Quintessentially Caltech

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Quintessentially Caltech
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Caltech: A Personal Perspective

Ahmed Zewail, Nobel Laureate
Linus Pauling Professor of Chemistry and Professor of Physics, Caltech

Zewail provided an overview of his journey from a young child in Egypt to Caltech Nobel laureate. On the day he won the 1999 Nobel Prize in Physics, he recalled, Caltech president David Baltimore came to Zewail's house, but he refused to open the door. "We thought he was paparazzi," Zewail admitted.

Credit: Chris Sabanpan

The End of Disease?

Roger Kornberg, Nobel Laureate
Mrs. George A. Winzer Professor in Medicine, Stanford, School of Medicine

As advanced as we think we are, Kornberg said, scientists today understand less than 1 percent of human biology. Attracting more young people to the field of medical research is therefore critical. "Young scientists are the most likely to discover something," he said. "And numbers matter."

Credit: Chris Sabanpan

The Future of Medicine

David Baltimore, Nobel Laureate
Caltech President Emeritus
Robert Andrews Millikan Professor of Biology, Caltech

The human body can survive a maximum of roughly 120 years, according to Baltimore. He predicted a future in which scientists work to push that envelope, using gene editing "to liberate us from the process of aging" and "to perfect the human body, whatever that means."

Credit: Chris Sabanpan

The Future of Quantum Physics

H. Jeff Kimble, Member, National Academy of Sciences
William L. Valentine Professor and Professor of Physics, Caltech

Kimble's lecture about the future of quantum physics included predictions about quantum computing, quantum simulation, and quantum metrology. "Science helps hold us together and appreciate our sameness rather than our differences," he said.

 

Credit: Chris Sabanpan

Time, Einstein, and the Coolest Stuff in the Universe

William Phillips, Nobel Laureate
Physicist, National Institute of Standards and Technology
Distinguished University Professor, University of Maryland

In a hands-on demonstration, Phillips put on a pair of lab goggles and dunked a variety of items—a rose, a racquetball, several inflated balloons—into a vat of liquid nitrogen to help demonstrate his overall point: that we can create super-accurate atomic clocks by cooling down atoms to astoundingly low temperatures.

Credit: Chris Sabanpan

Inequality and World Economics

A. Michael Spence, Nobel Laureate
Philip H. Knight Professor and Dean, Emeritus
Stanford University Graduate School of Business

Spence discussed a number of global economic trends—including the decline in middle-class jobs and the rise of job-eliminating technologies—in a lecture that considered the disparities between rich and poor. "I'm a little worried about what's going on in the global economy right now and I tend to be an optimist," he said.

Credit: Chris Sabanpan

The Future of Space Exploration

Charles Elachi, NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal Recipient
Caltech Vice President
Director, Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Elachi said he believes we will establish a space station on Mars and that humans will begin visiting the planet by 2030. But, he noted, "It's important that we take care of our own planet. It's the only thing we have, at least for now."

 

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How best to recognize Caltech's own Ahmed Zewail, the Linus Pauling Professor of Chemistry and professor of physics, and director of the Physical Biology Center for Ultrafast Science and Technology, who has served on Caltech's faculty for 40 years? President Thomas F. Rosenbaum had the answer: what he would later call a "quintessentially Caltech conference."

And so, on Friday, February 26, more than 1,000 people gathered to hear exceptional researchers, including 5 Nobel Laureates, from across disciplines consider our future as part of the full-day "Science and Society" conference that honored the career of Zewail, whom Rosenbaum called "a wizard of scientific innovation."

The speakers lectured on a broad spectrum of topics, ranging from space travel to global economic inequality to what happens when five inflated balloons are stuffed into a vat of liquid nitrogen. Their talks were moderated by Nathan Gardels, editor in chief of The WorldPost, and Peter Dervan, the Bren Professor of Chemistry, who noted while introducing Zewail that they have been close friends ever since their early days starting as assistant professors together at Caltech.

"What an extraordinary day," Rosenbaum said at the conclusion of the event, held in Beckman Auditorium. "It's unusual to find a series of talks at this incredibly high level of excellence—intellectually deep and pedagogically engaging."

As many of the speakers pointed out, Zewail's list of accomplishments is staggering. He has authored some 600 articles and 16 books and was sole recipient of the 1999 Nobel Prize for his pioneering work in femtochemistry. In the post-Nobel era, he developed a new field dubbed four-dimensional electron microscopy. He has been active in global affairs, serving as the first U.S. Science Envoy to the Middle East and helping establish the Zewail City of Science and Technology in Cairo, which he hopes to turn into "the Caltech of Egypt."

"Ahmed is a very special kind of scientist," said Fiona Harrison, chair of Caltech's Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy, during the conference's introductory remarks. She noted the "incredible breadth of his research" and cited a colleague's observation that "Ahmed is someone who never has average goals."

Jackie Barton, chair of Caltech's Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, praised Caltech for taking a chance on Zewail four decades ago, when he was a young scientist. "He had this vision," she said. "The vision was to watch the dynamics of chemical reactions, to watch reactions happening on a faster and faster time scale, indeed to watch the making and breaking of chemical bonds."

She added: "He has this intuitive sense of the dynamical motions of atoms and molecules, their coherence, or lack thereof, as the case may be. And then he has this extraordinary attention to every detail, so that he's able to meld together theory and experiment and understand that dance, that choreography of atoms and molecules as they carry out a reaction."

To further honor Zewail, Caltech presented him with a rare book of Benjamin Franklin's speeches and scientific research—on lightning rods and the aurora borealis, among other phenomena—that is signed by Rosenbaum and all of Caltech's former presidents. Caltech Provost Ed Stolper noted that it is the only book authored by Franklin that was published during his lifetime.

As Stolper noted in his introductory remarks, the gift is a fitting one for Zewail, who has come to embody the ideal of Caltech, a place "where scientists and engineers are limited only by their imagination." He added Ahmed is one of the few scientists that, like Benjamin Franklin and Linus Pauling, not only excelled in science but has made a broader impact on society through his writings and actions.

Written by Alex Roth

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Two Named Air Force Young Investigators

Venkat Chandrasekaran and Thomas Vidick have received grants from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research through its Young Investigator Research Program (YIP). The award, given to scientists and engineers who have received their PhD in the last five years, is intended to foster creative research in science and engineering areas of interest to the Air Force.

Chandrasekaran is an assistant professor of computing and mathematical sciences and electrical engineering in the Division of Engineering and Applied Science. His grant will be used for a YIP project titled "Latent Variable Graphical Modeling for High-Dimensional Data Analysis."

"The analysis of massive datasets arises in a range of contemporary problem domains throughout science and technology," Chandrasekaran says. "A central objective in data analysis is to learn simple or 'concise' models that characterize the statistical correlations among large collections of variables. Concisely specified models provide useful interpretations of the relationships underlying a set of variables. However, unobserved phenomena complicate this task significantly because these extraneous variables induce relationships among the observed variables that are complex to describe. The objective of this research project supported by the Air Force is to develop principled and computationally tractable methods for statistical modeling that account for the effects of unobserved phenomena."

Vidick is an assistant professor of computing and mathematical sciences in the Division of Engineering and Applied Science. His YIP project is titled "Towards a secure quantum network."

"Developing computing devices based on the laws of quantum mechanics will dramatically upend existing communication networks in two major ways," Vidick says. "First, by providing new classes of attacks on existing cryptosystems. Second, by turning formerly impossible cryptographic tasks into game-changing possibilities. My research aims to address the following challenge: What are the protocols and notions of security that will allow efficient and secure interactions in the emerging network of classical and quantum devices?"

"I think it's fantastic that the Air Force Office of Scientific Research is recognizing the urgency of theoretical research in quantum communications and cryptography," he says. "I am honored my research has been selected for the award."

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Two assistant professors have received grants from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research through its Young Investigator Research Program.

Ten Years of DNA Origami

On March 16, 2006, Research Professor of Bioengineering, Computing and Mathematical Sciences, and Computation and Neural Systems Paul Rothemund (BS '94) published a paper in Nature detailing his new method for folding DNA into shapes and patterns on the scale of a few nanometers. This marked a turning point in DNA nanotechnology, enabling precise control over designed molecular structures. Ten years later, the field has grown considerably. On March 14–16, 2016, the Division of Engineering and Applied Science will hold a symposium titled "Ten Years of DNA Origami" to honor Rothemund's contribution to the field, to survey the spectrum of research it has inspired, and to take a look at what is to come.

"Think about DNA origami as a general-purpose pegboard for organizing nanometer-sized things," Rothemund says. "Each DNA origami has 200 different attachment points, to which one can attach proteins, or tiny gold balls, or fluorescent molecules, or electrically conductive carbon nanotubes. There is no other way to juxtapose combinations of these elements into complex arrangements, and this is what researchers around the world, from biologists to physicists, are using DNA origami for. Biologists use DNA origami to position different protein enzymes next to each other, so that one enzyme can hand off its products to the next enzyme in a sort of nanoscale assembly line. Others are organizing electronic components in an attempt to make nanocircuits."

The symposium was organized by Erik Winfree, professor of computer science, computation and neural systems, and bioengineering. "This amazing Caltech invention has had a remarkable impact in molecular nanotechnology research," he says.

Talks will cover DNA nanotechnology, self-assembly and pattern formation, computational algorithms and software for origami design and analysis, applications in biology and biomedicine, applications in quantum physics, molecular motors and mechanical devices, biophysics and thermodynamics and kinetics, and more. The talks are open to the public, but attendees must first register online.

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On March 14–16, Caltech will hold a symposium to look back on achievements in the field of DNA origami and to take a look at what is to come.

Caltech Bioethics Forum: HeLa Cells in the Lab

Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951 and, ever since, samples of her uniquely immortal cancerous cells have been used in scientific research, sparking great leaps in medical knowledge.

But the cells—taken without her knowledge or consent—have also fueled controversy and called into question the ethical underpinnings of the research they made possible. Her story, made famous in the book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by science writer Rebecca Skloot, underscores the continuing need—65 years after her death—for society to find a way to balance the advancement of medical knowledge with the protection of individual rights.

At a February 22 bioethics forum at Baxter Lecture Hall, Caltech president Thomas F. Rosenbaum introduced a panel of Caltech faculty that examined the ethics of using Lacks's cells—known as HeLa cells—along with issues of privacy, informed consent, and who profits from the technologies her cells engendered. Caltech trustee Ronald L. Olson moderated the panel of Caltech faculty, which featured David Baltimore, President Emeritus and the Robert Andrews Millikan Professor of Biology; Ellen Rothenberg, the Albert Billings Ruddock Professor of Biology; Barbara J. Wold, the Bren Professor of Molecular Biology; and Changhuei Yang, professor of electrical engineering, bioengineering, and medical engineering.

The evening event revisited a topic that incoming freshmen had tackled earlier in the academic year in roundtable discussions of the book, which the students had been asked to read prior to their arrival at Caltech.

"HeLa cells were a miracle," said Baltimore, who has used them in his research since 1962. After noting their incalculable value—and how rare it was to have found cells that underwent the specific mutations that conferred their ability to divide indefinitely in culture—he brought the discussion back to the question of who owns the cells.

"So it seems to me the question is, what rights does she have as a consequence of this rare, basically random event, that made her cells different than anybody else's cells? . . . We are the product of a genetic lottery. What rights do we get as a consequence of our particular genes? Everyone else around us has a representation of those same genes, but not identical. What is ownership in this case?"

Rothenberg discussed how the cells have enabled key advances in molecular biology, stem cell research, and immunology—advances that would have been considered "complete science fiction fantasy" when Lacks was alive. Because the innovations her cells made possible would have been impossible to foresee, questions naturally arise as to whether Lacks could have understood the ramifications of her consent, had it been sought.

The structure of DNA was only discovered two years after Lacks' death, and the revolution in molecular biology that followed completely transformed the possibilities for use of any human cells that were able to grow in culture. "How could she possibly have given informed consent? In the case of a rapidly advancing field like molecular biology, there's no way she could have been asked at that time what she was really consenting to," Rothenberg said.

When the conversation returned to ownership of a patient's cells, and who should profit from their use, Rothenberg pointed out that simply saying the patient owns them, period, could generate a raft of unintended consequences. For example, medical institutions might, for legal liability reasons, refuse to accept certain tissue samples, hampering the delivery of personalized medicine to patients. Equally disturbing, she says, would be the possibility that the commercially valuable products of cells might incentivize individuals to view a cancer-patient relative "as a possible cash cow, and sell their tissues in the hopes of winning the lottery. . . . You definitely don't want people to be in a position where they or their family members want to sell parts of their body because they're starving."

Wold said her research seldom involves HeLa cells but, she added, "that doesn't mean I'm not an avid consumer of what's been learned over 60 years of studying them." She hailed the "beautiful science" the cells have engendered, but lamented the scientific community's repeated failings in communicating with and involving the Lacks family over the years as to how the cells were being used and what was being learned from them. For example, she said, teams of researchers in Germany and at the University of Washington sequenced and published the HeLa genome in 2013 and made the information freely available worldwide. In doing so, however, they made portions of the family's genome public—without thinking to seek the family's approval or tell the family what was happening. The research community "quickly recognized this as a catastrophe," said Wold, prompting the creation of a board that includes Lacks family members and now regulates access to the data.

Such ethical considerations continued during the event's Q&A, which stirred discussion about such critical questions as how to address medical privacy when one family member's consent might make public another family member's information, and whether proposed consent rules might jeopardize access to older cell lines that were obtained prior to a stricter consent regime.

Yang, whose lab has used HeLa cells since 2008, said he only recently learned about the ethical concerns around their provenance, adding, "Honestly I was quite surprised to find there were all these [controversies]. . . . As an outsider to American culture—I actually grew up in Singapore—my instinct would be that the DNA is a common good, not personal property. If my cells would be useful for research, I would gladly give them up without any expectations."

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Caltech faculty examine the ethics of using Henrietta Lacks’s cells—covering issues of privacy, informed consent, and who profits from the technologies her cells engendered.

Caltech Names Six Distinguished Alumni

Caltech has announced that Eric Betzig (BS '83), Janet C. Campagna (MS '85), Neil Gehrels (PhD '82), Carl V. Larson (BS '52), Thomas J. "Tim" Litle IV (BS '62), and Ellen D. Williams (PhD '82) are this year's recipients of the Distinguished Alumni Award.

First presented in 1966, the award is the highest honor the Institute bestows upon its graduates. It is awarded in recognition of a particular achievement of noteworthy value, a series of such achievements, or a career of noteworthy accomplishment. Presentation of the awards will be given on Saturday, May 21, 2016, as part of Caltech's Seminar Day.

The 2016 Distinguished Alumni Award recipients are

Eric Betzig (BS '83, Physics)

Physicist; Group Leader, Janelia Research Campus, Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Betzig is being recognized for his groundbreaking contributions to microscopy. He pioneered a method known as single-molecule microscopy, or "nanoscopy," which allows cellular structures at the nanoscale to be observed using optical microscopy. For the work, he shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2014.

Janet C. Campagna (MS '85, Social Science)

CEO, QS Investors

Campagna is being recognized for her contributions to quantitative investment and for her leadership in the financial industry. Campagna is the founder of QS Investors, LLC, a leading customized solutions and global quantitative equities provider. She is responsible for all business, strategic, and investment decisions within QS Investors. 

Neil Gehrels (PhD '82, Physics)

Chief of the Astroparticle Physics Laboratory, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

Gehrels is being recognized for his scientific leadership in the study of gamma ray bursts as well as for his significant contributions to high-energy astrophysics, infrared astronomy, and instrument development.

Carl V. Larson (BS '52, Mechanical Engineering)

Larson is being recognized for his accomplished career in the electronics industry. Over the course of three decades, Larson has held numerous and diverse leadership roles in fields ranging from engineering to marketing. He is also being celebrated for his sustained commitment to the research, students, and alumni of Caltech.

Thomas J. "Tim" Litle IV  (BS '62, Engineering and Applied Science)

Founder and Chairman, Litle & Co.

Litle is being recognized for his revolutionary contributions to commerce. Through innovations such as the presorted mail program he developed for the U.S. Postal Service and the three-digit security codes on credit cards, Litle has made global business more efficient and secure.

Ellen D. Williams (PhD '82, Chemistry)

Director, Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E)

Williams is being recognized for her sustained record of innovation and achievement in the area of structural surface physics. She founded the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center at the University of Maryland and was the chief scientist for BP. She now serves as director of the Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA-E) in the U.S. Department of Energy.

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The awardees range from the class of 1952 to the class of 1983, across a wide range of divisions.

Caltech Researcher Named 2016 Sloan Fellow

Caltech's Venkat Chandrasekaran, assistant professor of computing and mathematical sciences and electrical engineering in the Division of Engineering and Applied Science, has been named a 2016 Sloan Research Fellow. The fellowships, awarded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, honor "early-career scientists and scholars whose achievements and potential identify them as rising stars, the next generation of scientific leaders." According to the foundation, "Candidates must be nominated by their peers, and winning fellows are selected by an independent panel of senior scholars on the basis of a candidate's independent research accomplishments, creativity, and potential to become a leader in his or her field." This year, 126 fellows were chosen.

Chandrasekaran, who joined the Caltech faculty in 2012, was selected for his work in the field of mathematical optimization. "Broadly, optimization is about choosing the best element from a set of feasible alternatives. For instance, if you work in jet-engine design, you have certain constraints in the amount of material you can use, the weight of these materials, aerodynamic issues, etc. But then you want to be able to design your wings and so on in such a way that you maximize, for example, how fast you are able to go," he says. "I'm interested in optimization problems arising in data analysis. We are able to gather massive amounts of data, but how can we optimally separate useful information from noise?"

Sloan Fellows receive a $55,000 award to further their research in any way they see fit, allowing researchers to work on projects that they might not be able to pursue with more restrictive funding sources. "I think one advantage of fellowships like this is that they are, in some sense, no strings attached. You have the flexibility to use it to pursue high-risk ideas," says Chandrasekaran, who is planning to use the funding to work on the optimization of algorithm selection.

"If a practitioner wants to solve a specific problem in their field, they often need to understand the details of an algorithm," he explains. "If you want to drive from point A to B in a car, you only need to know how to operate a car, not the mechanics of how the car works. We're not yet in the same place with algorithms," he explains. "Right now if a practitioner asks for a recommendation for an algorithm with reliable and predictable performance, computer scientists are often only able to respond with, 'Try all of them and see what works for you.' I'd like to use mathematical optimization to provide algorithmic tools that are like cars; you should not need to know the inner workings of these algorithms to be able to employ them reliably, easily, and efficiently."

Presented annually since 1955 by the Sloan Foundation, the fellowships are awarded in chemistry, computer science, economics, mathematics, evolutionary and computational molecular biology, neuroscience, and physics. In addition to Chandrasekaran, this year's class of Sloan Fellows also includes seven Caltech alumni: William Chueh (BS '05, MS '06, PhD '11), Jillian Dempsey (PhD '11), Hernan Garcia (PhD '11), Elaine Hsiao (PhD '13), Alex Miller (PhD '11), Surjeet Rajendran (BS '04), and Ke Xu (PhD '09).

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Assistant Professor Venkat Chandrasekaran has received a 2016 Sloan Fellowship for his work in mathematical optimization.

Two from Caltech Elected to National Academy of Engineering

Two members of the Caltech community—professor Paul Dimotakis (BS '68, physics; MS '69, aeronautics; PhD '73, applied physics) and JPL scientist Adam Steltzner (MS '91, applied mechanics)—have been elected to the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), an honor considered among the highest professional distinctions awarded to an engineer. The academy welcomed 80 new members and 22 foreign members this year. In addition to Dimotakis and Steltzner, the new class of members includes five alumni, Emily A. Carter (PhD '87, chemistry), Arati Prabhakar (MS '80, electrical engineering; PhD '85, applied physics), Gabriel M. Rebeiz (MS '83, PhD '88, electrical engineering), Yongkui Sun (PhD '90, chemistry), and Stephen M. Trimberger (BS '77, engineering and applied science; PhD '83, computer science).

Paul Dimotakis is the John K. Northrop Professor of Aeronautics and professor of applied physics in the Division of Engineering and Applied Science, and a senior research scientist at JPL. He was recognized by the NAE for his contributions to the fluid mechanics of jet propulsion and other processes involving turbulence, mixing, and transport. He has most recently been conducting experimental, theoretical, and numerical investigations in supersonic-propulsion flows. Dimotakis served as JPL's chief technologist from 2006 to 2011 and has continued collaborating with JPL to estimate the vertical distribution of CO2 throughout the atmosphere using spaceborne instruments. He recently co-led a study between the Caltech campus, JPL, and others, with support by the Keck Institute for Space Studies, on the possibility of bringing a small asteroid into orbit around Earth or the moon.

Adam Steltzner is the chief engineer for the Mars 2020 project and the manager of the Planetary Entry, Descent, and Landing and Small Body Access Office at JPL. Steltzner was recognized for his work in the development of the Mars Curiosity rover's entry, descent, and landing system, and for contributions to the control of parachute dynamics. In addition to working on Curiosity, he has also contributed to the Galileo, Cassini, Mars Pathfinder, and Mars Exploration Rover missions.

The new members will be formally inducted at a ceremony during the NAE's Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., on October 9, 2016.

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Monday, February 29, 2016

Modeling molecules at the microscale

Tiny Diatoms Boast Enormous Strength

Diatoms are single-celled algae organisms, around 30 to 100 millionths of a meter in diameter, that are ubiquitous throughout the oceans. These creatures are encased within a hard shell shaped like a wide, flattened cylinder—like a tambourine—that is made of silica. Researchers in the lab of Julia Greer, professor of materials science and mechanics in Caltech's Division of Engineering and Applied Science, have recently found that these shells have the highest specific strength—the strength at which a structure breaks with respect to its density—of any known biological material, including bone, antlers, and teeth. The findings have been published in the February 9 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

The shell, or frustule, of a diatom is porous, perforated by a honeycomb-like pattern of holes. There are several theories about the function of these intricate shell designs, including that they evolved to control fluid flow, for example, or to help the organisms acquire nutrients. Greer and her group propose that the holes also act as stress concentrators—"flaws" in the material that can suppress the propagation of cracks, which would lead to failure of the entire organism.

"Silica is a strong but brittle material. For example, when you drop a piece of glass, it shatters," says Greer. "But architecting this material into the complex design of these diatom shells actually creates a structure that is resilient against damage. The presence of the holes delocalizes the concentrations of stress on the structure."

The group plans to use design principles from diatoms to create resilient, bioinspired artificial structures.

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Researchers have discovered that tiny diatom shells have the highest specific strength of any biological material.

Contemplating a Quantum Future

Last week, Caltech's Institute for Quantum Information and Matter (IQIM) honored the legacy and contributions of theoretical physicist Richard Feynman, marking 50 years since he received the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on quantum electrodynamics. Feynman spent much of his career working to understand better the laws and implications of quantum mechanics—the rules that dictate the bizarre behavior of matter at the scale of individual atoms and particles. He foresaw how quantum mechanics could lead to the development of nanotechnology and even a quantum computer that could solve problems that would be intractable for conventional computers. Over two days, IQIM hosted two events to celebrate that vision by exploring the research and development currently underway at what might be called the quantum frontier.

The first event, "One Entangled Evening," aimed to delight, educate, and inspire an audience not only of scientists and engineers but also of artists, entertainers, and members of the public. Among the highlights of the evening were a video tribute to Feynman by Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates; a song and dance about quantum mechanics performed by artist Gia Mora and John Preskill, the Richard P. Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at Caltech and director of IQIM; and a screening of a short video titled Anyone Can Quantum, narrated by actor Keanu Reeves and featuring actor Paul Rudd playing a game of "quantum chess" with renowned physicist Stephen Hawking.

The following day, IQIM hosted an all-day Quantum Summit that brought together scientists and engineers from academia and industry to discuss progress in the quantum realm.

One session featured a panel discussion about the future of quantum computers with researchers from Google, HP Laboratories, IBM, Intel, the Institute for Quantum Computing, and Microsoft. Moderated by Jennifer Ouellette, senior science editor at Gizmodo.com, the discussion started with brief descriptions of the approach that each company or institute is taking in the quest for a quantum computer as well as answers to the questions, "Why quantum computing, and why now?"

Ray Beausoleil leads the Large-Scale Integrated Photonics research group at HP Laboratories. His team is currently trying to put thousands of nonlinear optical devices on a chip and to get them interacting coherently—in a way that their quantum properties are not disturbed by outside noise. As for his answer to the "Why quantum now?" question, "If you're a big computer company, you're looking at quantum computing because you know that, depending on your point of view … Moore's Law is in danger of being over," he explained. "So we have to start thinking more energetically about what computing will look like in 10 to 20 years."

"People have been saying that Moore's Law was over since about the time Richard Feynman proposed the quantum computer," countered Jim Clarke, manager of quantum hardware and novel memory research at Intel. Intel was cofounded by Gordon Moore (PhD '54), the originator of Moore's Law—the 1965 prediction that the amount of processing power, based on the number of transistors in a circuit, will double about every two years. "My take is Moore's Law is not ending," Clarke continued. "In fact, I think we need at least a couple more generations of Moore's Law just to be able to enable a large-scale quantum computer."

IBM Fellow Charles Bennett said that IBM is working to get a small number of superconducting qubits to work coherently and to understand what those qubits are doing. "That is a tremendous task, and we're putting a lot of effort into that," he said.

Parsa Bonderson, a theoretical physicist from Microsoft's Station Q at UC Santa Barbara, said that while Microsoft is keeping its eyes on a number of approaches, its main focus is on topological quantum computing, an idea devised in the 1990s by Alexei Kitaev, now the Ronald and Maxine Linde Professor of Theoretical Physics and Mathematics at Caltech. The approach attempts to develop much more stable qubits, known as topological qubits, that would be less sensitive to the disturbances that destroy the quantum properties of all other qubits. (Jason Alicea, professor of theoretical physics at Caltech, provided an overview of topological quantum computing in an earlier session at the summit.)

And why now? Bonderson answered, "We're starting to really feel like this could be within reach this time."

Google, for one, seems to agree. The company made headlines in 2013 when it bought a system from D-Wave Systems, a startup company that has built an early prototype of a limited quantum computer. Google's main goal, noted its director of engineering Hartmut Neven, is "to get a practical quantum computer as quickly as we can."

What can be done with a quantum computer? Krysta Svore, a senior researcher in Microsoft's Quantum Architectures and Computation Group, works to address that question and presented a number of potential answers in a morning session at the summit. Some of the ideas that reach beyond improving scientists' ability to study quantum systems include improving machine learning and simulating chemicals and chemical reactions more precisely in order to facilitate drug design and improving machine learning.

Ouellette asked the panelists what they thought might be possible with a small quantum computer, perhaps with 100 qubits.

Ray Laflamme, executive director of the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo, in Ontario, said he would use such a computer to help train students, postdocs, and young faculty "to think quantumly."

Intel's Clarke spoke about modeling the dynamics of molecules, including ozone and carbon dioxide, which are just out of reach of conventional computers. "Well, that's climate change, so that resonates with a lot of people," he said. "If you go even further, you get into the protein space. … Misfolded proteins are the genesis of so many diseases—cancer, multiple sclerosis, and others."

Microsoft's Bonderson suggested that a small quantum computer might be useful for designing a better quantum computer. And Bennett reminded everyone that the quantum computer would likely do more than simply provide more processing power. "It's not going to be the solution to the supposed problem of the demise of Moore's Law. It's going to change things in a way that is more interesting," he said. "It's like saying if we've got radio, how much better does that make things than if we just had the telegraph or we just had post offices?"

Beausoleil added that he would not let himself try to determine how the quantum computer should be used. Instead, he said, "I'd put it online as rapidly as possible and let people who are not physicists start experimenting."

And Google's Neven talked about the potential applications of a full-fledged quantum computer in the artificial intelligence (AI) field. Noting that formulating fundamental laws of physics is extremely difficult and something that only a tiny fraction of people can do, he said, "The question is: Is this really a task that, as physics develops further, remains a human task? Or is this, rather, a task that we should hand over to machines?"

He said that he believed that forms of artificial intelligence could prove to be better physicists and that quantum computing would be involved. "I would dare to conjecture that the most creative systems we will ever see will be quantum AI systems," he said.

During other sessions at the summit, John Martinis of Google spoke about quantum simulation with superconducting qubits; Oskar Painter, the John G. Braun Professor of Applied Physics at Caltech, presented on acoustic quantum transducers; and David Wineland, a Nobel laureate from National Institute of Standards and Technology, described the latest thinking on entangled trapped ions.

IQIM, which spans Caltech's Divisions of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy and Engineering and Applied Science, is a Physics Frontiers Center supported by the National Science Foundation and by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. 

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Kimm Fesenmaier
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Contemplating a Quantum Future
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IQIM hosted a Quantum Summit that brought scientists and engineers together to discuss progress in the quantum realm.

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