A Pleasant Surprise
Several months ago, I applied to participate in the US-China Young Physicists Forum, an international get-together put on by the American and Chinese Physical Societies. This seemed a good opportunity to give another talk, especially in front of my peers. (It’s always a bit easier when you do not have to speak to those people who have 10+ years experience in the field!) Given the limited availability of spaces, as well as the fact the intended audience was condensed matter physicists, it was unclear to me how my work in model selection would fit in.
However, when I got the news I was accepted, needless to say I was surprised. Of course, a natural second thought was “What am I going to speak about?” Thankfully the task of coming up with a presentation proved easier than I initially thought. The Forum was to take place the two days before the APS March meeting, meaning I got to spend an extra couple of days in the San Antonio area.
Unfortunately, the day I was flying out was also the day a major snowstorm hit the southwest. I ended up spending 9 hours at the Dallas Fort-Worth airport. On the bright side, I met Jinchang Wang, a student at the University of Kentucky who works at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, on the plane. It was nice to have someone to travel with to the Riverwalk area to get to our hotels.
Most of the work presented at the Forum had a focus on condensed matter physics, a subject I know pitifully little about. However, I did learn a few things, such as the phrase “Dirac cone”, which I can now use. I also learned about the emphasis on materials design for high-temperature superconductivity, a fact which was not appreciated much by me. As in the format of the APS March meeting, most of the talks were given in sessions focused on a particular topic. We also had several plenary sessions in which we heard from members of the American and Chinese Physical Societies on their work and the importance of international collaboration. One of the more amusing sessions was on the subject of “Careers Outside of Academia”. We heard from several physicists on the subject of working in industry and what it entails. The main take away message was we should understand the course of our physics careers might take turns we do not quite understand, and we should be open to taking them when they occur.
My Own Presentation
What does the intersection of quantum computation and condensed matter look like? For the longest time I was concerned I would have nothing to talk about. My work on model selection was a bit too abstract and not applicable to the kind of work being done in condensed matter, and I had not been working on anything else, so…..what could I say?
Thankfully I have become aware in recent months of work on the idea of quantum simulation. The essential idea was to recall Feynman’s proposal that quantum physics could be simulated using a computer which operated on quantum-mechanical principles. (In fact, it was this talk which essentially ignited the field of quantum computation.) It turns out a big problem facing materials scientists, pharmaceutical researchers, and chemists is the fact that simulating their systems on a classical computer - even a supercomputer - is a hard task. It is difficult for several reasons, the first of which is that the number of particles in a typical chemical system is large - on the order of Avogardro’s number. These particles interact in complicated ways. Attempting to simulate such a system requires too much memory and compute power. Another reason this is hard is the quantum-mechanical behavior is hard to encode classically. (For instance, systems of fermions must respect the fact the fermionic wavefunction is antisymmetric.) While techniques have been developed to get around these types of problems, it might on the whole be easier to simply build a device which behaved quantum mechanically, and figure out a way to map the system of interest onto that device. Then, you can simply turn some knobs on the device, watch what happens, and figure out what should happen to the system you are interested in.
It was on this subject that I spoke at the Forum. Per the advice of Jonathan Gross, I attempted to record myself giving the talk so as to put a screencast on YouTube. After finishing the talk, I discovered my recording paused a minute into the talk! So this time I had to settle for putting a copy of my slide deck online.
On the whole, I really enjoyed attending this Forum. Not only did I have a chance to learn more about condensed matter physics, but also meet students from China and begin to understand the similarities and differences in our graduate student experiences.