Serge Haroche of France and David Wineland of the US won the Nobel Physics Prize on Tuesday for work in quantum physics that could one day open the way to supercomputers.
The pair were honoured for pioneering experimental experiments in "measuring and manipulation of individual quantum systems," the jury said in its citation.
"Their groundbreaking methods have enabled this field of research to take the very first steps towards building a new type of super-fast computer based on quantum physics," it said.
The research has also led to the construction of extremely precise clocks that could become the future basis for a new standard of time, with more than hundred-fold greater precision than present-day caesium clocks, it said.
The two specialise in quantum entanglement, a phenomenon of particle physics that has been proven by experiments but remains poorly understood.
When two particles interact, they become "entangled," which means one particle affects the other at a distance. The connection lasts long after they are separated.
In entanglement, particles also go into a state called superposition, which opens the way to a hoped-for supercomputers.
Today's computers use a binary code, in which data is stored in a bit that could be either zero or 1.
Members of the Nobel committee give a press conference at the Royal Swedish Academy of Science in Stockholm. They named Serge Haroche of France and David Wineland of the US as winners of the Nobel Physics Prize for their work on measuring and manipulating individual particles while preserving their quantum-mechanical nature.
But in superposition, a quantum bit, known as a qubit, could be either zero or one, or both zero and one at the same time.
This potentially offers a massive increase in data storage, greatly helping number-crunching tasks such as running climate-change models and breaking encrypted codes.
On Monday, Shinya Yamanaka of Japan and John Gurdon of Britain won the Nobel Medicine Prize for work in cell programming, a frontier that has raised dreams of replacement tissue for people crippled by disease.
The Nobel prize announcements continue on Wednesday with the announcement of the chemistry prize, followed by the literature prize on Thursday.
Perhaps the most-watched award, for peace, will be announced Friday and the economics prize will wind up the Nobel season on October 15.
The laureates will receive their prizes at formal ceremonies in Stockholm and Oslo on December 10, the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel's death in 1896.
The Nobel Foundation has slashed its prize sum to eight million Swedish kronor ($1.2 million, 930,000 euros) per award, from the 10 million kronor awarded since 2001, due to the economic crisis.