10/15/2012 10:22 am ET

2012 Nobel Prize In Physics, Awarded To Serge Haroche and David Wineland, Explained As Simply As Possible

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."

Metaphors For Quantum Theorys Superposition In Action