Having fun with science

By Yu Fei and Xu Haitao | China Daily USA | Updated: 2017-07-17 08:25

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

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.

 Having fun with science

Pan Jianwei shows the products of quantum communication technology in Shanghai. Cai Yang / Xinhua

 Having fun with science

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

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.

Having fun with science

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 still 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, 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 innovation-driven 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."

China Features

(China Daily USA 07/17/2017 page8)

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