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This Bay Area physicist and pioneer in quantum physics just won a Nobel Prize

Mercury News 10/4/2022 Lisa M. Krieger, Bay Area News Group

Subatomic particles can be linked to each other even if separated by billions of light-years of space.

But this strange and spooky phenomenon hadn’t been proven until Walnut Creek-based physicist John Clauser performed a pioneering experiment at UC-Berkeley in 1972 – an accomplishment that on Tuesday was honored with the Nobel Prize in Physics.

Clauser, 79, and two fellow physicists — Alain Aspect of Université Paris-Saclay and École Polytechnique in France, and Anton Zeilinger, of the University of Vienna in Austria — shared the $900,000 prize for proving this core concept of quantum mechanics.

This discovery could revolutionize computing, cryptography and the transfer of information via what is known as “quantum teleportation,” according to the Nobel committee.

Working independently, the three scientists conducted experiments that demonstrated “quantum entanglement,” an odd phenomenon in which one particle can instantaneously influence the behavior of other particles — even if they are far away, such as at opposite sides of the universe.

It shows, in essence, that nature is capable of sending signals faster than the speed of light.

This phenomenon, now the foundation of today’s quantum computers and other modern quantum technologies, is so weird that physicist Albert Einstein called it “spooky action at a distance.” According to Einstein’s theory of relativity, information can travel no faster than the speed of light.

“Today we honor three physicists whose pioneering experiments showed us that the strange quantum world of entanglement … is not just the microworld of atoms, and certainly not a virtual world of mysticism or science fiction, but the real world we live in,” said Thors Hans Hansson of the Nobel Committee for Physics during a news conference in Stockholm.

Clauser, born a year after Pearl Harbor in 1942, grew up in the suburbs of Baltimore where his father had been hired to create Johns Hopkins University’s aeronautics department.

He credits his father with his love of electronic tinkering, an essential skill for future experimental discoveries.

After school, when he was supposed to be doing homework, “mostly what I would do is just sort of wander around the lab and gawk at all of the nifty laboratory equipment,” he said in an oral history recorded by the American Physics Institute.

“My dad was absolutely a marvelous teacher, my whole formative years,” he recalled. “Every time I asked a question, he knew the answer and would answer it in gory detail so that I would understand it. I mean, he didn’t force feed me, but he did it in such a way that I continuously hungered for more.”

Clauser first came to California in the early 1960s to study physics at the California Institute of Technology, then earned his PhD at Columbia University.

The study of Advanced Quantum Mechanics – a field he would later revolutionize – initially baffled him. At Columbia, he repeated the class three times before earning the requisite B grade.

“I just didn’t really believe it all. I was convinced that there were things that were wrong,” he said. “My Dad had always taught me, ‘Son, look at the data. People will have lots of fancy theories, but always go back to the original data and see if you come to the same conclusions.’ Whenever I do that, I come up with very different conclusions.”

That skepticism paved the way for his future Nobel. While working at UC Berkeley, he stumbled upon a fascinating theory by Northern Irish physicist John Stewart Bell, which explored what entanglement’s “spooky action” said about photons’ behavior and the fundamental nature of reality.

“But where’s the experimental evidence?” Clauser wondered.

He told PBS’s Nova how he rummaged around UC Berkeley’s hidden storage rooms, scavenging for old equipment to design the experiments he needed.

“There are two kinds of people, really. Those who kind of like to use old junk and/or build it themselves from scratch. And those who go out and buy shiny new boxes,” he said. “I’ve gotten pretty good at dumpster diving.”

These experimental tests, conducted alongside the late fundamental physicist Stuart Freedman in the sub-basement of the university’s Birge Hall, confirmed that photons could act in concert — despite being physically separated.

His work transformed the field of physics – and also caught the eye of the 1960s “human potential movement,” when Esalen Institute co-founder Michael Murphy decided that quantum mechanics was linked to consciousness expansion.

At Esalen, Clauser said, “we would talk about new aspects of quantum mechanics… and how it was related to the great cosmic cockroach, or whatever. None of which I thought very much of, but what the heck?” At night, the conversation would continue at the resort’s famed hot baths, as hot water cascaded down cliffs into the Pacific.

Clauser also worked at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, but left because he refused to do classified work.

His work became the scientific underpinning for today’s efforts to develop practical techniques in computing, communications and cryptography.

Such powerful commercial applications were inconceivable at the time, he said.

“I was totally unaware of how much money and interest there was in cryptography,” he said. “Heck, most of my computers didn’t even require passwords. The only reason I have them on now is because we have all of the ones in the house all networked, and you can’t put it on a network without putting passwords on them. “

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