If you’re like most people who don’t happen to have an advanced degree in physics, you probably have only a hazy idea of what physicists mean when they talk about quantum theory or quantum mechanics. But a few top philanthropic funders of basic science have devoted considerable resources to quantum science and technology. That’s because these arcane theories are already pointing the way to significant practical advances in areas like computer, medical and military technology, as well as answers to fundamental questions about the very nature of the universe.
First, a bit of background. Quantum theory is a branch of science that emerged out of physics and other fields during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s essentially a theory of the fundamental workings of the universe — that is, how matter and energy operate, right down to the subatomic level. While the classical model of physics that Isaac Newton pioneered back in the 17th century was great for describing the large-ish, macroscopic objects that we’re familiar with, like apples or airplanes or planets, its calculations don’t hold up in the microscopic realm of subatomic particles like electrons and photons.
These subatomic particles behave in counterintuitive, often hard-to-believe ways. Perhaps the most mind-boggling example is entanglement — an instantaneous relationship of properties, like an electron’s direction of spin, between two particles, even though they may be on opposite sides of the planet or the galaxy, with no apparent means of connection. If this seems hard to swallow, you’re in good company: Einstein didn’t want to accept entanglement at first, either, famously calling it “spooky action at a distance.”
Over years of experimentation and observation, however, quantum physics has not only held up, but has begun to have an impact beyond college physics departments. You’re familiar with one example: the modern transistors and semiconductors developed in the mid-20th century that make computers and cell phones possible are applications of quantum physics.
But in recent years, as quantum experts and engineers figure out more about quantum science and how to apply it, the field is taking on even greater importance.
A new quantum revolution — and its funders
In fact, many scientists now say we’re in a new quantum revolution — some call it the second quantum revolution, some the third — marking the point at which scientists not only understand the quantum behavior of particles, but can control and use it. And that ability has major implications for technology across a vast range of applications: medical, military, computing, materials science electronics, and much more. Not surprisingly, the federal government and the tech industry are also big funders of quantum research.
“It’s exciting both from the point of view of basic knowledge, but also from the point of view of applications that may be really revolutionary once they’re realized,” said Dusan Pejakovic, who leads the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation’s Emergent Phenomena in Quantum Systems Initiative (EPiQS), which supports research into quantum materials that display exotic phenomena.
It’s fitting that the Moore Foundation backs quantum research: as founder of Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel Corporation, Gordon Moore made his fortune in the quantum business.
These days, “quantum” is an increasingly popular buzzword in research circles, and deservedly so. “There are applications of quantum theories to lots of different kinds of physics… it’s a huge community of people,” said Greg Gabadadze, associate director of the Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS) division at the Simons Foundation, another one of a fairly small number of key science funders in the quantum space. The Simons Foundation’s MPS program is mostly interested in the basics of quantum science, with grants supporting quantum research in mathematics, theoretical computer science, theoretical physics and astrophysics, and computational chemistry.
But Simons also supports quantum sciences through one of the centers at the Flatiron Institute, its in-house research organization. Researchers there are trying to develop the tools and approaches needed to translate quantum physics from theory to application.
“We’re beginning to get our minds and our computational hands around the entanglement properties of very large numbers of particles,” said Andy Millis, co-director of the Flatiron Center for Computational Quantum Physics (CCQ.) “There is the chance that they will be able to do things which are not only useful, but qualitatively different than we could do before.” Researchers at the CCQ are working on software initiatives to apply quantum mechanics and conduct quantum calculations, and even to use that spooky principle of entanglement.
Practical breakthroughs ahead
So what sort of practical innovations could quantum physics usher in? One area of particular interest for researchers is the potential for new types of medical sensors that are thousands of times more sensitive than any existing technology. Such quantum sensor devices could show activity in a single cell or neuron, for example — something that could revolutionize areas like cancer research and brain science.
Other potential sensor applications include military sensors that could reveal hidden weapons and equipment with a level of precision that’s not currently possible.
Then there’s a new kind of computer technology called quantum computing. Not to be confused with the previously mentioned concept of the quantum behavior of electrons in everyday semiconductors, quantum computers aim to use the peculiar properties of entanglement to solve complex problems beyond the capability of even the most powerful classical-tech computers. Quantum computers could break existing computer encryption, but also create new kinds of encryption and secure communications. Tech companies like Google, Honeywell, IBM and others are already developing devices that use “qubits” — the basic unit of information in quantum computing — but they are not yet ready for practical or widespread use.
Quantum science is also at the heart of the development of new materials with special qualities like superconductivity — the ability of electricity to flow without any resistance — which would enable improvements and advances in electronics, among other applications.
Not surprisingly, government and industry have their eyes on quantum science. “Currently, there is a lot of funding by many federal funders, including the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, the Army and many funders abroad, and there is funding by major corporations such as Microsoft and Google,” Pejakovic said. “The Moore Foundation is careful to invest in something where we can make a difference in this broader funding landscape. And we occasionally fund projects that are dealing with quantum entanglement and quantum information, but we’re always looking at the next frontier, something where most funders are not focusing right now.”
Moore’s EPiQS program concentrates on funding research in quantum materials — a whole generation of new electronic and magnetic materials with diverse properties and advantages, of which superconductivity is currently the most well-known. As it happens, funding for quantum materials has decreased in the U.S. in recent years, said Amalia Fernandez Panella, a program officer at EPiQS, making Moore’s support all the more important.
There’s a lot of excitement among researchers right now around a quantum material called graphene, which was discovered in 2004. Graphene is a one-atom-thick sheet of carbon with numerous valuable qualities, including superconductivity. “There was a turning point when graphene was discovered, and a lot of things have popped up from that discovery,” Fernandez Panella said. “It exploded interest in this type of material to the point that it has become a new subfield.”
A powerful argument for basic research
Quantum science is growing more interconnected with other areas of inquiry as it grows, and the Moore Foundation wants to encourage those connections within the scientific community, Pejakovic said. “We want to make our initiative more than the sum of its individual grants through various community-building activities, such as symposia, workshops, scientists, exchange programs, visiting scientist programs, and so on.”
Moore is also focused on making grantmaking in quantum research more equitable, as it has sought to do throughout its programming. This has led to some grantmaking innovations, such as a dual anonymous review process in which both reviewers and applicants remain unidentified, which is generally uncommon in science funding.
The John Templeton Foundation has also been funding research in quantum physics through its Mathematics and Physical Science program, which is oriented toward fundamental questions of the nature of the universe and reality. The foundation gives millions of dollars to teams of physicists, mathematicians and other scientists who are using quantum physics to study the nature of spacetime, black holes, and even biology — not to mention time itself: At the subatomic level of quantum physics, time may not always flow from past to future.
To a large degree, quantum science is still a matter of basic research, and the number of practical applications is not yet that large, though some exist. At the moment, the engineering and technological overhead to build quantum devices is still substantial, and while both public and private funding is flowing, quantum remains something of a niche topic in philanthropy. But a quick review of the last 100 years, 50 years or even just 10 years shows that lots of tough engineering challenges can be overcome, and quicker than you’d think. Likely, it won’t be long before powerful new applications of quantum science are part of everyday life.