Last day of chats! :(
Rathfarnham Parish National School, Dublin (1988 – 1996); The High School, Dublin (1996 – 2002)
Theoretical Physics in Trinity College Dublin, 2002 – 2006.
Ultracold Quantum Gases Group, University College Cork, Ireland.
Open Quantum Systems and Entanglement Group, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh.
Favourite thing to do in my job: I love getting really stuck into a problem, being able to hack away at something for long periods of time. When you figure something out that you’ve been frustrated with for a week (or six months!), it’s an amazing feeling.
I’m a quantum information theorist, which means I use mathematics to understand the behaviour of “ultracold” atoms and figure out how to harness the weirdness of quantum systems to make future computers and technology.
A normal computer, like the one I’m typing on, uses information stored as zeros and ones. While this doesn’t make sense for us, a computer can operate on logical rules like “If this information is zero, make this other information one”. Your computer, your phone, your dvd player and lots of other everyday things all operate like this, shuffling ones and zeros back and forth. This information has to be stored physically, like a switch being on (1) or off (0).
When we try to store information on small numbers of atoms (or even single atoms!), then the everyday laws of physics don’t work anymore. Instead, we use Quantum Physics, the science of the very tiny. Quantum physics allows for things that seem like nonsense to us, like an atom being in two places at once. We can use these to do things on a Quantum Computer or with Quantum Information that we can’t do with normal information. Instead of a swtich being on or off, it can also be both on and off at the same time!
My research studies how information moves about a quantum system. If you let your information atoms bump into other atoms (like the air around us), they will very quickly forget what they were and lose their quantumness. To stop this, we could put the atoms in a vacuum where there are no stray atoms to bump into. This isn’t perfect, as we can never really avoid all stray atoms. Instead, you can put the information atoms into a special cloud of atoms that we have good quantum control over, like quantum bubble wrap. This can keep the information safe in the atoms until we need it.
When I’m not working I like to knit while watching films or listening to audiobook, or play video games.
My Typical Day
My typical day is spent coding on my computer, figuring out equations at my desk, and discussing science with my workmates.
The very first thing I do when I wake up is check my email to see if there’s anything new that has cropped up overnight. One of the main people I work with lives in Finland, so she’s up two hours before me. My typical day is mostly spent in front of the computer or with a pencil and notebook. I work in physics theory, so my “lab” is my computer. I figure out how to describe systems of atoms using equations, and then using these equations to make predictions on how the atoms behave under different conditions. Sometimes we can figure out everything just using pen and paper (and often using the maths we learned in school for part of it). Other times, I have to write a computer program to solve the equations.
I also need to talk to other physicists about my work, so I spend a lot of time talking with people face to face, sending emails, and on skype. We also travel a lot, either to visit other scientists, or to go to conferences to share what we’ve found with the other people in our area of quantum physics. Communication is really important in science. You could discover the most amazing thing in the world, but if you don’t tell people about it, you’re not adding to scientific knowledge.
My work hours are very flexible. This is good when I need to go to the bank in the middle of the day, but it does mean that when I’m working on something urgent I can be working from 8am to midnight. Luckily I can take my laptop home with me and work from there, so I don’t have to spend all that time in work.
What I'd do with the prize money
Create British Sign Language signs for quantum physics.
British Sign Language (BSL) doesn’t have signs for a lot of scientific terms. Even simple words, like “light” would need different signs depending on what type of light we’re talking about. Creating signs for things like “photon” or “entanglement” means deciding what is the most important part of the idea and figuring out how to show this with a sign. We’re working with scientists and sign language speakers to translate some of these quantum physics words, and create a BSL based documentary on quantum physics.
I would use the money to create a website showing and explaining these new signs, and use them to talk about quantum physics in schools.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Sarcastic, smiley, scattered.
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
Getting to meet and work with some truly incredible people. Smart people, doing interesting things who are also lovely to be around.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Rarely, but occasionally, I got given out to for giggling.
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Hard to say, but I always come back to REM.
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Working on a circus show based on quantum physics.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
A 48 hour day without needing to sleep in the middle, a cure for the common cold, and to travel into the future.
Tell us a joke.
If you broke the law of gravity, would you get a suspended sentence?