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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!

USEQIP_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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I recently did an interview at OmegaTau Podcast on the topic of quantum computing. This really interesting two-person not-for-profit organization was created to offer podcasts on topics in science and engineering. What a great experience!

Check out my first podcast and find out what I think about how quantum computing works, models of quantum computing, current and future uses and my take on the current state of the art.

Enjoy!

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This past November, I found myself on a plane to China to participate in the PhD Workshop China 2010, a large international graduate studies exposition. This was the culmination of two months of intermittent traveling to spread the word about IQC and recruit new graduate students for IQC’s collaborative graduate program in Quantum Information.

I accompanied uWaterloo’s Associate Director of Graduate Recruitment and Admission, Ms. Jeanette Nugent. I gave a few seminars about Quantum Information and IQC at some of the top Chinese Universities (thanks to our good friend, Bei Zeng).

Of course, being my first time in China, I figured a 13-hour flight and 12-hour jetlag would deserve at least 3 days to recover: perfect time to take some of my postponed summer holidays and visit the sites in China.

Nov. 19: On the plane to China. I have a whole row to myself. Hopefully I’ll be able to snooze somewhat “comfortably.”

Nov 20: Beijing. I arrive at the hotel around 18:30 and surprisingly I’m not too tired. Armed with an unreadable map and a few yuans, I venture into the urban jungle. First stop, Wangfujing. It becomes apparent that the once very traditional looking Beijing has been replaced with flashy neons! I head to the Donghuamen Night Market, an endless array of street vendors for all tastes: beef on a skewer, dumplings, skewered star fish, scorpion and sea horse. My dinner: dumplings, ridiculously hot noodles, fried snake and grilled octopus. Yummm!

Nov. 21: It’s freezing cold, but I only have three days to be a tourist: Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, The Bell Tower — a busy day of sights. I got lost in hutongs (labyrinth-like alleyways). This six hour walk brings me and my frozen feet to the Houhai nightlife district. Within a few paces of each other I can see a hip-hop bar, a metal bar and a country bar. It is complete cacophony outside!

Nov. 22: The famous Silk Market. You can buy anything from tailored suits to knockoff designer bags, tea, toys, golf clubs… as long as you are willing to be pulled at from each side, bullied, cornered in a stall and called names. Someone called me cheap.  Hey, I’ve been called worse!

Nov. 23: The Great Wall! Truly a wonder of the world. Afterward, I decide to “sample” the famous Dadong Peking Duck. Since I am quite hungry, I also try a roasted pigeon. Little that I know, I received the entire duck and later stumbled back to my hotel in a food coma.

Nov. 24: Tourist time over; time to work. I deliver a seminar  to about 60 potential students from Beijing Normal University and Beijing University of Post and Telecommunication. It’s easy to brag about quantum information and IQC! In the evening I have dinner with some Canadian delegates and the Canadian trade commissioner.

Nov. 25: PhDChina, a big international grad expo, kicks off. The Dean of Graduate Studies at the prominent Tsinghua University is impressed with IQC! Later, the Canadian Embassy held a roundtable for 30 Chinese universities and the embassies of Japan and Korea. Lots of good networking!

Nov. 26: Meeting with China Scholarship Council. A great partnership with uWaterloo: if CSC provides a living stipend to a potential Waterloo student, then the university waives tuition. Excellent recruitment idea.

Nov. 27- 28: The PhDChina event. I share the tiny table with Jeanette and Prof. Lei Xu of uWaterloo Civil Engineering, who just happens to be in China at the time. More than 1,200 students come to the event and it feels like they all visit our table. Waterloo has clout!

Nov. 29: Following PhDChina, I head to Tsinghua University to give a presentation. Pekin University students are also invited. Prof. Gui Lu Long has a strong team working in quantum information, NMR, optics and communication. They put me to work on their NMR spectrometer! Ah, Ph.D. memories!

Nov. 30: Heading home, armed with CVs from some awesome potential IQC students, new connections and… 10 extra pounds!

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Ars Technica recently challenged their readers to a DIY science contest – use video to explain a scientific concept in terms that a high school class would understand and be genuinely interested in.

Our friend Krister Shalm showed up with a kickin’ video on entanglement. Check it out!

What is Entanglement? from Krister Shalm on Vimeo.

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