“I like it if I can run uphill and be rewarded with a view of the bay,” says Monika Schleier-Smith. She’s talking about a favorite spot to exercise around Palo Alto, Calif., but the sentiment also applies to her scientific work. A physicist at Stanford, Schleier-Smith, 36, has a reputation for embracing the uphill climb. She’ll push, push, push the smallest details of an experiment until she achieves what others thought near impossible.
Her reward? Seeing large ensembles of atoms do her bidding and interact with one another over distances that are incredibly vast, at least for the quantum realm.
“She tends to persist,” says Harvard physicist Susanne Yelin, who follows Schleier-Smith’s research. She gets results, even though “everything that exists in nature” is working against her experiments.
Quantum physics describes a microworld where many possibilities reign. Unobserved atoms and particles don’t have clearly defined locations, and information can be shared by widely spaced parts of a system. “We have equations that describe quantum mechanics well, but we can’t solve them when we are dealing with more than a few particles,” Schleier-Smith says.
That’s a shame, because understanding how large numbers of these small entities interact is essential to figuring out how our world works at the most fundamental level. Getting atoms to behave in just the right ways also has some practical benefits. It could lead to the most precise clocks yet, a boon for precision measurement, and to quantum computers that can solve problems that are too hard for today’s supercomputers.
Schleier-Smith’s experimental setups use elaborate tabletop arrangements of mirrors, lasers, vacuum chambers and electronic parts to cool atoms, pin them in place and then manipulate them with light. It’s a clutter of essential components, the construction of which requires an exacting understanding of the physics at play plus engineering know-how.