You don't have to be a brainiac to know that the science behind the 2012 Nobel Prize in physics is pretty complex stuff.
Thankfully, for those of us who lack the mental prowess for an advanced physics degree, there are plenty of metaphors available to help understand the science behind the prize.
First, the technical explanation: The two scientists who earned this year's prize, Serge Haroche and David Wineland, both came up with methods to study quantum particles (very small building blocks of matter), without altering those blocks in the process.
More specifically, reports the Associated Press, Wineland traps electrically charged atoms known as ions, and examines them with light. Haroche, meanwhile, has devised a method to slow down and examine individual particles of light, called photons.
This is important because in many fields, and especially those dealing with small particles (as in quantum physics), the simple act of observing the particles can change their fundamental state into something totally different.
For example, imagine you have a box of chocolates that all look the same and you're attempting to determine what each individual chocolate is filled with. You bite into one, expecting rich creamy nougat, but at the first taste the chocolate is somehow transformed into a Brussels sprout. A crazy example, yes; but very similar (theoretically) to the problem faced by physicists.
Wineland and Harouche figured out how to examine the chocolate without turning it into a Brussels sprout in the process.
Their methods are expected to contribute significantly to research surrounding quantum computing which, a Nobel Prize press release notes, could "change our everyday lives in this century in the same radical way as the classical computer did in the last century."
Haroche compared the research on his website to enabling scientists to finally count marbles in a box: This constitutes a completely new way to look at light. Whereas photons are usually destroyed upon measurement, they can now be counted and counted again in the cavity as one would do with marbles in a box.
Independent of Dr. Haroche, Dr. Wineland has also made use of a marble metaphor. He compares his research method to: A nano-version of a marble rolling back and forth in a bowl and being on the right side and the left side simultaneously
This variant of a metaphor for quantum properties takes on the classic game of tic-tac-toe. Instead of one 'X' or 'O' placed in each round, players are allotted two -- simulating 'superposition,' or the quantum idea of one particle in two places at once.
This famous thought experiment, devised by Erwin Schrodinger in 1935, hinges on the ability of quantum systems to simultaneously be in two states at once. In the experiment, a cat sits in a completely impenetrable box. A Geiger counter, hammer, poison gas, and radioactive substance are also in the box. The substance has a 50/50 probability of decaying while the cat is in the box for an hour or so. If the substance emits an atom (aka "decays"), the cat dies via the bizarre Geiger counter/hammer/gas relay. If not, the cat survives. In an hour, is the cat alive, or dead? So long as no one opens the box and disturbs the system, quantum mechanics suggests the cat is simultaneously alive and dead. For a deeper explanation of how this applies to Wineland and Haroche's methods, see Science 2.0. (Don't worry -- this was a thought experiment only. No cats were actually harmed as a result!)