Serge Haroche, a professor at the College de France, and David Wineland, a NIST scientist and University of Colorado-Boulder lecturer, helped to create ways to capture, observe, and control individual atoms and light particles, respectively.
In particular, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awards the Nobel Prize, said in a statement that that the two "opened the door to a new era of experimentation by demonstrating the direct observation of individual quantum particles" and measuring and controlling "very fragile quantum states."
Wineland's main interest has been developing more accurate clocks because historically, better clocks have led to other more practical developments, including better navigation and improved communication.
[ Quantum computers may be needed to handle big data. Read NASA Issues Big Data Challenge. ]
Wineland's work could help future researchers develop quantum computers. "This prestigious award recognizes [Wineland's] groundbreaking work, which could someday help construct new types of super-fast computers and has already made timekeeping more accurate," U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., where Wineland lives and works, said in a statement.
While traditional computers rely on transistors and digital bits represented as zeros and ones to facilitate their processing, quantum computers rely instead on the laws of quantum mechanics, and use individual particles to do their bidding. These particles, known as quantum bits, occupy multiple states at once and thus can't be solely represented as zeroes and ones. In theory, that property of quantum computers should allow simultaneous processing that could greatly accelerate computing speed.
IBM and start-up D-Wave, which last week announced funding from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and the U.S. intelligence agency, are among the early entrants into the area of quantum computing.
Wineland's employer, NIST, also maintains a deep bench of researchers working on quantum mechanics. Wineland's group uses electrical fields to hold individual ions in place and then use laser beams to manipulate them.
NIST's Quantum Information Program has worked on everything from teleportation to single electron transistors, and has been responsible for a number of published papers in the field of quantum computing. Recently, for example, Wineland was part of a team at NIST that published a paper on accelerating beryllium ions from zero to a hundred miles per hour and stopping them again within microseconds, an accomplishment that help move information around more quickly inside a quantum computer.