Archive for the ‘Fun Stuff’ Category

Hippies kaiserImportant scientific progress is achieved through mathematical precision, rigorous experimentation and a no-nonsense dedication to strict methodology, right?  Well, sometimes.  Other times — like in the early-1970s in northern California, for instance — important scientific progress has been achieved through naked hot-tubbing, recreational drug use and a free-spirited dedication to Eastern philosophy and parapsychology.

We here at the Quantum Factory recently sat down with David Kaiser, a professor of History of Science at MIT and author of the 2011 book How the Hippies Saved Physics.

It turns out that cutting-edge research institutions such as the Institute for Quantum Computing are more closely related to the hippie counterculture than one might initially imagine. Unfettered curiosity about the universe and a thirst for discovery are common threads that link quantum research over the decades.

Check out the interview!


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Aerial photo of the Mike & Ophelia Lazaridis Quantum-Nano Centre, by Phil Kaye

At first glance, I thought it was a horrible mistake — an architectural flaw of colossal proportions.

It appeared to be a long, deep crack in the concrete foundation of the Mike & Ophelia Lazaridis Quantum-Nano Centre, the future headquarters of the Institute for Quantum Computing and the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology.

Construction of the new facility, located smack-dab in the middle of the University of Waterloo campus, is nearing completion, and last week I was on a steel-toed-boots-and-hard-hat tour of the site with guests from the Canada Foundation for Innovation.

I’m no construction expert, but a long fissure in the foundation — barely wider than my thumb, but deeper than I could discern — seemed like an egregious boo-boo in a building specifically designed for highly sensitive quantum experiments.

Thankfully,  several construction experts were on hand, along with a few quantum scientists, who explained that the split foundation is a deliberate, and rather ingenious, construction feature.

It turns out the building has two separate foundations — one for the main part of the facility, and another  upon which sit the extra-sensitive scientific areas, such as the cutting-edge cleanroom/fabrication facility.

Because quantum experiments are so delicate to perturbation — remember, just having a peek at a quantum system will alter it — they must be extremely well isolated from their surroundings.  One clever way to achieve this: constructing laboratories upon separate foundations from the surrounding structure. Even if the overall facility shifts a micron in any direction (that’s a fraction of the width of a human hair), the experiments housed atop the secondary foundation won’t budge.

Which is all a long way of saying the new building is going to be really, really cool.  Check it out:

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For the past three years, IQC has hosted undergraduate students for the two-week Undergraduate School on Experimental Quantum Information Processing (USEQIP). This year, 19 extremely talented students from across North America, Europe and Asia flew to Waterloo to participate in the school.

I think this year we have definitely reached new heights in terms of the amount of hands-on experiments the students get to try. On top of  classroom lectures on the fundamentals of experimental quantum information — such as nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), optics, quantum cryptography, superconducting qubits, quantum dots and many more — the students will spend over 25 hours in various labs carrying out experiments. I wish this program had been around when I was a math/physics undergraduate myself about a decade ago.  I would have loved to tinker with this kind of experimental equipment!

USEQIP_NMRThis week, the participants spent a lot of time in NMR and optics. Nuclear magnetic resonance is a great test-bed quantum computer, and the students were challenged to describe the dynamics (Hamiltonian, decoherence rate, etc) of a 2-qubit system made from the hydrogen and carbon spin of a chloroform molecule. Under the supervision of IQC’s students Sarah Sheldon and Mohamad Niknam (and to some extent yours truly), they also learned to coherently control the spins and control the interaction between them. What they’ve learned this week in NMR will help them for the ultimate challenge next Friday — independently envision, design and implement the quantum algorithm of their choice!

USEQIP_opticsOn the optics side, we locked the students in a dark room and let them play around with lasers, polarizers, beam splitters, beam displacers, quarter wave plates — you know, optics stuff! They built a Michelson interferometer and did several experiments involving light polarization. The highlight of the lab was without contest the violation of Bell’s inequality using a pair of entangled photons coming out of our in-house Segnac source. Let’s just say that the students were pretty excited with the idea of re-creating the experiment that led John Clause, Alain Aspect and Anton Zeilinger to win the Wolf Prize 2010 (arguably the 2nd most prestigious prize in physics) and probably (hopefully) earn them a Nobel prize in the near future.

Although USEQIP is primarily an academic activity aimed at developing students’ interest and intuition about quantum technologies, it is also about creating a vibrant, fun and collaborative atmosphere. And since the students have come to Canada to learn about quantum technology, we figured we’d give them another quintessentially Canadian experience: a game of ball hockey!


Before starting another experiment-filled second week, the USEQIP students will take in the wondrous sights of Niagara Falls, and then spend Sunday doing something they’ve really earned: giving their bodies and their brains a rest.

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Kudos to the organizers of yesterday’s TEDxWaterloo event, which saw an astronaut, a symphony conductor, a mountain climber and many other fascinating people speak to a rapt audience (in attendance at Centre in the Square and online).

Although the speakers and attendees came from a huge cross-section of society spanning the arts, business,  education and more, everyone shared a common trait: insatiable curiosity (speaking of which, check out IQC Director Raymond Laflamme’s speech from last year’s TEDxWaterloo, all about the power of curiosity).

IQC was proud to be a sponsor and exhibitor of this year’s event, which gave us a chance to show off some cool quantum computing equipment at our snazzy booth. Our manager of scientific outreach, Martin Laforest, along with student volunteers, spent all day explaining to curious visitors the awesomeness of quantum entanglement and superposition and dead/alive cats.

Among the eclectic group of speakers at the event were Canadian astronaut Roberta Bondar, Mount Everest mountaineer Jean-Francois Carrey, experimental musician Ben Grossman and marathon swimmer Vicki Keith.

The event concluded with a fascinating talk about “rebel music” by Edwin Outwater, music director and conductor of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony (random trivia note: I once went surfing with Edwin in the “sharky” waters off San Francisco).

We at IQC were particularly interested in Edwin’s talk, as we are in the midst of collaborating with him and the KW Symphony for a quantum-themed concert in the winter of 2012. It’s called Quantum: Music at the Frontier of Science, and it will be a musical exploration of quantum concepts like superposition, entanglement and other wonderfully mind-boggling stuff. Stay tuned to this blog and the IQC website for many more details to come!

The concert is still in the early stages, but needless to say, we’re beyond exciTED about this collaboration as part of the KW Symphony’s amazing new season:

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Photo by David Bebee, Waterloo Region Record

Gina Passante likes to spin yarn. And quantum particles.

As an avid knitter, she spins the yarn as a hobby.  As as doctoral student at the Institute for Quantum Computing, she spins the quantum particles (or at least manipulates and measures their magnetic spins).

Gina’s eclectic interests piqued the curiosity of reporter Rose Simone, who wrote a terrific article that appeared on the front page of last Saturday’s Waterloo Region Record.

So if you ever need a cozy homemade blanket, or you want to implement an algorithm on a nuclear magnetic resonance quantum information processor, just ask Gina!



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Great licence plate

I live uptown Waterloo, in the same building that IQC often hosts visitors in.

Not so long ago, I pulled into a spot beside this van:

That, my friends, is what I call dedication to quantum information science!

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The cycle of seasons

It’s another frigid, blustery day up here in Waterloo. We Canucks proudly boast about our four distinct seasons, but by late-January, when the Seasonal Affective Disorder really kicks in, we also tend to grouse about our salt-caked cars slippy-sliding all over our icy roads.

Well, not all of us.

Some hardy folks, including IQC faculty member Frank Wilhelm-Mauch, happily bundle up and hit the streets on two wheels, pedaling through whatever nastiness the Canadian winter can throw at them.

Frank is part of a small but growing community of daring souls for whom bicycling is a year-round activity. Most mornings, you can spot Frank locking up his bike — studded tires and all — then dusting the snow off his coat and heading up to his office to ponder macroscopic dynamical quantum tunneling and the like. The rest of us applaud, but do not wish to join him for, his daily commute.

You can read all about Frank and his fellow winter warriors in an article published recently in The Record.

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