The quantum age comes a giant step closer

Jacob Friis Sherson, who has just been awarded a Lundbeck Foundation Fellowship, succeeded in trapping a cloud of atoms and making the world’s coldest crystal. He thereby created a quantum simulator that is a major step in the development of potent quantum computers and superconductors.

2013.11.18 | Mette Helm

Jacob Sherson has just been awarded a Lundbeck Foundation Fellowship valued at DKK 10 million for his research into the mystical world of atoms. (Photo: Lundbeck Foundation)

In the basement at Aarhus University, things go on that would make physics legends like Bohr, Einstein and Schrödinger turn green with envy.

It was here that Jacob Sherson succeeded in trapping a cloud of atoms by cooling them to absolute zero and getting the atoms to lie shoulder to shoulder like eggs in an egg tray. This took place in close collaboration with partners at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics (MPQ) in Munich, Germany.

The Lundbeck Foundation has just granted Assistant Professor Sherson DKK 10 million, partly to make him and his research team even wiser as regards the mystical world of atoms, and partly to enable them to investigate what this new knowledge can be used for.

Trapping several atoms at a time

This field of research led to the Nobel Prize in Physics 2012, where quantum physicists succeeded in manipulating individual atoms. Assistant Professor Sherson has gone one step further and is trying to trap several atoms at a time.

This is a major step towards developing a potent quantum computer that will be capable of solving the world’s greatest scientific problems.

“Three things are required to make a quantum computer, and we’ve now reached our target for the first two. We’re now facing the last challenge,” says Assistant Professor Sherson, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Aarhus University.

Computer players will break the code to the quantum computer

To break the code to the final challenge, the researchers embarked on an unconventional initiative. They developed a computer game where players have to move an atom resembling a glass of water to another atom.

“There’s no computer in the world that can beat the ability of humans to recognise patterns. Our hope is that the game will reveal one or more people who can move an atom from one place to another without any spills. The challenge lies in translating the players’ movements in the virtual world to a real movement in the physical world, and getting our experiment in the quantum simulator to come together,” says Assistant Professor Sherson.

If this succeeds, it could pave the way towards developing more efficient quantum computers, which – according to Assistant Professor Sherson – would be most welcome.

“We’ve got used to the idea that our computers are getting smaller, faster and smarter all the time, but we’re about to reach the pain threshold. If this wild development continues, it’ll soon be high time to wave goodbye to the information society and say hello to the quantum society. This is the road we’re now seriously embarking on,” says Assistant Professor Sherson.

Read more (in Danish only) about the computer game and try it yourself.

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