‘Quantum technologies are beautiful’: Physics, funding and the family business

2 May 2023

Image: © Siarhei/Stock.adobe.com

Award-winning physicist Dr Mark Mitchison describes the situation for early-career researchers in Ireland as ‘dire’ because of a lack of support.

Scientific curiosity runs in the family for physicist Dr Mark Mitchison, an assistant professor in the School of Physics at Trinity College Dublin. His great-grandfather was renowned British physiologist John Scott Haldane. Mitchison describes other members of his family as “accomplished biologists”.

Not to be outdone by his lineage, Mitchison has been hard at work. Having obtained a PhD from Imperial College London in 2016, he has established himself as an expert in his field.

He recently became a recipient of the highly competitive Royal Society University Research Fellowship. On receiving the fellowship, Mitchison described himself as “delighted, honoured and incredibly proud”.

“Thanks to the generous support of the Royal Society and Science Foundation Ireland, I now have the freedom and stability to pursue the research that I am truly passionate about,” he said.

Last November, Mitchison secured a Quantum Technologies Flagship research grant from the European Commission for his current research.

‘It’s true that quantum physics is counterintuitive, but it has an undeserved reputation for being impossible to understand’

“My research field is known as quantum thermodynamics. Its aim is to understand how quantum physics – the behaviour of matter and energy at the most fundamental level – impacts our ability to manipulate energy and exploit it for practical purposes,” he told SiliconRepublic.com.

“My main focus now is applying quantum thermodynamics to metrology, which is the science of measurement. I am particularly interested in how the strange behaviour of quantum particles – like electrons, photons, and atoms – can be used to make measurements more precise and energy efficient.

“For example, how much energy is fundamentally needed to run a clock, and could this be reduced using quantum effects? Can we design small quantum sensors that will make measurements faster, more sensitive and less invasive? These are the kind of questions my research group and I are thinking about currently.”

A man stands in a lab with his hands in his pockets smiling at the camera.

Dr Mark Mitchison visiting Dr Simon Gasparinetti’s lab at Chalmers University of Technology. Image: Dr Mark Mitchison

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Big scientific discoveries have often been unlocked by advances in metrology, and often these advances came from physicists probing basic questions.

Quantum systems already provide the most precise measurements of length, time, magnetic fields, etc, that have ever been achieved.

There is currently a big drive towards even more precise measuring devices, eg, atomic clocks to improve satellite navigation or gravitational wave detectors to uncover new phenomena out in the cosmos.

‘In my field specifically, one frustrating aspect is how difficult it can be to explain the beauty and mystery of quantum physics without confusing people’

But we still don’t have a very good understanding of where the fundamental limits are. My research aims to establish these limits, so that we know how far we can expect to push measurement technology before the resource cost becomes too great.

It will also hopefully help to make our current measuring devices more energy efficient and compact. This will be especially important for the new wave of quantum technologies that are being developed around the world, eg, quantum computers. For these technologies to be commercially viable on a large scale, they will need to be as energy efficient as possible.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

My first inspiration probably comes from my family, many of whom were or are scientists. This goes back a few generations to my great-grandfather J S Haldane, a respiratory physiologist who made several life-saving discoveries: he invented the first gas masks, he proposed using canaries to detect poisonous gases in coalmines and he also made the first diving tables to help scuba divers avoid decompression sickness.

Many of his descendants were similarly accomplished biologists. I can’t live up to that kind of legacy! But it was very inspiring to me as a child, although I was always more interested in physics.

My first scientific memory is of an illustrated encyclopaedia that my Dad read to me in the bath when I was about six years old. A beautiful (utterly inaccurate!) picture of an atom caught my attention, with little neutrons, protons and electrons whizzing around. Since then, I’ve been obsessed with understanding the microscopic world.

What are some of the biggest challenges or misconceptions you face as a researcher in your field?

I think a big challenge faced by almost all researchers – and especially in Ireland – is that the value of investing in basic research and education is not properly appreciated by governments and decision makers.

The plight of postgraduate (PhD) researchers in Ireland is a good example – these workers are critical for our universities to function, yet they are drastically underpaid and marginalised in the current system. It’s now at the point where it’s very hard to hire PhD researchers because the conditions in Ireland are so dire – few people without generational wealth are willing to do it. It’s a huge problem that will exacerbate inequality and severely damage Ireland’s future if it isn’t fixed.

In my field specifically, one frustrating aspect is how difficult it can be to explain the beauty and mystery of quantum physics without confusing people. It’s true that quantum physics is counterintuitive, but it has an undeserved reputation for being impossible to understand. This reputation is often amplified by some sections of the scientific media and unfortunately, I think it puts people off.

‘The value of investing in basic research and education is not properly appreciated by governments and decision makers’

I would like more people to feel free to explore quantum physics without believing they have to be some kind of genius to get something out of it, which is nonsense. It requires curiosity and a little perseverance, that’s all.

Do you think public engagement with science has changed in recent years?

I think the pandemic greatly increased the public’s appreciation for science and their appetite for learning about the latest advances. It has also made scientists more keenly aware of the importance of engaging with the public, especially due to the rising prominence of conspiracy theories and anti-scientific viewpoints within a small but vocal section of society.

I have always been interested in outreach: it’s really fun to do, and it’s also helpful to take a step back and think about the bigger picture so you can explain your work. Since I’ve been in Dublin, most of my public engagement has been either through giving talks in pubs (like the brilliant Pint of Science festival which happens every May) or talking about science on podcasts (of which there are many these days!).

Now I also plan to focus more of my outreach towards schools, using the funding that I recently won from the EU. Quantum technologies will probably play a big role in the future lives of current schoolkids, so it’s important for them to appreciate what quantum physics is.

10 things you need to know direct to your inbox every weekday. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of essential sci-tech news.