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Nobel Prize in physics goes to federal scientist

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If there was an international nice-guy prize, David Wineland probably could win that too.

As it is, he’ll have to settle for the Nobel Prize in physics.

Wineland is a physicist with the Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), a little-known agency that does very important work.

Wineland’s award, which he shares with Serge Haroche of the Collège de France and École Normale Supérieure in Paris, is “for ground-breaking experimental methods that enable measuring and manipulation of individual quantum systems.”

That means Wineland’s work helps us to tell time and keeps us from getting lost, among other things.

“One of the many amazing things about Dave and his work is that while he is at the absolute frontier of research in quantum mechanics, all his work is directly applicable to innovations and technologies that are regularly used, or will be in the future,” Tom O’Brian said by e-mail. He is chief of NIST’s time and frequency division and Wineland’s boss.

“For example, Dave’s work is leading to much more accurate atomic clocks. Atomic clocks are crucial for applications such as GPS (now in every smartphone), telecommunications, electric power distribution, and many other areas. Dave’s work is helping pave the way for quantum computers, which will . . . make computers vastly more powerful than today’s best supercomputers.”

Wineland, like many other federal employees, makes Uncle Sam proud. Every taxpayer should feel that way too. At 68, he has worked at NIST labs in Boulder, Colo., for 37 years. He is not alone. Other federal workers of high note, including winners of the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals (Sammies) or the Presidential Distinguished Rank Award of Distinguished Executive, have some incredible accomplishments.

The next time a GPS keeps you from getting lost, thank a fed.

“I’ve had a very good experience” as a federal employee, Wineland said in a telephone interview. “Certainly NIST has been a great place for me.”

But he’s also “encountered people who have the view that we are here to take the taxpayers’ money.” That’s “certainly not true,” he said, but adds it is hard to rid some of that image.

While O’Brian and other colleagues of Wineland praise his work, they also point out that the Nobel Prize winner is a really good dude.

“Dave is a tremendous human being,” said Carl Williams, coordinator of NIST’s quantum information program. “He is humble, unassuming and extraordinarily deep and brilliant.”

“Dave is universally acknowledged to be one of the true nice guys in physics, which is not something that can always be said about Nobel laureates,” said Christopher Monroe, physics professor at the University of Maryland. “His unassuming and humble style are entirely unique.”

“Dave is one of the smartest and most scientifically creative people I have ever had the privilege of knowing,” O’Brian said. “But he is also a humble, calm, and highly approachable person. He treats everyone with respect. He routinely downplays his scientific accomplishments, while those of us who know of his work are in awe.”

His talent and reputation led Dietrich Leibfried, Wineland’s deputy, to expect a snob when Leibfried arrived to work at NIST in 1995 from Germany. There, Leibfried said his bosses were “remote half-gods where any personal interaction is jealously guarded by secretaries and doled out in hotly contested 10-minute parcels.”

With this in mind, Leibfried and his wife were surprised when Wineland reached for their luggage after they landed in Denver.

“He insisted on helping us drag our heavy suitcases, a major embarrassment for the young post-doc expecting to do the heavy lifting for his esteemed boss instead. But the first impression did not lie. Dave’s office door is always open to anyone in the group, be it the first-week grad student or the co-worker for 30 years. He will hardly ever overrule someone on a decision and never insist on being right, probably since he found out that it is more educating if people actually try their way to find that his concern was justified rather than grumble about not being taken seriously.”

Wineland clearly takes his work seriously, but he’s not all work and no play.

“Dave is a great athlete who can throw a football 50-plus yards, a solid first baseman, a wonderful skier and an avid bicyclist, both on the road and in mountains,” Monroe said. “He seems to be attracted to anything involving two wheels and speed. He used to race motorcycles and still has a wicked fast bike in the basement that his wife, Sedna, forbids him to use, and I don’t blame her. He loves tinkering, with anything at all from remote-control model airplanes to automobiles. He drove a 1975 Dodge van for many years, somehow keeping it in pristine shape.

“He is also partial to Sapphire martinis on occasion.”

Winning a Nobel Prize is a great occasion.

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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