‘Father of Quantum Computing’ Wins $3 Million Physics Prize | physics

A theoretical physicist who never had a regular job has won the world’s top science award for his pioneering contributions to the groundbreaking field of quantum computing.

David Deutsch, who is affiliated with the University of Oxford, shares the $3 million (approx.

Deutsch, 69, became known as the “father of quantum computing” after proposing an exotic – and previously unbuildable – machine to test for the existence of parallel universes. His 1985 work paved the way for the rudimentary quantum computers that scientists work on today.

“It was a thought experiment with a computer, and this computer contained some quantum components,” remembers Deutsch. “Today you would call it a universal quantum computer, but it took me six years to think about it that way.”

Dubbed the Oscars of Science by its Silicon Valley founders, the Breakthrough Awards are presented annually to scientists and mathematicians deemed worthy by committees of previous winners. This year there is a physics prize, three life science prizes and another prize in mathematics. Each is worth $3 million.

A life science award honors researchers who trace narcolepsy to brain cells being wiped out by erratic immune responses. The discovery has opened the door to new treatments for sleep disorders.

Clifford Brangwynne at Princeton shares a life sciences award for his work on proteins. Photo: Dee Sullivan

A second prize goes to Princeton’s Clifford Brangwynne and Anthony Hyman of the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden for the discovery that proteins – the workhorses of cells – form teams that resemble flash mobs, with neurodegenerative effects diseases. A team from DeepMind in London won the third life sciences prize for AlphaFold, an artificial intelligence program that predicted the structures of almost every protein known to science.

The math award goes to Yale University’s Daniel Spielman for his work helping high-definition TVs handle messy signals, delivery companies find the fastest routes, and scientists avoiding bias in clinical trials.

Born in Israel to Holocaust survivor parents, Deutsch grew up in north London, where his family ran a restaurant. For his PhD, he worked on quantum theory with Dennis Sciama at Oxford, who previously mentored Stephen Hawking and Lord Rees, the royal astronomer. While learning the basics of the theory, Deutsch became a fan of the Many Worlds Interpretation proposed by US physicist Hugh Everett III in 1957. Believe Everett – although many struggle to do so – and events unfolding in our universe create invisible parallel worlds in which alternate realities unfold.

Living off books, lectures, grants, and awards, Deutsch advanced quantum computing with descriptions of quantum bits, or qubits, and wrote the first quantum algorithm that would surpass its classical equivalent.

He shares the award with MIT’s Peter Shor, an expert in quantum algorithms, along with Gilles Brassard of the University of Montreal and Charles Bennett of IBM in New York, who developed unbreakable forms of quantum cryptography and helped invent quantum teleportation – one way to send information from one place to another.

Peter Schor
Peter Shor, expert in quantum algorithms at MIT, shares the physics prize

It took Stanford University’s Emmanuel Mignot and University of Tsukuba’s Masashi Yanagisawa years of painstaking work to uncover the cause of narcolepsy, a serious sleep disorder for which they share a biology prize. Mignot’s studies in narcoleptic dogs traced the condition to mutated receptors in the brain. Meanwhile, Yanagisawa discovered orexin, a neurotransmitter that acts through the receptor. At first, Yanagisawa thought orexin played a role in appetite, but mice lacking it appeared to eat normally. It wasn’t until he decided to film the animals at night (mice are nocturnal) that his team noticed they suddenly fell asleep. “It was really a eureka moment,” Yanagisawa said.

Further work by Mignot found that people with narcolepsy lack orexin in a part of the brain called the hippocampus. Groups of cells that produce orexin are believed to be killed off by erratic immune responses, one reason narcolepsy spiked in the 2009 “swine flu” pandemic. The work paved the way for new drugs that treat narcolepsy by mimicking orexin.

Demis Hassabis
DeepMind’s Demis Hassabis shares a life sciences award for his work on protein folding

A third Life Sciences award goes to Demis Hassabis and John Jumper of Alphabet company DeepMind. The team set out to solve a 50-year-old major challenge in biology: predicting how proteins fold. Since the shape of a protein determines its function, this is of immense importance for understanding diseases and finding drugs to treat them.

Earlier this year, the DeepMind team published the structures of 200 million proteins, spurring work in areas as diverse as malaria and plastic recycling. Hassabis calls it both “the most sensible thing that’s been done with AI in science” and a starting point: proof-of-principle that puzzles expected to outlast our lives can be solved with AI.

Before the pandemic, winners of the Breakthrough Awards, founded by Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg, Yuri Milner and others, received their awards at a glittering, star-studded event in Silicon Valley. If the ceremony takes place this year, Deutsch, who gave a TED talk via robot, is unlikely to attend, at least in this universe. “I like conversation,” he says. “But I don’t like going anywhere.”

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