be used to detect single photons. So, again, there is some kind of connection between his work and mine. But, what will be the use to be able to detect these photons without destroying them, I don’t know. I hope that there will be some applications, but I cannot tell which.
[AS] Ah, but the basic research has to come first anyway, yes. Okay, well, when you come to Stockholm, in December, to receive your prize, happily we have the chance to interview both you and David Wineland together.
[SH] Yes, with pleasure. I’m looking forward to that, yes.
[AS] We are too. So again many congratulations and thank you for speaking …
[SH] Thank you very much, thank you, goodbye.
[AS] Goodbye, thank you.
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