Finding a new equilibrium: Steven Thomson hosts Real Scientists
Real Scientists is getting physics-cal this week with Dr Steven J. Thomson, a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow in physics at Freie Universität Berlin. He’s currently on the European Commission project ‘Ergodicity Breaking in Quantum Matter’ and is on your feed this week! Here’s more about his life and work so far:
Welcome to Real Scientists! Can you tell us how you got started in science?
I was always curious about how things worked — when I was a kid I was forever taking things apart to see what was inside them. In high school I really enjoyed physics and technological studies (a catch-all course that included electronics, programming, and even a bit of engineering), so I hoped to be able to study something along those lines at university. At some point, I became fascinated with astronomy, so in the end that’s what I went off to university to study as an undergraduate. I ended up jumping ship to theoretical physics before too long though…!
What was it about theoretical physics that got you?
It seemed incredible — impossible, even — that just by sitting and thinking and doing some maths, we could somehow learn fundamental truths about the universe. I enjoyed astronomy, but I loved the maths of theoretical physics, so around halfway through my degree I changed course to theoretical physics. I was lucky enough to be taught by some exceptional people working in quantum theory, and this sparked my interest in the topic. In particular, I work on quantum systems far from equilibrium, which is a really exciting frontier. Equilibrium systems are static and arguably not so interesting — if a living creature ever reaches thermal equilibrium with its environment, it would be dead! Non-equilibrium physics is more alive, but is also extremely challenging as many of our standard techniques don’t apply in this scenario. This makes it a really exciting field to work in, as there are still so many unknowns and so many opportunities to discover new things.
What are you working on right now?
I work on disordered quantum systems, where I try to figure out if randomness can actually be useful for something. This isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds — as far back as medieval times, blacksmiths have known that if you want to make strong swords, you need trace amounts of chemical impurities (usually carbon) mixed in with the iron, although medieval blacksmiths won’t have understood it in those terms. Today we’re doing similar things on the quantum level — taking random impurities and trying to use them to improve the properties of materials, for example by preventing materials from conducting heat or electricity. This might seem useless — surely we want *better* conductors, not worse ones? — but in fact these sorts of properties are very useful for future technologies like quantum computers, where quantum effects can be very fragile. By making use of randomness, we can (hopefully!) build quantum technologies out of materials which are robust enough to make it out of the lab and into the wider world. On top of that, random disorder in quantum systems can even stabilise exotic new phases of matter that don’t exist anywhere in nature !as far as we know!) such as quantum time crystals.
What do you want non-physicists to know about your work?
Quantum mechanics is all around us — for example, modern electronic devices are full of devices called transistors, which only work because they make use of quantum effects. But the world is changing rapidly, and we’re moving from the phase of passively using quantum mechanics to actively creating and manipulating quantum matter, and this is opening up new opportunities that weren’t even dreamed of a few decades ago. But there’s also a lot of confusion out there about what quantum mechanics is good for and what quantum technologies can do — as these new technologies become more and more important for the world around us, it’s important that people know a bit about how they will work.
What do you get up to when you’re not in the lab?
I’m the host of a new podcast called insideQuantum launching on July 4th, where I talk with people working at the forefront of quantum technology about their lives, careers and research. This has been a new experience for me and a steep learning curve, but it’s also been a whole lot of fun. I’ve had some amazing conversations with some wonderful people and I can’t wait to share them with the world! I play guitar and like to tinker, so from time to time I build and modify my own effects pedals. I enjoy writing, and I’d love to write a book one day — maybe something scientific, maybe not!
Finally, what does your perfect day off look like?
Probably a relaxed day of playing video games with my partner!
Steven Thomson, welcome to Real Scientists!