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Harvard Launches Quantum Science Initiative

Science Center
Science Center

Harvard launched the Harvard Quantum Initiative last Wednesday, aiming to foster interdisciplinary collaboration in pioneering quantum methods of computing and sensing.

Initiative co-directors Evelyn Hu, professor of applied physics and electrical engineering, and physics professors John M. Doyle and Mikhail D. Lukin said they believe modern technology is on the cusp of a quantum revolution — one that will bring together people from diverse academic and industry backgrounds, including physics, chemistry, and engineering.

Quantum mechanics, the study of atoms and subatomic particles, enables scientists to more precisely determine the state of particles within an atom. It has broad applications in a variety of fields, ranging from metrology, the study of measurement, to computing, to biomedical diagnostics.

Hu said the idea to create the initiative has been nearly a decade in the making and was inspired by the formation of similar research groups such as Harvard’s Center for Integrated Quantum Materials and MIT’s Center for Ultracold Atoms.

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“We can control information and the way we send information, and do it so much more efficiently and differently than we’re used to doing,” Hu said. By translating the theoretical science of quantum mechanics into engineering actual devices, she said the initiative could catalyze a “tremendous leap forward.”

Doyle said in the past decade, quantum science has developed to the point where researchers can manipulate the “spins” of individual particles in an almost “ideal” manner, the way undergraduates learn about quantum phenomena in their theoretical courses. This precise level of control has powerful implications for the future of quantum computing.

“There are really important problems, some of them very easy to describe, that are incredibly difficult to compute,” Doyle said. “But if you take these spins and hook them up in the right way, you can actually solve those kinds of problems.”

Lukin said one of the initiative's main objectives is to “provide a platform for partnering between academia and industry and the government.” In particular, he said he is eager to work closely with scientists conducting research in government laboratories, which have historically been the sites of great innovation.

Doyle said this level of collaboration, which will allow scientists in different sectors to pool their knowledge and resources, is “unprecedented.”

“There is no equivalent anywhere where we all have this vision about how we can make the working together of different parts of the entire system — the government labs, the companies — work better than it has in the past,” he said.

“We’re really trying to create something new, where things work better and we actually turn some of this science into engineering and products that are useful,” Doyle added.

Hu said the long-term success of the initiative relies on the contributions and commitment of every member to a shared vision. To achieve this, Hu said one of the Initiative’s top priorities — especially in its early stages — is to make all members of the community feel welcome.

All three professors said they were eager to find novel ways to integrate the ideas of quantum mechanics and engineering into undergraduate education. Hu suggested potentially establishing a quantum mechanics track under an existing concentration or creating a new concentration altogether, as well as designing a General Education course that could introduce the concepts explored by faculty at the initiative.

Hu said she believes the initiative capitalizes on the diverse expertise of faculty members at Harvard and partner institutions like MIT, and draws on the willingness to collaborate and innovate that “make[s] Harvard Harvard.”

“We think we’re at that moment of fission, that moment of mitosis, that we need to be different. We need to be separate. We need to develop our own species, or subspecies,” Hu said.

—Staff writer Amy L. Jia can be reached at amy.jia@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmyLJia.

—Staff writer Sanjana L. Narayanan can be reached at sanjana.narayanan@thecrimson.com.

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