Thomas Ferbel, 1937- 2022

Thomas Ferbel, a UMD visiting professor since 2013, died at his home on Saturday, March 12. He was 84.

Ferbel was born in 1937 in Radom, Poland. During the tumult of World War II, he and his family endured exile in a Russian gulag and later, a camp for displaced persons in Stuttgart. Eventually, Ferbel arrived in New York and received a B.A. in Chemistry from Queens College, CUNY, and his and Ph.D. in Physics from Yale University (where his favorite professor was Bob Gluckstern, later the chancellor of this campus and a professor of physics).Thomas FerbelThomas Ferbel

After a postdoctoral appointment at Yale, Ferbel accepted a faculty position at the University of Rochester in 1965.  While there, he received an Alfred P. Sloan Fellowship, a John S. Guggenheim Fellowship and an Alexander von Humboldt Prize.

He was elected a Fellow of the American Physical Society in 1984, and served as the U.S. program manager for the Large Hadron Collider from 2004-08.

In 2020, Ferbel described both his early years and his life as a physicist as part of the American Institute of Physics Oral History project. The transcript is available here:

New Perspective Blends Quantum and Classical to Understand Quantum Rates of Change

There is nothing permanent except change. This is perhaps never truer than in the fickle and fluctuating world of quantum mechanics.

The quantum world is in constant flux. The properties of quantum particles flit between discrete, quantized states without any possibility of ever being found in an intermediate state. How quantum states change defies normal intuition and remains the topic of active debate—for both scientists and philosophers.

For instance, scientists can design a quantum experiment where they find a particle’s spin—a quantum property that behaves like a magnet—pointing either up or down. No matter how often they perform the experiment they never find the spin pointing in a direction in between. Quantum mechanics is good at describing the probability of finding one or the other state and describing the state as a mix of the two when not being observed, but what actually happens between observations is ambiguous.In the figure, a path winds through an abstract landscape of possible quantum states (gray sheet). At each point along the journey, a quantum measurement could yield many different outcomes (colorful distributions below the sheet). A new theory places strict limits on how quickly (and how slowly) the result of a quantum measurement can change over time depending on the various circumstances of the experiment. For instance, how precisely researchers initially know the value of a measurement affects how quickly the value can change—a less precise value (the wider distribution on the left) can change more quickly (represented by the longer arrow pointing away from its peak) than a more certain value (the narrower peak on the right). Credit: Schuyler NicholsonIn the figure, a path winds through an abstract landscape of possible quantum states (gray sheet). At each point along the journey, a quantum measurement could yield many different outcomes (colorful distributions below the sheet). A new theory places strict limits on how quickly (and how slowly) the result of a quantum measurement can change over time depending on the various circumstances of the experiment. For instance, how precisely researchers initially know the value of a measurement affects how quickly the value can change—a less precise value (the wider distribution on the left) can change more quickly (represented by the longer arrow pointing away from its peak) than a more certain value (the narrower peak on the right). Credit: Schuyler Nicholson

This ambiguity extends to looking at interacting quantum particles as a group and even to explaining how our everyday world can result from these microscopic quantum foundations. The rules governing things like billiards balls and the temperature of a gas look very different from the quantum rules governing things like electron collisions and the energy absorbed or released by a single atom. And there is no known sharp, defining line between these two radically different domains of physical laws. Quantum changes are foundational to our universe and understanding them is becoming increasingly important for practical applications of quantum technologies.

In a paper(link is external) published Feb. 28, 2022 in the journal Physical Review X, Adjunct Assistant Professor Alexey Gorshkov, Assistant Research Scientist Luis Pedro García-Pintos and their colleagues provide a new perspective for investigating quantum changes. They developed a mathematical description that sorts quantum behaviors in a system into two distinct parts. One piece of their description looks like the behavior of a quantum system that isn’t interacting with anything, and the second piece looks like the familiar behavior of a classical system. Using this perspective, the researchers identified limits on how quickly quantum systems can evolve based on their general features, and they better describe how those changes relate to changes in non-quantum situations.

“Large quantum systems cannot in general be simulated on classical computers,” says Gorshkov, who is a Fellow of the Joint Quantum Institute (JQI)  and the Joint Center for Quantum Information and Computer Science (QuICS). “Therefore, understanding something important about how these systems behave—such as our insights into the speed of quantum changes—is always exciting and bound to have applications in quantum technologies.”

There is a long history of researchers investigating quantum changes, with most of the research focused on transitions between quantum states. These states contain all the information about a given quantum system. But two distinct states can be as different as can be mathematically despite being extremely similar in practice. This means the state approach often offers a perspective that's too granular to generate useful experimental insights.

In this new research, the team instead focused on an approach that is more widely applicable in experiments. They didn’t focus on changes of quantum states themselves but rather on observables—the results of quantum measurements, which are what scientists and quantum computer users can actually observe. Observables can be any number of things, such as the momentum of a particle, the total magnetization of a collection of particles or the charge of a quantum battery(link is external) (a promising but still theoretical quantum technology). The researchers also chose to investigate quantum behaviors that are influenced by the outside world—a practical inevitability.

The team looked at general features of a possible quantum system, like how well known its energy is and how precisely the value they want to look at is known beforehand. They used these features to derive mathematical rules about how fast an observable can change for the given conditions.

“The spirit of the whole approach is not to go into the details of what the system may be,” says García-Pintos, who is also a QuICS postdoctoral researcher and is the lead author on the paper. “The approach is completely general. So once you have it, you can ask about a quantum battery, or anything you want, like how fast you're able to flip a qubit.”

This approach is possible because in quantum mechanics, two quantities can be intricately connected with strict mathematical rules about what you can know about them simultaneously (the most famous of these rules is the Heisenberg uncertainty principle for a quantum particle’s location and speed).

In addition to their new limits, they were able to reverse the process to show how to make a system that achieves a desired change quickly.

These new results build upon a previous work(link is external) from García-Pintos and colleagues. They studied classical changes such as how quickly energy and entropy can be exchanged between non-quantum systems. This previous result allowed the researchers to break up different behaviors into quantum-like and non-quantum-like descriptions. With this approach, they have a single theory that spans the extremes of possible outside influence—from enough interaction to allow no quantum behavior to the purely theoretical realms of quantum situations without any external influence.

“It's nice; it's elegant that we have this framework where you can include both of these extremes,” García-Pintos says. “One interesting thing is that when you combine these two bounds, we get something that is tighter, meaning better than the established bound.”

Having the two terms also allowed the researchers to describe the slowest speed at which a particular observable will change based on the details of the relevant situation. In essence, to find the slowest possible change they look at what happens when the two types of effects are completely working against each other. This is the first time that a lower bound has been put on observables in this way.

In the future, these results might provide insights into how to best design quantum computer programs or serve as a starting point for creating even more stringent limits on how quickly specific quantum situations can change.

Original story by Bailey Bedford:

In addition to Gorshkov and García-Pintos, authors on the paper include Schuyler Nicholson, a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University; Jason R. Green, a professor of chemistry at the University of Massachusetts Boston; and Adolfo del Campo, a professor of physics at the University of Luxembourg.

Bennewitz Named Finalist for Hertz Fellowship

Elizabeth Bennewitz, a first-year physics graduate student at JQI and QuICS, has been named a finalist for a 2022 Hertz Fellowship. Out of more than 650 applicants, Bennewitz is one of 45 finalists with a chance of receiving up to $250,000 in support from the Fannie and John Hertz Foundation.

The fellowships provide up to five years of funding for recipients pursuing a Ph.D. The foundation seeks(link is external) individuals who intend to tackle “major, near-term problems facing society.”Elizabeth Bennewitz (credit:  Dan Spencer)Elizabeth Bennewitz (credit: Dan Spencer)

“This whole group of finalists have accomplished so much, and I’m very humbled to be among other people starting their Ph.D.s who are also pursuing big problems in science,” says Bennewitz. “I'm very honored to be part of this finalist group.”

Bennewitz is working with JQI and QuICS Fellow Alexey Gorshkov and is interested in researching large collections of interacting quantum particles—what scientists call many-body quantum systems. These systems are important to understanding cutting-edge physics and quantum computer technologies and can also be the basis of simulations that could provide insights into complex problems in physics, material science and chemistry.

“During my PhD, I want to develop tools and techniques that help harness the computational power of quantum devices in order to simulate these large quantum many-body systems,” Bennewitz says. “I’m excited to be pursuing this research at Maryland because of its commitment to quantum information and quantum computing research as well as its rich collaboration between theorists and experimentalists.”

Bennewitz is just at the beginning of her graduate student career, but she has already started investigating how quantum simulators might be used to understand the interactions of the particles that are responsible for holding the nuclei of atoms together.

“I'm very happy for Elizabeth, and I'm honored and excited that she chose to work with my group,” Gorshkov says.

An announcement of the winning fellows is expected to be made in May.

“I'm very thankful for all the opportunities I had before I got here,” Bennewitz says. “I would not be where I am today without the support and guidance I received from my professors and peers at Bowdoin College and Perimeter.”

Original story by Bailey Bedford:

Kollár Awarded Sloan Research Fellowship

Assistant Professor Alicia Kollár has been awarded a prestigious 2022 Sloan Research Fellowship. This award is given to early career researchers by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to recognize distinguished performance and the potential to make substantial contributions to their field. Each fellowship provides $75,000 to support the fellow’s research over two years.

Kollár will use the fellowship to support her research into creating new synthetic materials that are designed using quantum physics and applied mathematics. These synthetic materials can reveal physics that is difficult or impossible to observe in traditional materials.

“What really excites me about this award is to see support for the more interdisciplinary side of my research,” Kollár says. “My original background is in quantum physics and that's been where my grant support has come from so far, but this Sloan award is focused on looking at questions at the intersection of math and physics.”Alicia Kollár Alicia Kollár

This line of Kollár’s research uses mathematical tools based on the field of graph theory—the study of relationships between objects (in terms of a “graph” made of “vertices” that are connected by “edges”). Researchers use the tools to produce stripped down descriptions of materials in terms of just nodes and their connections—like if there is a connection where electrons can hop between specific points in a material. These descriptions don’t care about the exact distance between atoms or molecules or their precise orientation relative to each other but only about what connections exist between points. This approach is useful for identifying overarching features of different types of materials and is especially helpful in sorting out which material properties are derived from the basic connections being investigated, as opposed to those related to the quirks of a material’s particular components.

This mathematical perspective allows researchers, like Kollár, to design abstract connections that should produce unique properties, but it isn’t easy to then translate the idea on a page into a material that has the exact desired connections. Going from pure math to a real material is much harder than the reverse process of stripping details away from a well-studied material; to do so requires the exhaustive work of recognizing and juggling all the idiosyncrasies of real chemistry. The details of all the possible choices of atoms and how they interact and arrange themselves makes matching the elegant mathematical design to a physical material prohibitively challenging.

So instead Kollár has focused on synthetic materials made of circuits of resonators and superconducting qubits that house traveling microwaves. These circuits easily recreate the flexible connections of graph-theoretic descriptions and can let the complex physics play out, revealing features that current simulations can’t calculate. Essentially, Kollár can custom design the desired connections in a synthetic material and see if the results are interesting instead of going through the hassle of searching for a chemical structure that naturally has the connections every time she wants to do a new experiment. She has even been able to create connections that simulate a negatively curved space—a space impossible to create in the lab because they have “more space” than our normal space.

The insights from these synthetic materials have the potential to reveal new material behaviors and to give researchers a better understanding of how to best use graph-theoretic techniques.

Besides making these synthetic materials she is also working to push the mathematical side of this approach, including identifying new mathematical rules that govern one dimensional graphs that might provide insights into codes used in quantum computing.

 “This Sloan Fellowship will give my group the opportunity to really dig in to optimizing how synthetic materials are made in order to make them as versatile a tool as possible,” Kollár says.

The Sloan fellowships are awarded to untenured teaching faculty who work in the fields of chemistry, computer science, Earth system science, economics, mathematics, neuroscience, physics, or a related field. Candidates are nominated by their colleagues, and then fellows are selected by an independent committee of researchers in the relevant field based on the candidates’ “independent research accomplishments, creativity, and potential to become leaders in the scientific community through their contributions to their field,” according to the Sloan website. Other UMD winners this year are Lei Chen of mathematics and Pratyush Tiwary of chemistry/biochemisty and IPST. 

“Today’s Sloan Research Fellows represent the scientific leaders of tomorrow,” says Adam F. Falk, president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. “As formidable young scholars, they are already shaping the research agenda within their respective fields—and their trailblazing won’t end here.”


Original story by Bailey Bedford: