Krister Shalm in an IQC optics lab (Photo by Peter Lee, courtesy of the Waterloo Region Record)

Congratulations to IQC postdoc Krister Shalm and his colleagues at the University of Toronto, whose recent research has been named “Breakthrough of the Year” by Physics World!

The discovery, described in a Science paper published by the research team this past summer, provides an unprecedented peek behind the curtain of the famous “double-slit” experiment — a classic demonstration of quantum mechanics.

The research “stood out because it challenges the widely held notion that quantum mechanics forbids us any knowledge of the paths taken by individual photons (in the double-slit experiment),” explained the Physics World article.

Shalm (whom regular QuantumFactory readers may remember from this awesome thing or this awesome thing or this awesome thing), now has another awesome thing under his belt.  So big props to Krister and the entire U of T team for taking us deeper into the quantum world!

Researchers Philip Schuster, Natalia Toro, Andy Haas and Damian Pope discuss the Higgs Boson results from CERN

So what, exactly, did researchers at CERN discover — or almost discover — by smashing particles together in a 27km-long tunnel in France and Switzerland? And what are the implications for our understanding of the universe?

A panel of expert researchers at Waterloo’s Perimeter Institute are deciphering and explaining today’s announcement from CERN.

Has the so-called “God Particle” been found? The results are exciting, but there is plenty more science to be done, say the experts.

“The Higgs Boson is the last undiscovered building block of our current model of the universe,” said Damien Pope, moderator of the discussion titled “What the Higgs is Going On?”

“It’s been an exciting day for particle physics,” said panelist Andy Haas of New York University, an expert in research conducted at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

Haas explained how the LHC uses large magnetic fields to accelerate particles around the 27-km underground tunnel to “99.9999 per cent” the speed of light. The bunches of 100 billion protons are made to collide at the centre of the experiments, “out of which thousands of particles come flying out.”

There are 20 million collisions each second, however, which makes this research a little “tricky,” Haas said.

The resulting data is crunched by thousands of computers around the world, to determine the make-up of the collisions.  The big question lately is whether the Higgs Boson particle is present in these collisions.

What is the significance of what CERN has uncovered in recent experiments?

The standard model of physics explains the inner workings of the universe, but there have been “missing ingredients” at the subatomic level, explained PI researcher Natalia Toro.  If we don’t include those ingredients, our calculations about the universe don’t quite add up.  Research at the LHC is aimed at finding those ingredients — most notably, the Higgs Boson.

The Higgs Boson is the particle that gives mass to all other fundamental particles, explained Philip Schuster. So the discovery of the Higgs Boson would cement much of our understanding of the universe.

As Haas put it: “The holy grail of particle physics is to find the Higgs Boson.”

Haas explained the complex physics behind the particle collisions, and how they are measured by researchers at CERN.  The measurements seemed to indicate the presence of the Higgs Boson, though it’s too early to say with certainty.

Natalia Toro said “we’re all trying to piece together the results, and ask how consistent the results are. It’s only been a few hours since we saw these results, so we’re still trying to process and internalize these results.”

What’s next is to figure out whether the numbers produced in the experiment are consistent with theoretical predictions, Toro said.

In a sense, she added, “this is the beginning of the end of the beginning.” The next question: “If this is real, if this really is a Higgs Boson, what is its structure?”

What’s certain about the discovery, the experts said, is that nothing is quite certain yet. Plenty more research lies ahead at CERN and around the world to determine the significance of today’s announced results.

“It’s a fundamental idea in science that you never trust a result until it’s repeated,” said Haas.

Schuster insisted there will be no “conclusion” to this kind of research, because it will pose ever-deeper questions to be probed: “We want to turn the Higgs into a tool for studying even higher energy phenomena.”

Toro agreed that researchers are still in for “a long, difficult and really exciting search.”

During an audience Q&A session, one online viewer asked: “What will you do if this is not the Higgs Boson?”

“That would be fantastic,” answered Schuster, explaining that it would indicate something missing from the standard model of physics. For physicists probing these deep questions, it’s always more exciting when results don’t quite match predictions.

“Our degree of confidence (in the new results) is high, but it’s not infinite,” said Toro. “That’s why we need to keep investigating.”

So, one audience member asked, when will we know for sure about the Higgs Boson?

As with most questions in quantum physics, it turns out, there’s a lot of uncertainty about that — but plenty of ambition and optimism.

A new BBC documentary about the brilliant minds who cracked secret Nazi codes, thus significantly hastening the end of World War 2, features interviews with several University of Waterloo scientists including IQC Deputy Director Michele Mosca.

Mosca jumped at the opportunity to be part of Code Breakers: Bletchley Park’s Lost Heroes, because it allowed him to highlight an unsung hero, former uWaterloo professor and cryptography pioneer William Tutte. Because Tutte’s contributions to the war effort were kept a secret by order of British security until 1993, his intellectual heroism has been relatively unknown. Tutte died in 2002 without ever having been truly recognized for his achievements.

“I was very happy to speak about Tutte for the documentary,” Mosca said. “In many ways, IQC grew out of the legacy he created at the University of Waterloo.”

You can watch the entire entire fascinating documentary here (and you can see clips of Mosca and other University of Waterloo faculty starting after about the 50-minute mark).


Getting exciTED

This Saturday is TEDxUW, the University of Waterloo’s own version of the hugely influential TED Talks phenomenon, and we here at the Institute for Quantum Computing can’t wait.

Not only is IQC a sponsor and exhibitor (we’ll have a booth in the foyer with some quantum equipment other goodies to show off), but IQC postdoctoral fellow Krister Shalm is one of the speakers during the event.

Regular readers of QuantumFactory will likely remember Krister from some of his earlier outreach exploits — perhaps the Quantum Physics and Harry Potter event, or his various videos explaining entanglement or showing how to make a double rainbow. Krister is passionate about scientific outreach, and he’s extremely good at it too.

We’re not going to divulge what Krister intends to talk about on Saturday, other than to assure you that it’ll be surprising, moving and inspiring. If you can’t attend in person, we strongly suggest you tune in on the livestream to see Krister and all the other great speakers on the lineup.

To those attending: we look forward to seeing you there. Be sure to stop by the IQC booth during the lunch break — we might even let you wrangle some quanta!

They came, they saw, they quantum-encrypted.

More than 40 exceptional high-school students from around the world converged in Waterloo this past summer for QCSYS — the Quantum Cryptography School for Young Students, held at the Institute for Quantum Computing.

By day, they attended in-depth lectures and performed hands-on experiments in quantum cryptography and related facets of quantum information science. By night, they zoomed around in go-karts, played mini-golf and otherwise built connections that will last a lifetime.

We asked them what they thought of the experience, and here’s what they said:

Looking forward to QCSYS 2012!

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:

Earlier this year, we here at QuantumFactory wrote an open letter to the good citizens of Wyoming, none of whom had ever visited the Institute for Quantum Computing’s website, according to Google Analytics. When we depicted visits to the IQC website on a map of the continental U.S., with darker areas representing a higher concentration of visitors, Wyoming appeared as a solitary white rectangle of unquantumness in the American midwest.

This distressed us.

Given the ever-increasing relevance and importance of quantum information science, we fretted that Wyomingites (Wyomingers? Wyomese?) might get left behind in the global quantum revolution.

Well, we are happy to report that we have made small inroads into the great state of Wyoming. An enterprising young student named Logan Wright, who spent the past summer immersed in research at IQC, recently attended a conference in Laramie, Wyoming.  Although the conference had nothing to do with quantum information science (it was about the decidedly non-quantum topic of asphalt), Logan proudly sported an IQC shirt during much of his stay, and spoke about quantum science whenever the opportunity arose.

That’s Logan pictured at right, the IQC logo proudly displayed above his breast pocket, standing in front of a monument to Abraham Lincoln situated at the highest elevation on the cross-country Lincoln Highway.

This, of course, is a baby step.  There’s still a long way to go before the people of Wyoming (of whom there aren’t terribly many, given that it’s the least populous state in the US) are well-versed in superconducting qubits, photonic parametric down-conversion and the like. But we are delighted to have made this introductory foray into Wyoming, and we hope the rectangular white void on our web traffic map will soon take on a lush green tone. Quantum computing in Wyoming? Wynot?