BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Awards

Basic Sciences 1st Edition (2008)


Ignacio Cirac and Peter Zoller

Galardonado Ciencias Básicas 2008

The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Basic Sciences is shared by physicists Ignacio Cirac and Peter Zoller “for their fundamental work on quantum information science”. Cirac and Zoller’s research is opening up vital new avenues for the development of quantum computers, immensely more powerful than those we know today.

Ignacio Cirac (Spain, 1965) and Peter Zoller (Austria, 1952) are regarded as the theoretical physicists of most influence in the areas of cold atoms, quantum optics and quantum information. For more than a decade, their work has broken new ground and opened up new experimental opportunities across a spectrum that runs from atoms and ions to condensed matter. At the core of their research is the use of the microscopic world to build quantum computers and communication systems.

The quantum world

Quantum phenomena arise when we examine matter at the atomic scale. They are strange, paradoxical phenomena which frequently clash with human intuition, yet have manifold applications, not least of which is the construction of quantum computers. More and more, today’s society is demanding faster computers with greater storage capacity. This means packing more transistors into each integrated circuit, so the space between components gets smaller and smaller. This process leads eventually to the molecular scale where quantum mechanics comes into its own.

Cirac and Zoller’s first major theoretical contribution, dating from 1995, was the description of a theoretical model for a quantum computer. They based their conjectures on what are known as ion traps, in which electrically charged and cooled atoms are trapped by an electric field and manipulated with lasers. Today, this technique still holds out the best promise for quantum computation. In fact some small-scale prototypes of quantum computers have already been built based on the ion trap idea. And work done at numerous laboratories has confirmed Cirac and Zoller’s theoretical predictions.

In the last ten years, the new laureates have come up with other ideas for building quantum computers, like the use of neutral atoms, and, in 2005, Peter Zoller announced the creation of the first primer Q-byte, a series of eight quantum bits (the information units of quantum computers).

Expectations fulfilled

Peter Zoller greeted the news of the award as “a great honor and a huge recognition for our area of work. It has been amazing to observe how this field has grown in the past ten years and how our expectations are little by little being borne out”. For this investigator, sharing the prize with his one-time collaborator, Ignacio Cirac, “is an added pleasure, since a lot of this work has been done together”. The Spanish researcher declared himself “especially honored because the award distinguishes the advances being made in an especially dynamic field”. Cirac also chose to emphasize “the importance of basic science, which is where tomorrow’s applications are born”.

Ignacio Cirac is director of the Theory Division at the Max Planck Institute for Quantum Optics (Garching, Germany) and Peter Zoller is head of research at the Institute for Quantum Optics and Quantum Information (Innsbruck, Austria). Both figure among the world’s most cited scientists in atomic physics of the past 10 years, with some of their papers referred to in over 1,000 publications.


Other Laureates