UO lands a Nobel Laureate

UO lands a Nobel Laureate

UO lands a Nobel Laureate

A giant in the world of quantum physics, David Wineland hopes to use his expertise to inspire and support UO students and researchers

David Wineland, who earned a Nobel Prize in 2012 for his research into how quantum physics could lead to new types of powerful computers, is becoming a Duck.

Wineland, a scientist since 1975 at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and adjoint professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, will join the UO Department of Physics as a Knight Research Professor in the fall. He will work closely with the Oregon Center for Optical, Molecular and Quantum Science and help mentor students and young faculty in the UO’s physics department.

"David Wineland is an amazing intellectual who has worked on some very important problems," said Jayanth Banavar, the UO’s new provost and senior vice president, who helped spearhead the recruitment effort. "He will inspire our students and be a tremendous colleague to our faculty members. He will notch up our visibility, because people all around the world respect him for what he has accomplished. And, best of all, he is a terrific human being."

David Wineland working in a lab

The UO has a world-class reputation in the field of quantum science, and Wineland's addition is particularly timely because his research will pave the way to solve societally important, grand-challenge problems, said Banavar, who is also a physicist.

Wineland visited the UO in May as part of a lecture series. During his visit, Wineland met with physics faculty members and learned about ongoing and coming projects.

“I’ve seen firsthand the great work happening at the University of Oregon,” Wineland said. “The faculty at UO is pursuing a wide range of interesting projects, and that was a significant draw. My hope is that I will able to contribute to some of these projects in a collaborative and advisory role. I see myself working in the background and helping to get new things going."

Before coming to visit the UO, he added, he already “was well aware” of the research of UO physicists Michael Raymer, Steven van Enk and Daniel Steck.

Wineland's presence will assure that the UO continues to be a pioneer in quantum physics, said UO President Michael H. Schill.

"I am amazingly excited that David Wineland is going to join our faculty," Schill said. "He has a tremendous reputation in quantum science and quantum computers. He has created new measures and new tests for physics. He's going to really help us move our scientific program ahead by quantum leaps."

Wineland is best known for his innovative efforts that began in the late 1970s to transform some aspects of quantum physics from theoretical speculation into observable experiments that allowed scientists to observe predicted phenomena involving individual atoms.

His success capturing atoms in a trap allowed him to harness their various energy levels, or states. These atoms — which can be regarded as quantum bits, or qubits — can hold massive amounts of information far beyond the capacity of bits and bytes in today's best computers.

Wineland shared the 2012 Nobel Prize in physics, given by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, with Serge Haroche, a Moroccan-born physicist in Paris, France, who did related work. They were chosen for their "ground-breaking experimental methods that enable measuring and manipulation of individual quantum systems."

"David tamed nature," Banavar said. "What he did was unprecedented. He took single atoms, cooled them to extremely low temperatures and used them as quantum bits. By assembling these atoms he has the beginnings of a fledgling quantum computer."

Quantum computing experiments to date have used up to 30 qubits. The current goal is to use more than 300, with each additional qubit providing an exponential increase in computing power, which could solve certain problems by assessing the best possible answer from all known possibilities.

The problems could be the design of synthetic molecular structures that best deliver life-saving medicines, evaluating data from experiments in particle physics, building more secure communications and networking systems, and improving database-searching capabilities.

"Having David Wineland join the University of Oregon's team in quantum research gives us the opportunity to create a world-leading center in quantum science and technology," said Raymer, a member of the Oregon Center for Optical, Molecular and Quantum Science. "Many scientists believe that quantum science will lead to the new technologies of the future."

Raymer, who has known Wineland for 30 years, recently published a book, "Quantum Physics: What Everyone Needs to Know," developed for a course he teaches for nonscience majors. Raymer also attended a workshop last year at the White House Office of Science and Technology, where scientists recommended a national initiative in quantum science and technology.

"Having an experimental physicist of Wineland's caliber join our faculty is thrilling," said Stephanie Majewski, who joined the physics department in 2012 and has pivotal roles in upgrades to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the European particle physics laboratory. "His presence will help galvanize the next generation of young physicists at Oregon to make quantum computing a reality."

Coming upgrades, she said, will require more computing power.

"We expect that accelerator to perform so well a decade from now that we will need up to 200 times the computing capabilities that we have today in order to analyze the data," she said. "A revolution in computing would allow us to tackle even more challenging problems."

David Wineland in a lab with other scientists

Wineland was born Feb. 24, 1944, just outside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but his family moved to Sacramento, California, when he was 3 years old.

"Growing up, I was always fascinated by mechanical things," Wineland said.

Initially, that fascination involved model airplanes. He still flies them when he has time. He bought a car at age 14, took it apart and rebuilt it. During his first physics class, in high school, he liked the idea that relatively simple mathematics could explain the world around him.

He earned a bachelor's degree in physics in 1965 at the University of California, Berkeley, but without any experience in laboratory research.

"I went to grad school with the idea of becoming a theoretical physicist," he said. "I was pretty good at math, but not a star."

At Harvard University, exposure to experimental work led him to change course toward atomic physics. By the time he earned his doctorate in the 1970s, he was making his mark in achieving precise measurements.

"I worked in a group where the professor was already making atomic clocks called masers, which were like lasers," Wineland said. "The "m" stands for microwave. These masers could be used as time standards. I really liked the high-precision nature of that work. I always liked — starting then and still now — doing the detective work on experiments to figure out why things aren’t working."

He followed his dream to the University of Washington and on to Boulder, following a path in which his always-collaborative approach has contributed to the development of ultra-precise atomic clocks, advances in spectroscopy and optics, improved GPS technologies and the foundation for quantum computing.

"Many of our scholars are young and many are on their way up," Schill said. "Having someone with David's reputation, knowledge and experience is going to be incredibly helpful to launching the careers and prominence of many members of our faculty."


6 zone alumnia atom trap
6 zone alumnia atom trap

The science behind Wineland's Nobel Prize

Soon after David Wineland shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2012 a New York Times editorial proclaimed that quantum computing "could well usher in a radical new era of technology, one that makes today's fastest computers look like hand-cranked adding machines."

So what did Wineland, who is joining the UO Department of Physics, do?

In short, he cooled electrically charged atoms to near absolute zero, slowing and capturing them in a kind of trap where researchers could study them with small packets of laser light to obtain precise measurements of interactions between light and matter. Trapped atoms, he showed, could serve as quantum bits, or qubits.

"The idea behind quantum computing is that atoms can be in any number of discrete energy levels," Wineland said.

In today's computers, information is stored in bits that can only be in one state of energy at a time, such as on or off, or up or down. Mathematically, these states are 0 or 1. In quantum computing, qubits are 0 and 1 at the same time.

"A single trapped atom can be thought of as a marble in a bowl that can roll back and forth," Wineland said. "With our atomic marbles, we can reach a situation where at some point in time the marble is both on the left side of the bowl and the right side of the bowl at the same time, a startling demonstration of superposition."

Each qubit in a system could increase computational power by a factor of two. With this exponential scaling, Wineland said, 300 qubits in superposition states would produce two to the 300th possibilities.

"That's about 10 to the 90th, or more than all the elementary particles in the universe," he said. "One of the interesting aspects of quantum computing is the possibility of massive memory storage."

Photos courtesy of the National Institute of Standards and Technology