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Chemistry and Physics: One Needs the Other

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“Quantum theory has opened to us the microscopic world of particles, atoms and photons,” explained Nobel Laureate Serge Haroche, who shared the 2012 Nobel Prize in physics with David Wineland. In this sentence, Haroche answered why two physicists certainly belong onstage at the 63rd Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting for chemistry. Haroche’s talk, called ‘Controlling Photons in a Box, Quantum,’ dovetailed with Wineland’s lecture just before on ‘Superposition, Entanglement, and Raising Schrödinger’s Cat.’ (“Though in half an hour, it’s very difficult to give you details,” quipped Haroche.)

Serge Haroche explaining how physicists and chemists help each other. Photo by Kathleen Raven

Serge Haroche explaining how physicists and chemists help each other. Photo by Kathleen Raven

During his presentation late Monday morning, Haroche offered at least one concrete example of how physics propelled chemistry research forward: magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Chemists working today have Felix Bloch and Edward Mills Purcell — both awarded the Nobel Prize in 1952 — to thank for their tireless puzzling (and discovering) about nuclear magnetic properties.

Throughout their speeches, Haroche and Wineland dipped into bodies of research as deep as Lake Constance herself. Most of the terms became entangled and stayed superimposed over my head, much like the atomic ions and energy states Wineland described in his talk.

David Wineland just after his lecture in the morning. Photo by Kathleen Raven

David Wineland just after his lecture in the morning. Photo by Kathleen Raven

The researcher sitting next to me in the audience nodded his head enthusiastically when Wineland showed a slide with the ideal “controlled-NOT” gate between internal states. I heard some low murmurs of agreement when we moved on to the possibilities that exist with “gold-coated alumnia wafers.” But I appreciated Wineland’s main message: We are ever closer to entering the world that Schrödinger dreamed about. He wanted scientists to test his theories in experiments with just one electron or atom or other small molecule.

Thought experiments and taxi drivers

Wineland’s presentation slide on “alumina gold trap.” Photo by Kathleen Raven

Wineland’s presentation slide on “alumina gold trap.” Photo by Kathleen Raven

Before delving into the famous Bohr-Einstein debate at the 1927 Solvay conference, in which those two great minds debated quantum mechanics using thought experiments, Haroche offered the audience a real-life application. On the topic of atomic clocks and GPS, Haroche explained that such technology could lead to geo-localization accuracy to within 1 meter anywhere on Earth. “Taxi drivers everywhere use quantum physics!” Haroche said to laughter in the audience.



Behind the Greatest Experiments: Basic Research
Lindau 2013: Chemistry and diversity
Lindau 2013: Unity and diversity
Lindau 2013: Videos with a personality, flow and message
Cataloging the impact of Lindau meetings
Chemistry and physics: one needs the other
And see our In-Depth Report and the 30 Under 30 series on the main site.


This blog post originates from the Lindau Nobel Online Community, the interactive forum of the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings. The 63rd Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, dedicated to chemistry, is held in Lindau, Germany, from 30 June to 5 July 2013. 35 Nobel Laureates will congregate to meet more than 600 young researchers from approximately 80 countries.

Kathleen Raven is part of the official blog team. Please find all of her postings on the Community blog.

Kathleen Raven About the Author: Kathleen Raven is a writer living in Atlanta, Georgia. She received her MS in Ecology with a focus on sustainable agriculture and MA in Health & Medical Journalism from the University of Georgia. Follow on Twitter @sci2mrow.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 2 Comments

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  1. 1. Scienceisnotagenda 12:21 pm 07/2/2013

    The title confuses the formal disciplines of physics and chemistry with what physics and chemistry are.

    Chemistry ‘is’ physics.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Bora Zivkovic 8:31 pm 07/4/2013

    Physics can describe some aspects of chemistry.

    Physics cannot explain any aspects of chemistry.

    In other words, chemistry is not reducible to physics, due to emergent properties of complex systems that arise at higher levels of organization. Those system properties cannot be deduced from the identities or behaviors of its parts.

    Thus, physics is NOT chemistry.

    Link to this

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