Nobel winner's interest in physics began in high school

Sacramento BeeOctober 10, 2012 

The co-winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize in physics said Tuesday his interest in science was nurtured a half-century ago at Encina High School.

David Wineland, a 1961 graduate, said he was not the best student at Encina. It was at the Arden Arcade school, however, where he first excelled in physics.

"There was a physics class that I took in my senior year and I thought, 'This is pretty cool,' " said Wineland during a conference call Tuesday with reporters from around the world.

Wineland learned at 3:30 a.m. Tuesday with a phone call to his home in Boulder, Colo., that he shared this year's prize for physics with Serge Haroche of France.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said that the men independently invented and developed methods for measuring and manipulating individual particles while preserving their "quantum-mechanical nature in ways that were previously thought unattainable."

Their research has led to the building of extremely precise clocks and helped scientists make gains in constructing super-fast computers.

After high school, Wineland started his college career at UC Berkeley as a math major, but soon after, he switched to physics.

"I must say that the high school class really got me interested – and here I am," Wineland said.

Wineland, born in Wauwatosa, Wis., near Milwaukee, lived briefly with his family in Denver before moving to Sacramento when he was 3 years old.

Wineland has worked at the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology in Colorado for 37 years.

He conducted experiments on the use of lasers to cool ions to near absolute zero, leading to the development of laser-cooled atomic clocks and advances in experimental quantum computing, according to the NIST.

That type of computing uses the rules of quantum physics to potentially solve problems such as breaking the best data encryption codes, which are "intractable" using today's technology, said the NIST.

"We are certainly proud to have him as a graduate," said Encina Principal Will Jarrell. "I hope that he inspires our kids to continue their goals, whatever they may be."

Encina's 1961 yearbook notes that Wineland's high school life included golf, cross country and the California Scholarship Federation.

Does Wineland have any advice for Encina students?

"Find something you like and keep going," the 68-year-old scientist said. "In my case, I guess I was a pretty straight arrow in that I got on the physics pretty early and still like it. "That does not mean you can't switch your interest and still be successful. But I think it is important to take an interest and go for it. It takes a lot of hard work, but that's the way to success."

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