William was awarded a Nature Reviews Physics poster prize at ICAP 2018.
Please introduce yourself
I am a 3rd year PhD student at Durham University, UK, I collaborate with the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Light, Germany, and I work with atoms. A single atom is cool because it is a ‘quantum’ object and studying it can teach us about fundamental physics. A single atom is also cool because it can interact with a single photon. Systems built of single atoms communicating via single photons offer some interesting and mysterious uses; one Holy Grail of this community being a universal quantum computer. The challenge currently is how do we acquire a single atom? And how can we manipulate it? This is what my experiment focusses on (pun intended). I use thermal vapours of rubidium confined within nanometre-scale glass cavities (e.g. a fancy double-glazed window). This offers a novel and relatively simple method to approach the limit of having a single atom, on demand.
1. Can you briefly explain the results for which you got the award?
My award was mainly for the creation and characterization of the ‘nanocells’ that we make. We are able to confine atomic vapour in structures ~500 nm in size. As was mentioned, it is really the novel approach that we are taking and the methodology itself that is the most interesting to the atomic physics community. To give some context: A typical cold-atom experiment might use ~200 BNC connectors to control the experiment, I currently use just 6. This is the beauty and ‘simplicity’ of thermal vapour experiments.
2. What do you hope will be the impact of your research?
This depends on scale. Within our field we hope to produce a robust platform for single atom – single photon experiments. In research physics as a whole I hope to prove that one can ‘dare to dream’ if that isn’t too cliché. That there may exist some radically different approaches to achieving a goal, and that we can learn a lot by looking at methods used by other fields. For example, my microscopy setup is also used commonly in bio-physics experiments. In a wider context, it is possible that the understanding of fundamental physics can later lead to the exploitation and harnessing of these effects. One parallel could be to look at Faraday. Faraday was a researcher and in his lab he experimented with the effects of electromagnetism (later formalised by Maxwell). He was studying fundamental physics, he was not an inventor. Yet, 150 years later we have electric motors, lights, kettles, and the national grid. All things made possible by first understanding nature, and then harnessing these effects.
3. What made you want to be a physicist in the first place?
To be honest not much. We choose our GCSEs, A-levels and degree at quite a young age. Certainly without the experience of knowing different fields in depth. I was good at science and I enjoyed being able to get satisfying answers on how things worked, and so I pursued it. Moreover, I cannot say if I will always be in the field and so, despite the fact that I am a PhD student in physics, I would argue that I never really ‘chose’ to be a physicist. I had no particular goal in mind, I simply chose the local most interesting decision at the time, and this path has lead me to where I am now. Perhaps that is how a passion manifests itself. In short: there was no single event of inspiration, but instead an ongoing process of learning and following the course of making rather short-term decisions that has steered me to where I am now.
4. If you weren’t a physicist, what would you like to be (and why)?
I think I would try to be a professional athlete. Another great joy in my life is sport, and I do as much as I can currently. I would be curious to see how far I could get if I were to give it my full attention.
5. Which is the development that you would really like to see in the next 10 years?
In the past century or so we have seen a continuous improvement in the understanding of the natural world that has come about by major international collaboration. Gone are the days where a single person can witness a natural phenomenon by candle light (well you still can, but it is nothing new). Today the world is more connected, and we study physics with greater precision and reliability than ever before. Experiments often take years of setup, controlled lab environments, and this all takes funding and the sharing of expertise. Science is also more accessible too with social revolution driving equality and allowing all people to pursue a career in science. I would simply like to see this continue. No one can predict the events of the future, and aiming for what you cannot see is impossible. However, what we can do is build the most productive and healthy work environment that we can, and to allow people and ideas to flourish.
6. What is your non-scientifically accurate guilty pleasure (could be film/series/book)?
Guilty pleasure? Definitely farming simulator. I’d say it’s non-scientifically accurate by the extraordinary plant yields that seem to defy any conservation law. The physics engine is quite primitive too.