Their Real World is Quantum
“Learning to appreciate quantum physics is largely a matter of learning to put aside our intuition for how the world ‘ought’ to work and looking at what really happens,” says Chad Orzel, Ph.D. ’99, chemical physics. A physics blogger, lecturer and author, Orzel has helped thousands of students and citizen scientists understand quantum weirdness in his 13-year career at Union College in Schenectady, New York, where he is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy. “There’s nothing better than seeing the moment when a student ‘gets’ a new and strange idea,” says Orzel, who studies laser cooling and trapping of krypton atoms. The author of “How to Teach Physics to Your Dog,” Orzel’s new book, “Eureka: Discovering Your Inner Scientist,” is due out in December. “It is about the ways that scientific thinking shows up in everyday activities like solving crossword puzzles and playing basketball,” he says.
Ana Maria Rey
In 2013, when researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology unveiled the most accurate atomic clock ever built, physicists hailed it as a breakthrough made possible by the ideas of theoretical physicist Ana Maria Rey, Ph.D. ’04, physics. Rey’s work provided the theoretical underpinning for the development of this atomic clock and similar experimental devices, says Joint Quantum Institute Co-Director Charles Clark, Rey’s former Ph.D. advisor and an expert on ultracold atoms. “I still enjoy fruitful collaborations with the colleagues I met at the University of Maryland,” says Rey, now an associate professor of physics at the University of Colorado Boulder and a research fellow at JILA. In September 2013, she received a MacArthur Fellowship for theoretical work that has inspired experimentalists in several quantum specialties. In announcing the $625,000 unrestricted “genius grant,” the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation praised Rey’s creativity in “advancing our ability to simulate, manipulate and control novel states of matter through fundamental conceptual research on ultracold atoms.”
A useful quantum computer will have to be fast, controllable and scalable—not a prototype with dozens of qubits, but a product with thousands of them. “We are getting pretty good at controlling 10 ions,” says Jonathan Mizrahi, Ph.D. ’13, physics. “However, we want someday to be working with thousands or even millions of ions. That will require new approaches and new techniques.” At UMD, Mizrahi worked on ultrafast control of qubits in ion traps. As a postdoctoral researcher at Sandia National Laboratories, he is testing, characterizing and experimenting with microfabricated ion traps. The mass-produced traps, made using the same technology as standard computer chips, can advance quantum computing from handmade assemblies to large, complex arrays. “We are almost to the point where we have extraordinary quantum control at the finest level over arrays of individual atoms,” says Mizrahi.
Qiuzi Li, Ph.D. ’13, physics, has discovered that quantum theorists’ skills, such as the ability to use mathematical analysis and insights drawn from physics to predict the hidden properties and behavior of materials, are valuable in corporate research. At UMD, Li conducted research in the Condensed Matter Theory Center, and was a prolific author, a Women in Physics mentor and coach of the U.S. Physics Olympiad team. Today, she is a senior researcher working as a theorist in the field of geophysics at Exxon Mobil Research and Engineering Company in Annandale, N.J. Li says her job is to guide research that “addresses key technical needs and enables novel technology in the energy industry.” Basic research is far from irrelevant to daily life, she says. “Fundamental science can lead to technologies that have a direct impact on solving the world’s biggest energy challenges.”
Writer: Heather Dewar