By Andre Sariva, Diraq
Are you keen to get a Nobel prize in Physics? Or would you at least like to understand what makes the Nobel committee tick? There is a lesson behind the extremely long History of this year’s Nobel prize and how it compares to the meteoric ascension of blue LEDs, which resulted in a Nobel prize in a much shorter time. And interpreting these timelines might also give you some insight into Quantum Computation.
The Nobel prize winners in 2022, Professors Alain Aspect, John Clauser and Anton Zeilinger, are all household names for anyone in quantum. The untrained eye might see this prize as long overdue. Zeilinger’s main contributions started about 30 years ago, with demonstrations of entanglement swapping and culminating with quantum teleportation in 1998. Aspect’s experiment on Bell inequality violation is now 40 years old, building upon the 50-year-old theoretical work by Clauser. All this work was immediately recognised as the foundation of our current understanding of quantum physics. How come the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences took so long to award this prize?
The official stance of the Academy is to award prizes to scientific endeavours that withstood the test of time. This prevents the recurrence of wrongly awarded prizes, such as was the case for the 1926 prize in Medicine, which turned out to be based on incorrect conclusions. What is unclear, however, is what exactly is the point of maturity for a discovery. Having received no prizes, I can only conjecture, and that is what I will do next (you might learn nothing from me, but you will gain a drop of wisdom from my former advisor by reading further).
I started my scientific training as a Master’s student in 2006. At that time, the biggest thing happening in my field of Solid-State Physics was the discovery of graphene, the thinnest material in the world consisting of an exactly single-atom-thick sheet of carbon. At that point, there was a prevailing view that graphene should not be stable at all, and that this material was only observed because it was pasted onto glass. Detractors predicted that it would fall to pieces once suspended. Just as I was starting to grasp why this material would be so relevant, in 2007 the suspended graphene sheet was first demonstrated, cementing the era of atom-thin materials.
I remember telling my advisor, silicon quantum computing giant theorist Belita Koiller, that I was very happy to witness an easily recognisable breakthrough which would surely lead to a Nobel prize. How puzzled was I when she retorted: “Hold your horses, Mister! You have completely misunderstood what the Nobel prize is about!”.
My puzzled face is not a pleasant sight, so she made sure to quickly undo my misunderstanding. You see, Alfred Nobel clearly stated that the prize was to be awarded to the finding that “conferred the greatest benefit to mankind”. As a scientist, I always interpreted this from the point of view of the foundational value of a scientific discovery. But looking through the History of the prize, it becomes obvious that only occasionally that is the interpretation of the Royal Academy. Most often, it is through practical applications that the time test is deemed a pass.
Belita went on to predict: “they will only award a prize to Geim and Novoselov once the first graphene-based devices start popping up in the literature”. I don’t know if this is really why the committee waited until 2010 to award the prize, but earlier that same year Nature Nanotechnology was publishing an article by Frank Schwierz about graphene-based transistors after the publication of the 2009 International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors, which featured graphene for the first time.
The example of blue LEDs is perhaps even more dramatic. High power blue LEDs made possible the creation of energy-efficient white LEDs (which consist of a combination of single-coloured LEDs, blue included). While the engineering effort to achieve the right combination of materials to get a blue LED was epic, ultimately it did not change our understanding of nature and it was based on the well-established, decades-old quantum theory of matter. Still, the Royal Academy was swift to award the prize to its inventors.
If you believe my premise, you will gain a new angle to understand this year’s prize. Clauser’s work, for instance, was always recognised as a foundational element of modern quantum physics, allowing for the dismissal of some wacky interpretations of the quantum laws that would confront the prevailing-yet-baffling Copenhagen interpretation. Aspect’s and Zeilinger’s work further consolidated these notions and closed loopholes. However, the prize was given for the influence of their work on quantum information science, not in the philosophical foundations of quantum physics.
This would indicate that the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences recognises quantum information sciences as a clear, immediately useful progress now, more than it ever was in the several decades since this research was performed. Under this prism, the prize is not overdue, but timely. The dawn of quantum computation is very recognisable now.
I wrap this article suggesting a curious reading – the highly informal “Quantum Physics from A to Z”, of which I paraphrased the title. Also, in honour of this humorous paper, I decided to write this piece in first person and in a colloquial tone.
Dr. Saraiva has worked for over a decade providing theoretical solutions to problems in silicon spin quantum computation, as well as other quantum technologies. He currently is the Head of Solid-State Theory for Diraq, an Australian start-up developing a scalable quantum processor.
October 5, 2022