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Advancement in Quantum Entanglement Earns 2018 AAAS Newcomb Cleveland Prize

In their June 16, 2017 Science paper, a group led by Jian-Wei Pan laid the groundwork for ultra-secure communication networks of the future. | Neil Orman/AAAS

A team of 34 physicists based at various institutions in China will receive the 2018 Newcomb Cleveland Prize, presented by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, for research that could provide the basis of a next-generation internet.

The Newcomb Cleveland Prize, AAAS’ oldest award, has honored the most impactful research paper published in Science each year since 1923. This year’s winning paper describes an exponential increase in the distance at which particles can remain in a mysterious state called “quantum entanglement,” laying the groundwork for ultra-secure communication networks of the future.

To achieve quantum entanglement, physicists sync the properties of multiple particles, such as photons or electrons. Once the particles are separated, this entanglement allows observers to determine the state of a given particle — its polarization, for example — by measuring the state of a particle to which it is linked.

If researchers are able to maintain entanglement over long distances, an unbreachable messaging encryption system could evolve. “Long strings of entangled photons, shared between distant locations, can be ‘quantum keys’ that secure communications,” News from Science reported when the winning paper was published. “Anyone trying to eavesdrop on a quantum-encrypted message would disrupt the shared key, alerting everyone to a compromised channel.” But because “entangled photons degrade rapidly as they pass through the air or optical fibers,” researchers had not been able to send quantum keys more than about 100 kilometers.

In their June 16, 2017 Science paper, a group led by Jian-Wei Pan, physicist at the University of Science and Technology of China in Shanghai, proved the viability of a new technique that minimizes particle degradation. Pan and his colleagues used a satellite to send photon pairs through the near-vacuum of space, successfully measuring the quantum keys at Tibetan receiving stations 1,203 kilometers apart. The research shows that a network of satellites could one day form the infrastructure of a quantum internet.

“Secure communication is of crucial importance in the modern world,” said Jeremy Berg, editor-in-chief of Science and chair of the Newcomb Cleveland Prize Selection Committee. “In principle, methods based on the phenomenon of quantum entanglement — about which Einstein was very skeptical, referring to it as ‘spooky action at a distance’ — represent solutions to the problem of perfectly secure communication.”

“However, many challenges remain in converting these ‘in principle’ methods into practice,” Berg added. “The Newcomb Cleveland Prize winning paper presents a substantial step in addressing these challenges, demonstrating quantum communication over very long distances.”

In addition to Berg, the prize selection committee included Sir Peter Knight of the Imperial College London; Julija Krupic of the University of Cambridge; Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute; and Tom Misteli of the National Cancer Institute.

The AAAS Newcomb Cleveland Prize, supported by The Fodor Family Trust, was established in 1923 with funds donated by Newcomb Cleveland of New York City and was originally called the AAAS Thousand Dollar Prize. It recognizes the author or authors of an outstanding paper published in the Research Articles or Reports sections of Science, AAAS’ flagship journal. Papers published between June 2017 and May 2018 were eligible for this year’s award. Along with a medal and $25,000 in prize money, the winners receive complimentary registration and reimbursed travel expenses to attend the AAAS Annual Meeting.

The authors of the winning paper, “Satellite-based entanglement distribution over 1200 kilometers,” will receive the award during the 185th AAAS Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 14, 2019.


[Associated image: courtesy of Jian-Wei Pan]