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The Quantum Revolution: Handcrafted in New Haven Exhibit at New Haven Museum

Evolution of the substrates,qubits,and cavities (the nuts and bolts of quantumarchitecture) from 1998 to today.

Photo Credit: Florian Carl

New Haven, Conn. (April 14, 2022)— New Haven has been a crucible for the development of quantum physics for 20 years, with teams working on a new type of computer using quantum mechanics that could, in theory, outperform anything currently in use. A new exhibition at the New Haven Museum captures the history and the handcrafted beauty of the groundbreaking work. “The Quantum Revolution: Handcrafted in New Haven” will remain on view through September 16, 2022.

Displaying drawings by artist Martha W. Lewis, small gem-like devices with fanciful names such as jellyfish, hedgehog, hippopotamus, and octopus, among others, and a six-foot device named Badger, the single-gallery exhibition captures high-tech history in the making during a brief period before the commercialization of quantum computers rewrites history altogether.

The whimsical names of many of the objects in the exhibition disguise the inventiveness and power of the devices crafted by hundreds of researchers in the Becton Center labs at Yale University. Many of the inventions are now in use by tech giants including Google, IBM, and Intel in the race to bring the first functioning quantum computer to market, according to the exhibition’s guest curator, Florian Carle.

Carle manages the Yale Quantum Institute (YQI), where he develops outreach programing to demystify quantum physics and science in the community. In 2017, YQI enlisted Lewis, a New Haven-based visual artist, curator, and educator to illustrate the interaction between contemporary art and quantum science. As the first artist-in residence at YQI, Lewis created “I’ll be your qubit,” an interactive, immersive installation, collaborating with quantum researchers at YQI.

Several of Lewis’s sketchbooks are included in an exhibit case, drawn from direct observation in the Becton labs. Five of her highly detailed drawings are enlarged onto metal panels and hanging on the gallery walls. There is a certain irony to an artist’s rendering of complex, highly technical equipment with the most basic artistic tools: graphite pencils, notebooks, erasers, and a ruler.

When Lewis began her artistic residency at YQI she entered an unknown world, with no experience or training in quantum physics. Through a year of discussions with scientists, hanging out in the labs and white-board workspaces, and making art amidst handmade, complex machines made of shiny gold, copper and sapphires, chasing the idea of quantum physics and its mysterious properties, she witnessed the genesis of quantum computers, and it captivated her.

Lewis observes:

“I think almost any artist would long to draw [the devices]. Shimmering and intricate they seem like impossible objects, dream-like apparatuses. Unbelievable, and yet very concretely present, and full of minute, mind-bending scenarios: the head-spinning collection of contradictions that make up the quantum world…that is our world and yet not. Our world we are beginning to understand. That’s thrilling too—the aspect of knowing/not knowing. It’s hard to be jaded on the subatomic level.”

The objects in the exhibition’s display cases are superconducting qubits (qubits are quantum bits, the quantum equivalent of the transistors for classical computers), that were invented, designed, and built by Yale researchers. These physical objects behave like artificial atoms and allow the researchers to harvest the properties of quantum mechanics. In order to observe a quantum regime, however, the objects must be placed into cryogenic systems called dilution refrigerators that can reach almost absolute zero (~10 millikelvins or minus-459 degrees Fahrenheit).

Carle explains that exhibiting the artistic aspects of quantum technology show the human element behind technology and demystifies the complexities of the science. “People are living and working in New Haven developing true, cutting-edge technology, and the New Haven Museum has a deep and longstanding commitment to the local history of innovation and manufacturing,” says Carle. “We could find no better partner for sharing what we do with the greater public.”

Quantum computers may revolutionize a number of fields, says Carle, who adds that in 5 to 10 years we will likely have a quantum computer capable of making calculations more powerful than any of our classical computers. He explains its possible applications could revolutionize the development of better drugs, optimize complex systems like airline scheduling or modeling weather forecasting.

“We are witnessing an incredible transfer of knowledge and technology from academia to industry in a very limited time, 20 years,” says Carle. The first computers were enormous, custom-made, physical objects requiring a lot of tinkering. Analogously, researchers are at the very early stages of quantum computing, at the juncture where a superconducting quantum device (the early prototypes of quantum computers) takes up a whole room, and yet is barely capable of an infinitesimal fraction of the computational power of a smartphone. “Maybe 30 to 50 years from now people will be carrying a quantum computer in their pockets, Carle says. “We want to capture this story as it is evolving.”

“The Quantum Revolution” coincides with Quantum Week at Yale, with quantum-related events designed to help people outside the field explore the world of quantum science.


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