What I learned in quantum summer school

Our science writer joined 150 students and scientists at a 10-day program at Fermilab this August. She went in with an abstract knowledge of quantum’s potential — and left understanding just how revolutionary the field can be.

The plane the Wright brothers built in 1903 bears little resemblance to a Boeing 747. The Wright Flyer was made of wood, the wings were flexible instead of stiff, and the pilot was on his stomach using hip twists to control his direction. Still, that first lift-off marked an important moment in aviation history: the moveable rear rudder was a crucial first step toward controlled flight, the wing movement guiding the plane’s “roll” was the basis of the retractable flaps on modern planes, and the image of airborne humans inspired a wave of flying-machine experimenters.

“This is where we’re at with quantum computing,” Will Oliver, an MIT professor of electrical engineering, computer science, and physics, said on my first day of “quantum summer school” at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in August. He was pointing to a blurry black and white photo of the Wright Flyer and comparing it to the technology that had brought about 150 of us to Batavia, Illinois.

“When this happened, the world knew that commercial aviation was coming,” he said, gesturing to the photo on the screen behind him. “It was decades off, but there was no doubt that they had demonstrated something very important, something world changing.”

It was an inspiring beginning to the US Quantum Information Science Summer School, an intensive program for undergraduate students, graduate students, postdocs, scientists, engineers, and technicians to learn about quantum information science and technology through hands-on training and integrated lectures. For me, a science writer and former physicist, it was a chance to gain a much deeper understanding of the quantum technology I write about.

During the 10 days of the school, I was immersed in the science of the cutting-edge quantum information technology that many believe will change the world: quantum computers, quantum sensors, and quantum materials. I learned that, in some ways, the field is further along than I’d thought: I watched attendees interacting in live time with a qubit in a refrigerator a few feet away, controlling its states with a standard programming language. But I also learned how many qubits it will take to do anything truly world changing—and we currently don’t have the ability to manipulate that many qubits at once.

That’s why Oliver’s aviation analogy made sense to me: during my 10 days at Fermilab I saw quantum technology in action and experienced it as “real” for the first time. But I also felt the way I imagine people felt in 1903: they’d seen proof that human flight was real, but they had no way of predicting where that innovation would take us, or how much work it would take to get there.

Back to school

The location for the USQIS summer school was perfect: Fermilab is home to the Superconducting Quantum Materials and Systems (SQMS) Center, one of five US Department of Energy National Quantum Information Science Research Centers in the country—and one of the premier locations in the world to work on superconducting qubits. (The program was facilitated by the five DOE National Quantum Information Science Research Centers, with Fermilab's SQMS Center as the lead organizer and host of the inaugural school in collaboration with the Quantum Science Center at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee).

Fermilab is also personally special to me. Growing up, I lived only 30 minutes away—and it always felt like the world’s epicenter of groundbreaking science that defined what we knew about the universe. Returning to it as an adult meant seeing it in a new way—I now have enough knowledge and experience to know exactly how important it is.

Every day, we boarded a caravan of yellow school buses that carried us from our hotel to Fermilab. It sits on a massive tract of land—much of it taken up by its four-mile particle accelerator—that is covered in swaying prairie grasses and flowers. Rising 16 stories above this flat open space is the iconic Wilson Hall, a smooth, beautiful building of concrete and glass at the heart of the campus. During one visit in high school, I could see the city of Chicago from the top floor, 40 miles away.

In the morning, we heard lectures from leaders in the field of quantum technology, such as Professor Jim Sauls, who was one of the pioneers of the superconducting resonator technology SQMS is known for, and Dr. Eleanor Rieffel, who leads the Quantum Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at NASA and wrote the textbook Quantum Computing: A Gentle Introduction. During lunch, we often watched the Fermilab buffalo from the terrace of the SQMS building. The baby buffalo had a light bronze tint to their fluffy coats that made them stand out from the darker adults.

After lunch, we split into tracks: some of us went to the experimental labs, and some of us stayed in the seminar hall to do more theoretical quantum computing exercises. I had chosen the theory track. I missed computer programming, and my graduate work had been in theory. With the guidance of instructors, I simulated a superconducting qubit, and learned how to program IBM’s quantum computers over the internet.

After dinner was homework time! Sometimes in the seminar hall, and sometimes outdoors on picnic tables at Fermilab’s historic barn, we would collaborate on exercises while teaching assistants and instructors ran from raised hand to raised hand.

“But why does a small Ej mean a small φ?” I begged a TA one evening. Nearby attendees turned to listen—I wasn’t the only one with the question. “Think of it like this,” he said, and started drawing a graph in my notebook as many heads suddenly leaned in to see. That was the essence of homework time—diving deeper into what we had learned that day and doing so together. In college, I had always learned the most when my physics classes had these small group discussions, and I was happy to have that experience again.

The lectures and homework forced me to dig through the dusty cobwebs in the corner of my brain marked “physics grad school” to use knowledge and skills I hadn’t thought about in years. But the attendees weren’t only graduate students and weren’t only studying physics—there were students of all levels in fields ranging through materials science, electrical engineering, and computer science. And they came from over 70 different institutions, all over the country. I ran into an undergraduate student whom I had taught in an intro physics class in Seattle when I was a graduate student there—she had just graduated and was interested in pursuing a career in quantum. Someone I knew in graduate school had come from California, where he was a postdoc at a national lab. Two of the other attendees had just finished a summer of quantum research during their Open Quantum Initiative Fellowship with the Chicago Quantum Exchange.

The broad range of attendees was purposeful.

“It was very important to us that we not restrict applications by level or field, since we believe quantum will need such a broad range of skills and experiences to truly advance,” said Anna Grasselino, director of SQMS and a Fermilab senior scientist.

In this way, the USQIS Summer School had set itself what seemed like an impossible task: teaching quantum technology to a crowd whose education ranged from GED/high school education to post-PhD. I approached one of the lecturers before his talk to chat about the challenge, and he said morosely of his presentation: “I tried … I’m sure it will make everyone equally unhappy.” (It was fine, by the way. I told him so afterwards.)

But even the more technical talks were still beneficial. In the way an infant learns language just by hearing it over and over, a student can absorb a lot of general, implicit understanding through finding the common threads between lectures.

Quantum is now

I’ve written various iterations of the phrase “quantum will change the world” and “quantum will revolutionize technology” in articles many times, and it’s not like I didn’t believe it. I did, and I do. But I walked into the school only understanding quantum technology and its potential in the abstract—and I walked out of it with a brain full of in-depth information and hands-on experience.

Now I know how to program a quantum circuit, and I understand the physical processes that make superconducting qubits work. I’ve done the matrix multiplication that underlies the logic a quantum computer uses; I’ve watched as fellow attendees used programming to control an actual, real-life qubit being held at a temperature colder than outer space; and I now understand the complexities of what makes SQMS’ superconducting resonator technology so unique in the quantum world.

Throughout the summer school, I kept thinking back to the Wright Flyer. Looking back over a century, its accomplishment of flying 852 feet seems absolutely laughable compared to the hundreds of thousands of flights—some of them thousands of miles long—that millions of people around the world take every hour of every day. (Even more laughable, after the Flyer made its record flight it was promptly blown over by a gust of wind and fell to pieces, like the finale of a slapstick comedy skit.)

But it represented technology that would so profoundly change the world that we can no longer remember what it was like to live in a world without it. It is no longer a question of whether quantum technology will change the world, but how.

That was the heart of what I gained at the USQIS Summer School: before, I “knew” quantum technology was real. Now I know it is.