The American physicist who was announced last week as a winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics has ties to the Mother Lode.
Judy Delbon (right), of Sonora, wearing the Benjamin Franklin Medal in physics her brother, David Wineland, won in 2010. Courtesy photo/Union Democrat, copyright 2012
David Wineland, 68, who lectures at University of Colorado Boulder and works for the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, grew up in Sacramento and is the brother of longtime Sonora resident Judy Delbon.
Wineland and French physicist Serge Haroche shared the Nobel Prize for their independent yet similar research in quantum physics.
“The fellow I shared it with, he and I have been friends for a long time, so it’s nice to share it with him,” Wineland said in a statement.
The two scientists invented and developed methods for measuring and manipulating individual particles while preserving their quantum-mechanical structure, according to the Nobel Prize website. The methods allow the researchers to study quantum particles without destroying them, which was previously thought to be impossible.
Wineland’s method is to trap ions — electrically charged atoms — and control and measure them with particles of light — photons. Haroche takes the opposite approach, controlling and measuring trapped photons by sending atoms through a trap.
Their methods have allowed quantum physics research to take steps toward quantum computers, which would be faster and more powerful than existing computers. The research has also led to the construction of extremely precise clocks.
“I always thought for a long time that he’d probably get it,” Delbon said about her brother winning the prize.
Delbon, who is a retired building contractor and former Tuolumne Utilities District board member of eight years, has tuned into the radio every year on the day the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced the winner.
Because the committee is based in Stockholm, Sweden, the news often breaks in the early hours of the morning in the United States. On Tuesday, Oct. 9, Wineland received the call at 3:30 a.m. at his home in Boulder, Colo., according to the press release.
Delbon was traveling and missed the announcement, but a friend heard it on the radio and told her the news. When her brother called her, she was speechless.
“Amazing, just amazing,” she said. “I’m so proud of him.”
She is planning to attend the Nobel Prize award ceremony in Stockholm with her brother on Dec. 10.
Delbon said her younger sibling is always patient when explaining his complex research and humble when he is recognized for his work. She also said he’s “not nerdy.”
Wineland’s interest in physics developed when he took a high school physics class in Sacramento, Delbon said. He studied at University of California, Davis for one year and transferred to University of California, Berkeley, where he received a bachelor’s degree in physics. He received his master’s and doctoral degrees in physics from Harvard University.
The Nobel Prize comes with $1.2 million to be split between the winners. Delbon said the cash prize could greatly benefit Wineland’s research, which is mostly funded by grants.
Wineland travels the world to develop and present his research, but nearly every year he visits California to celebrate Delbon’s birthday.
“He’s one that doesn’t like to leave his lab very long,” Delbon said.
Wineland and Haroche were selected by the Royal Swedish Academy of Scientists based on nominations.
The academy sends out confidential nomination forms to about 3,000 people around the world, including university professors, Nobel Laureates in physics and chemistry and members of the academy. The names of the nominees and other information about the nomination process cannot be revealed for 50 years.
Since the first Nobel Prize in physics was awarded to Wilhelm Röntgen in 1901 for his discovery of X-rays, 106 Nobel Prizes in physics have been awarded to 193 people.
Another winner with ties to the area was Albert Michelson, who spend part of his childhood in Murphys, won the physics prize in 1907 for his“optical precision instruments and the spectroscopic and metrological investigations carried out with their aid.”
The Nobel Prize was established by scientist Alfred Nobel, who signed his last will and testament on Nov. 27, 1895, giving the largest share of his fortune to the series of prizes. In his will, one part was dedicated to “the person who shall have made the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics.”
“It’s kind of overwhelming,” Wineland stated in the press release. “This could have gone to a lot of other people. It’s certainly a wonderful surprise.”