Essentially, the researchers are building quantum models of materials that aren’t even real yet.
“I call them quantum LEGOs,” he says “We build a quantum system and see how it behaves. Before they started building big airplanes, they built little models. This is the same idea. We can now build the model for quantum materials. The real materials don’t even exist yet, but we can build these artificial models with a lot of freedom and a lot of possibilities and see what happens, see what new states of matter pop out there. This wasn’t possible until recently.”
Moreover, the new microscope he created allows the scientists “to look at all these individual atoms and take a complete snapshot of the system, he says. “This really gives us insight into the quantum world. We create this artificial matter, then take a picture of it. We can see all of the individual atoms and what they are doing. It’s worth quite a lot.”
Greiner, a native of Munich, predicts that his work, among other things, could result in using these individual atoms as “quantum bits” to develop a quantum computer - one with the ability to solve certain problems that a traditional computer cannot. “It’s not here yet, but our approach with the atoms is one path to a quantum computer,” he says.
Greiner enjoys “the fascination of directly seeing these cold atoms, and creating states that haven’t been created yet,” he says. “My approach is hands-on. I got started with this because I was fascinated by lasers, and how they could be used to juggle atoms.”
The MacArthur prize will give him “the opportunity to freely explore new directions,” he says. “I want to use some of it to set up a ‘toy lab’ in which I and my students can explore unconventional ideas in a playful way. Some ideas on which our work is built I generated a long time ago, when I was playing with lasers and holograms in my basement as a teenager. I want to support this playful component of research because that is where often the best ideas come from.”