HAV­ING FUN WITH SCI­ENCE

Star sci­en­tist Pan Jian­wei finds not only pur­pose but also peace and hap­pi­ness, ex­plor­ing the mind-twist­ing mys­ter­ies of quan­tum physics. and

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - LIFE -

Al­bert Ein­stein may have thought quan­tum en­tan­gle­ment kind of “spooky”, but the world’s first quan­tum satel­lite, launched by China last year, has proved that the phe­nom­e­non of par­ti­cles re­main­ing con­nected so that ac­tions per­formed on one af­fect the others, still ex­ists at a dis­tance of over 1,200 kilo­me­ters.

And Pan Jian­wei, the satel­lite’s lead sci­en­tist, now has a big­ger goal: to test quan­tum en­tan­gle­ment between the Earth and the moon at a dis­tance over 300,000 kilo­me­ters.

Pan is al­ready a sci­ence leg­end.

When his co-au­thored ar­ti­cle about the first quan­tum tele­por­ta­tion was se­lected by aca­demic journal Na­ture as one of the 21 clas­sic pa­pers for physics over the past cen­tury, he was only 29 years old.

When he was ap­pointed a pro­fes­sor of the Univer­sity of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy of China, he was only 31.

When he was elected an aca­demi­cian of the Chi­nese Academy of Sciences, he was only 41 — the youngest aca­demi­cian at that time. When he won first prize in the Na­tional Nat­u­ral Sci­ence awards, China’s high­est sci­ence awards, he was just 45.

Phenom­ena such as quan­tum su­per­po­si­tion and quan­tum en­tan­gle­ment are still not fully un­der­stood, but Pan is shin­ing a light into the weird and won­der­ful world of quan­tum ef­fects.

Bewil­der­ing start

Born on March 11, 1970 in Dongyang city, East China’s Zhe­jiang prov­ince, Pan was an ex­cel­lent stu­dent and a play­ful boy. He went to study at the Univer­sity of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy of China in 1987, where the aca­demic com­pe­ti­tion was fierce.

In 1990, Pan first came into con­tact with quan­tum me­chan­ics, which to­tally con­fused him: “How can there be such a phe­nom­e­non as quan­tum su­per­po­si­tion? (Whereby par­ti­cles ex­ist across all the pos­si­ble states at the same time) It’s like a per­son be­ing in Shang­hai and Bei­jing at the same time.”

In col­lege, he read the col­lected es­says of Ein­stein. “For me, Ein­stein’s es­says are the most pro­found and beau­ti­ful sound of na­ture,” he says.

But Pan al­most failed in the midterm exam on quan­tum me­chan­ics.

Des­per­ately try­ing to fig­ure it out, Pan chose quan­tum me­chan­ics as his re­search di­rec­tion — and he’s en­tan­gled with it.

He re­al­ized all the the­o­ries about quan­tum physics had to be tested in ex­per­i­ments. How­ever, China lacked the con­di­tions to do such ex­per­i­ments in the 1990s.

Af­ter grad­u­a­tion in 1996, still Pan went to Aus­tria to do his PhD at the Univer­sity of Inns­bruck, study­ing with An­ton Zeilinger, a world-renowned quan­tum physi­cist.

“When Pan came to me as a young stu­dent, he was a the­o­ret­i­cal physi­cist. He had not done any ex­per­i­ments be­fore. But I very soon re­al­ized he had the gift for do­ing ex­per­i­ments,” Zeilinger says in an in­ter­view with China Fea­tures. “I as­signed him to do the ex­per­i­ment on tele­por­ta­tion with a group, a very com­pli­cated ex­per­i­ment. He ac­cepted it and im­me­di­ately got started.”

Pan was full of en­thu­si­asm. Soon he was lead­ing the ex­per­i­ment. When there was a prob­lem, he was never dis­cour­aged. He saw it as mo­ti­va­tion to do some­thing that had not been done be­fore, Zeilinger says.

He was op­ti­mistic, al­ways found so­lu­tions for prob­lems, and al­ways wanted to work to find some­thing new, says Zeilinger.

Now he is a global leader in the field of quan­tum physics.

“I’m very proud of him,” says Zeilinger. “I en­cour­aged him to go back to China. Be­cause I could see there was a big op­por­tu­nity for him in China.”

Na­tional in­no­va­tion

Af­ter mas­ter­ing ad­vanced quan­tum tech­nol­ogy, Pan re­turned to the Univer­sity of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy of China in 2001 to es­tab­lish a quan­tum physics and quan­tum in­for­ma­tion lab­o­ra­tory, hop­ing China could quickly catch up with the pace of devel­op­ment in the emerg­ing field of quan­tum tech­nol­ogy.

To make break­throughs in quan­tum in­for­ma­tion re­search, the lab needed sci­en­tists with dif­fer­ent aca­demic back­grounds. So Pan sent his stu­dents to study in Aus­tria, Ger­many, Switzer­land, the United King­dom and the United States to ob­tain the most ad­vanced knowl­edge in spe­cial­ties such as cold atoms, pre­ci­sion mea­sure­ment and mul­ti­pho­ton en­tan­gle­ment ma­nip­u­la­tion.

More than 20 years have passed since Pan was first amazed by the quan­tum world, and the star sci­en­tist and me­dia celebrity says sci­ence should be in the spot­light rather than sci­en­tists.

“Build­ing an in­no­va­tion­driven coun­try re­quires nur­tur­ing the pub­lic’s in­ter­est in sci­ence,” Pan says.

Devel­op­ment driven by in­no­va­tion is one of China’s core strate­gies. And the ex­per­i­ments of the Quan­tum Ex­per­i­ments at Space Scale satel­lite are among the most im­por­tant sci­en­tific re­search.

“We hope to dis­trib­ute en­tan­gle­ment between the Earth and the moon at a dis­tance of some 300,000 kilo­me­ters in the fu­ture,” Pan says. “In the­ory, this bizarre con­nec­tion can ex­ist over any dis­tance, but we think quan­tum en­tan­gle­ment might be af­fected by grav­ity.

“I’m 47 now. I hope we can ac­com­plish that ex­per­i­ment be­fore I re­tire at around 60.”

Pan re­gards de­vel­op­ing quan­tum com­mu­ni­ca­tion and the quan­tum com­puter as his re­spon­si­bil­ity and ex­plor­ing the fun­da­men­tal se­crets of the quan­tum world as his in­ner mo­ti­va­tion.

“I never for­get ques­tions at the deep­est level. I want to con­tinue to ex­per­i­ment,” Pan says.

In ex­per­i­ments, there is in­evitably frus­tra­tion. Pan says they re­quire pa­tience, and the key is to have fun in the process.

“Pur­su­ing the se­crets of the quan­tum physics brings me calm and peace. It’s like walk­ing on the lawn in the spring sun­shine.”

Build­ing an in­no­va­tion-driven coun­try re­quires nur­tur­ing the pub­lic’s in­ter­est in sci­ence.” Pan Jian­wei, sci­en­tist

CAI YANG / XIN­HUA

Pan Jian­wei shows the prod­ucts of quan­tum com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nol­ogy in Shang­hai.

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

A sta­tion in Ngari pre­fec­ture, the Ti­bet au­ton­o­mous re­gion, is con­nected with the quan­tum satel­lite, which was launched by China last year.

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