From the Maghreb to the Nobel Prize in Physics, twice

An autumn noon, two Maghrebs chat at a table in a Paris restaurant. They've both won the Nobel Prize in Physics. At 86, Claude Cohen-Tannoudji is not yet out of his astonishment. "How has a child born in the 1930s, in a small town in Algeria, within a modest Jewish family, have been able to do higher education in Paris and, some 40 years later, win the Nobel Prize in Physics?" he asks at the table and in his new autobiographical book, Under the Sign of Light (editorial Odile Jacob


Accompanying him, elbowed on a red-painting tablecloth, Serge Haroche, born in 1944 in Casablanca, a city that, as Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart told, then flirted with Nazi Germany within the French protectorate of Morocco. Haroche and Cohen-Tannoudji were Jewish children in a terrible time to be. Talk about their lives in a meal organized to celebrate the 80th year of the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), which THE COUNTRY attended by the French institution.

The investigations of the two nobels are a leap into quantum computers, superconducting materials, and ultra-accurate clocks

Cohen-Tannoudji and Haroche take 11 years. They are teacher and disciple. They met more than half a century ago in the laboratory of Alfred Kastler, an essential researcher for the invention of laser light who also won the Nobel Prize in Physics, in 1966. Cohen-Tannoudji followed in his footsteps in 1997, discovering methods to trap atoms for the first time, using his mentor's laser light. And Haroche was awarded in 2012, after using a mirror trap to capture the photons of light. Three Nobel laureates in the same scientific family: the mythical Kastler Brossel Laboratory in Paris, from which "real fireworks" have come out for science, according to Cohen-Tannoudji. The future is being written with its results: ultra-fast quantum computers, superconducting electrical materials, and ultra-precise quantum clocks,

"Future applications cannot be predicted," argues Cohen-Tannoudji, born in 1933 in the city of Constantine, in French colonial Algeria. His ancestors, he explains, ended up there in the 16th century, after fleeing Spain beset by the Inquisition. The physical octogenarian doesn't have to imagine what the persecution was like. In 1940, when he was 7 years old, the pro-Nazi Government of Vichy abolished the French nationality of Jews living in Algeria. "We were stateless. These were bad times," he recalls,

Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, Alfred Kastler and Serge Haroche (second, third and fourth from left), in a 1966 image. Cohen-Tannoudji

His whole childhood was full of shocks. Cohen-Tannoudji's parents had a haberdashery in Constantine. "The situation, already quite difficult, became critical of the outbreak of a very violent anti-Semitic revolt, on August 5, 1934, presumably because a Jew had urinated on the wall of a mosque. Some 25 Jews were killed," the physicist recalls in his autobiography,

"There's a lot of hype with quantum computing. People try to sell things that don't exist yet," says Haroche

Cohen-Tannoudji moved to Paris for good in 1953. And Haroche's family left Casablanca after Moroccan independence in 1956, like many other Jews. "I grew up in a European culture, French civilization. It should not be forgotten that modern science was born in Europe. The values of scientific reason are part of The European Heritage. Science, all over the world, whether in Europe, China, India or South America, is based on the same values," says Haroche, disillusioned by the path taken in his homeland of Morocco. "I don't like your political system being based on religion," he laments

Serge Haroche climbed in Paris on the shoulders of Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, who in turn had aupwed those of Alfred Kastler. The result has been a new era in science, allowing direct observation of individual particles of light or matter. At the Kastler Brossel Laboratory in Paris, scientists capture atoms with complex traps made from magnetic fields and lasers. Cooling to almost absolute zero (less than -273 degrees), atoms barely move and can be studied. A cesium-133 atom, for example, produces 9,192,631,770 oscillations in a second if it is at 273 degrees below zero. This is how the seconds are measured. Since 1967, ultra-cold atoms establish the unity of time in the international system. That accuracy is essential for positioning systems such as GPS, for space missions and even for economic transactions on the stock exchange,

A room at the Kastler Brossel Laboratory, Paris. M.A.

Haroche and Cohen-Tannoudji are outright advocates of basic research, knowing to know, with no applications in mind. His curiosity to snoop on the fundamental interactions between light and matter has resulted in a million-dollar business focused on building ultra-fast computers based on quantum physics. "The quantum computer may change our lives over the course of this century, just as radically as the classic computer of the last century," he applauded the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences statement that informed Serge Haroche of the Nobel Prize in 2012.

A few weeks ago, Google announced that it had achieved "quantum supremacy": getting a quantum computer to solve operations in a few minutes that would take thousands of years of a conventional computer. Haroche is very skeptical. "There's a lot of hype with quantum computing. People try to sell things that don't exist yet," says physicist. "There's a great competition between IBM, Google and Microsoft. They exaggerate their accomplishments and invent words like quantum supremacy. We can be decades away from the quantum computer. Or an infinity, " ditch,

Early this year, French President Emmanuel Macron met for eight hours with 64 intellectuals to talk about france's future. Haroche and Cohen-Tannoudji were two of the participants. "We told him it was very important to give enough resources to science and improve the lives of young scientists, because their wages are low and they have no money to start investigating," Haroche explains. "What makes me pessimistic is that everyone is complaining. There are problems in hospitals, firefighters, police, justice. And scientists are in last place, because we don't strike," he laments. However, both are optimistic. "There are very good people in our lab and they may have the opportunity in the future to win a fourth Nobel. But I always remind you of one thing: we don't do what we do to win the Nobel," Remacha Haroche,