The Colombian who seeks to understand the world of quantum physics

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Ana María Rey, new member of the US National Academy of Sciences. Courtesy: Daniel Alvarez, Universidad de los Andes

“Leonor Medina, my school teacher from a young age, always told us: ‘Girls, be smart or marry an Antioqueño.’ Well, what I did was obviously smart. And yes, he did. Ana María Rey, a Colombian physicist, won the 2005 Award for Outstanding Doctoral Thesis in Atomic, Molecular, and Optical Physics from the American Physical Society; in 2013, she was one of the winners of the Presidential Award for Early Career Scientists and Engineers, which she received at the White House; and in the same year, she was awarded a MacArthur Foundation fellowship. In addition, in 2019, she became the first Spanish-speaking woman to receive the Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists, and on May 3, she was elected to the US National Academy of Sciences.

Despite all this, as he has published more than 200 articles and given hundreds of conferences around the world, Rey denies being a genius as a natural trait.

“I worked with a professor who was the 2001 Nobel Prize winner in physics, Carl E. Wieman. He dedicated himself to researching physics education, and one of the messages he tried to convey to students was that the brain is shaped by practical stimuli. In other words, intelligence is developed by training the brain to be curious and to try to process information all the time. It is not a natural gift. What do you mean by stimuli? Ask yourself these things: why did it happen that way? Why is the world like this? “That activates the connection of neurons, and I think that’s what happened to me since I was a child,” said the scientist.

He took his first physics course in his fifth year of high school. “From then on, I had no doubts that I wanted to be a physicist.” He was awarded a scholarship to study for that degree at the Universidad de los Andes, where he returned on October 17 as a guest speaker at that institution, held at the Movistar Arena. There he spoke to hundreds of people (including students, graduates, and family members) about his career, but also about success, happiness, and the possibility of changing courses if necessary.

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“Never get stuck in something you don’t want,” he told them. This is what he decided when he met Professor William D. Phillips, another winner of the Nobel Prize in physics (1997) for his work on the study of a technique to control and study atoms in a gaseous state at the National Institute of Standard Technology, where he also currently works. (You can see: that blood tests can help predict risk of diseases.)

Phillips suggested to Rey that he start researching optical networks, which are fields created by lasers to cool atoms to extremely low temperatures. “This way we can trap them using their quantum properties, that is, their microscopic properties, as a window to study the quantum world,” said the Colombian. In that world, millions of times smaller than a grain of sand, things happen that are very interesting to physicists: physics changes there.

Imagine, for example, that you have a coin and you toss it in the air. While in the air, in our world, we don’t know if it will fall face down or down, but it must be one of the two, of course. In the quantum world, on the contrary, a particle can be in many states at once (scientists call it superposition), just as a coin is in a face-up and face-down state at the same time. chance. Or imagine two identical twins with a more special connection than the cliché suggests. When one of them laughs, the other automatically laughs, no matter how far they are. In quantum physics, particles can be linked in such a way that what happens to one affects the other, even if they are separated by great distances. (You see, in Colombia, there are poisonous worms that can kill you.).

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Advances in understanding the quantum world have implications for the development of high-precision quantum technologies, such as atomic clocks, which differ from conventional clocks by being based on the vibrations and behavior of atoms instead of gears and hands. Scientists count these atomic vibrations to measure time with precision.

To illustrate, it is enough to say that if, hypothetically, we ran such a clock from the beginning of the universe, 13.8 billion years ago, now the error is only a fraction of a second. “But that gap is still a challenge. To this day, atomic clocks still operate with classical properties,” Rey said.

Basically, what this means is that scientists don’t yet know how to make clocks that can use strange properties like the binding of atoms. “If we can do this, the clocks will be more accurate. So my challenge in these years is to achieve the necessary conditions to put atoms in an atomic clock. Make them work in a completely quantum way,” Rey explained.

Achieving this will open up a world of opportunities to develop, for example, quantum computers. It can also improve the accuracy of navigation systems, such as GPS, used in air, sea,, and land navigation, reducing the possibility of errors in location and direction.

“For all of this, it is important to cool down the atoms, because this seems to be their purest form of quantum behavior,” added Professor Rey. His work earned him an invitation to become an official member of the US National Academy of Sciences, one of the most prestigious scientific organizations in the world.

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“NAS elections are rigorous and competitive, and only a small percentage of nominated scientists are selected for membership. As a result, being elected a NAS member is a validation of scientific work and a proof of quality in your research,” explained the University of Colorado, to measure that achievement. “It’s a great satisfaction and recognition not only for me but for the whole team,” said Rey.

Although he developed most of his research in that country, his concept of how to teach physics in Colombian universities is very well known. “When I came to the US to study in graduate school, I had a lot of problems with the assignments they gave me that were already done, because in Colombia we did them in undergrad. Physics education in Colombia is excellent. The training I used was based on books used in the US in postgraduate and postdoctoral studies,” he commented.

However, when the university ends, most researchers in Colombia find it difficult to continue research. “Research studies are very different. Facing a problem that has not been thought of before, without knowing if it has a solution, is different from doing a task where the problem has been thought of before. We need to promote the first thing. “

Rey is part of one of the commission of wise men of science in Colombia in 2019, which seeks to create strategies to promote the development of this field in the country. “There were hours and hours of consideration with the committee, with members of the basic science to which I belong,” he said. One of his first recommendations was to awaken the minds of children from a young age. “You have to train them in scientific concepts. Get rid of science that is boring and complicated, and adopt an approach where research is an experiment. We have to stop seeing it as a memory issue.