It’s a quirk of inheritance that we see the world the way Isaac Newton described it 350 years ago. Our senses evolved to perceive human-sized threats — we had more to fear from a tiger than from an electron — so we developed an intuition and language to describe human-sized physics. That’s what Newton codified into his laws of motion and gravity.
In fact, the entire world is governed by quantum physics, its effects ever-present though usually lurking under the surface. Objects can be in more than one state at the same time. The act of measuring an object fundamentally changes it. Objects can be entangled no matter how far apart they are. These observations at first seem strange, but in truth, they are no weirder than Newton’s.
We used to say that quantum mechanics was the physics of atoms and molecules, because that is the realm where it was first discovered and where its effects are most pronounced, but all of that is changing now. We are building larger and larger systems — actual technologies — that harness the apparent strangeness of quantum mechanics to achieve unprecedented capabilities in computing, communications, and sensing. None of this is easy. It will take decades of work to establish these technologies, to uncover the still-hidden secrets of what we can do with quantum mechanics and what still-deeper truths the universe holds.
The challenges are considerable, and great technical challenges require more than just great minds. They require the right environment that facilitates those great minds joining in a common vision and concerted effort. The speed of communication and push toward globalization have been a great boon for science. But therein lies a trap, as well. Breakthroughs propagate at lightning speed, pushing everyone to the cutting edge, but often to the same cutting edge. This monoculture can at times stifle creative thinking. And in science, often the best ideas are the ones that seem to come from nowhere. Of course, more often than not, that nowhere is simply down the hall, where you bump into a colleague while getting coffee.
This is where Princeton excels. Quantum technology requires bringing together engineers, physicists, chemists, and computer scientists; on top of that, scientists are working with an abundance of physical systems, from atoms to semiconductors to superconductors to as-yet-undiscovered quantum materials. While it may seem tempting to double down on a single system with a single area of focus, Princeton has done the opposite.
We have excellence in nearly all physical systems and all levels of the technological stack. By prizing a willingness to talk across disciplinary boundaries, and by hiring outstanding faculty in diverse subfields of quantum science and engineering, we have cultivated a truly special environment for intellectual cross-pollination. Certainly, my best work has been inspired by working with colleagues who think much differently than I do. Much of this interaction happens through our vibrant culture in which students engage one another across domains — formally through weekly talks and research collaborations and informally through the spontaneous conversations that grow out of them. At an institutional level, this will pave the way for decades of scientific and technological progress in this emerging field.