Quantum Leaps and Bounds

New center leverages cross-disciplinary expertise in manipulating quantum materials

Nov 22 2019 | By Jesse Adams | Photo Credit: Asiya Khaki

The latest chapter in Columbia’s distinguished history advancing quantum physics unfolded Monday as the university joined forces with the Flatiron Institute and Germany’s Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science to establish the Max Planck - New York City Center for Nonequilibrium Quantum Phenomena. In a special signing ceremony at Low Library, the newly formed center kicked off a multi-day symposium and workshop exploring the enormous promise of manipulating quantum materials out of their stable states to form customizable designer materials with desirable properties like ferroelectricity and superconductivity.

“The 21st century has seen the launch of a second quantum revolution,” said G. Michael Purdy, the university’s executive vice president for research. “Quantum information, quantum computing, and quantum matter are becoming real technical possibilities, moving beyond the research arena into the domain of practical applications.”

To turn those possibilities into reality, the center will leverage the unique resources and expertise of each institution: Combining Columbia’s world-class capabilities in areas such as materials synthesis and optics with the Flatiron Institute’s unparalleled theoretical and computational capabilities and the Max Planck Society’s top-notch facilities and instrumentation. Joint research appointments for faculty, postdocs, and graduate students will foster forward-thinking collaborations spanning disciplines, research interests and continents.

The Center’s synthesis of these different scientific approaches and complementary spheres of expertise will move us closer to revolutionary materials and devices that are tunable, controllable, and reconfigurable.

Mary C. Boyce
Dean of Columbia Engineering

“This is really an incredibly cross-disciplinary collaboration,” said Columbia Engineering Dean Mary C. Boyce, noting that cutting-edge quantum research unites physicists, chemists, mechanical engineers, and materials scientists. "The Center’s synthesis of these different scientific approaches and complementary spheres of expertise will move us closer to revolutionary materials and devices that are tunable, controllable, and reconfigurable."

For Columbia to partner with the Max Planck Society is historically apropos, explained Andy Millis, professor of physics and codirector of the Flatiron Institute’s Center for Computational Quantum Physics. Foundational to the story of quantum science in the United States is a seminal set of talks that Planck delivered on campus over a century ago as part of the still ongoing Ernest Kempton Adams (EE1897 AM1898) Lecture series. Columbia scientists and engineers have played a substantial role in the field ever since, contributing to advances in atomic clocks, masers, lasers and, more recently, areas like quantum optics, experimental quantum and nonlinear photonics, and chip-based nanophotonics.

The Low Library gathering incorporated this year’s Adams Lecture, with Immanuel Bloch, managing director of the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics and a professor of physics at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. In his talk, Bloch broke down his work in quantum simulation and quantum lattice microscopy. Later, before a champagne toast, Purdy, Boyce and Interim Dean of Arts and Sciences Maya Tolstoy joined Ferdi Schuth of the Max Planck Society and James Simons, chairman of the Flatiron Institute’s parent organization the Simons Foundation, to officially sign the new center into being.

“This exceptional intellectual opportunity and the quality of each institution makes the partnership itself exceptional. We are poised for leadership and innovation in this rapidly changing discipline,” said Peter de Menocal, Dean of Science of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “If the past is a guide to our collective future, we will do great things together.”

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