Environment & Science

Caltech professor Alexei Kitaev wins $3 million prize for work in physics

An excerpt from John Preskill’s notes taken at Alexei Kitaev’s seminar during his first visit to Caltech in 1997.
An excerpt from John Preskill’s notes taken at Alexei Kitaev’s seminar during his first visit to Caltech in 1997.
An excerpt from John Preskill’s notes taken at Alexei Kitaev’s seminar during his first visit to Caltech in 1997.
Caltech, as seen from California Boulevard. The building in the foreground is Bridge Laboratory, a physics building, while Millikan Library is seen in the background.
Steve Ryan/Flickr Creative Commons

A professor at Caltech has won the inaugural Fundamental Physics Prize. Alexei Kitaev teaches theoretical physics and computer science at Caltech and, thanks to the prize, is now $3 million richer.

The prize recognizes Kitaev's "theoretical idea of implementing robust quantum memories and fault-tolerant quantum computation using topological quantum phases with anyons and unpaired Majorana modes."

Kitaev was away in Moscow visiting his parents, so John Preskill, another theoretical physicist from Caltech, helped explain his colleague’s research.

So first, what’s quantum computation? The field imagines a computer of the future that traffics not in bits, like today’s digital computers, but in states of quantum matter.

"We believe we can solve problems that we’d never be able to solve with ordinary digital computers," Preskill said. A quantum computer will store information at the level of an individual atom, rather than kicking around electrons in a circuit the way today’s computers do.

"But quantum computers are going to be much more delicate, more subject to damage caused by… noise," Preskill explaned.

This isn't the same noise that damages ears when the music’s too loud, but the racket inside a computer when it’s hard at work trying to figure out something.

Preskill described the noise: "Electrons moving from place to place, atomic nuclei flipping their spins… which cause sort of a background din that can affect the computation," he said. "We have to make sure that that noise doesn't overwhelm the signal."

So these quantum computers won’t be perfect, and that’s what the term “fault-tolerant” in the prize’s description refers to.

"Kitaev’s great insight," Preskill added "is that we can encode and process quantum information, which is what we want a quantum computer to do, using special materials. "

And those special materials can help manage that potentially damaging “noise.”

Alexei Kitaev first arrived at Caltech as a visiting associate and lecturer in 1998, and he was named professor of theoretical physics and computer science in 2002. In 2008, Kitaev was named a "genius" when the MacArthur Foundation awarded him a five-year $500,000 "Genius Grant."

Kitaev was born in Russia and studied at the Moscow Institute for Physics and Technology. Around the same time, Preskill said in a blog post, another Russian named Yuri Milner was also studying physics at nearby Moscow State University. Milner invested in Internet companies – and became a billionaire. He’s now established the Fundamental Physics Prize to highlight the importance of physics and to encourage and inspire young people to dive into the science. The two Russians never met until Milner called Kitaev to inform he'd won the prize.

Eight other scientists won the inaugural award and each receives $3 million:

Nima Arkani-Hamed
Alan Guth
Maxim Kontsevich
Andrei Linde
Juan Maldacena
Nathan Seiberg
Ashoke Sen
Edward Witten

"I hope the new prize will bring long overdue recognition to the greatest minds working in the field of fundamental physics," Milner said in a statement on the foundation's website. "And if this helps encourage young people to be inspired by science, I will be deeply gratified.”