In an ordinary computer, information is represented in bits, each of which is either a zero or a one. But in a quantum computer, an individual particle can essentially represent a zero and a one at the same time. If scientists can make such particles work together, certain kinds of calculations could be done with blazing speed.
One example is the factoring, the process of discovering what numbers can be multiplied together to produce a given number. That has implications for breaking codes, Monroe said.
Quantum computers could radically change people's lives in the way that classical computers did last century, but a full-scale quantum computer is still decades away, the Nobel judges said.
"The calculations would be incredibly much faster and exact and you would be able to use it for areas like metrology and for measuring the climate of the earth," said Lars Bergstrom, the secretary of the prize committee.
The physics prize was the second of the 2012 Nobel Prizes to be announced, with the medicine award going Monday to stem cell pioneers John Gurdon of Britain and Japan's Shinya Yamanaka. Each award is worth 8 million kronor, or about $1.2 million.
Only two women have won the physics prize since it was first awarded in 1901: Marie Curie in 1903 and Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963.
The prizes are always handed out on Dec. 10, the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel's death in 1896.
AP science writer Malcolm Ritter in New York and AP writers Lori Hinnant in Paris and James Anderson and Colleen Slevin in Denver contributed to this report.
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