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Stormer: Computing on verge of quantum leap

Watch carefully the next time you see ice dancers on TV. Think of the connection that Horst Stormer, Nobel laureate in physics, draws between the movements of the dancers and the flow of electrons on a metal sheet measuring an atom or two in thickness.

Ice-dancing pairs must keep one skate on the ice at all times, Stormer told an audience of 500 at the Academic Symposium held Thursday at Zoellner Arts Center in honor of the inauguration of Alice P. Gast as Lehigh’s 13th president. No leaps, flips or triple axles are allowed. Free electrons on a thin metal sheet are similarly restricted: they may move forward and backward, and left to right, but not up and down, as is their custom in a 3-D material.

Now imagine a rink filled with skaters, Stormer said. If all the skaters, simultaneously and without supervision, practice their figure 8’s, chaos will ensue. “People will bump into each other, and everyone will eventually end up on their behinds,” he quipped.

The electrons on their thin metal sheet, however, display more coordination. Under the influence of a magnetic field, they move around each other in circular orbits in a precise, choreographed dance, like well-trained skaters.

It may boggle the mind to ponder sheets of electrons and the laws of quantum mechanics that limit their motions, Stormer confessed. But many of us own billions of these invisible sheets—inside our laptops, iPods or cell phones. And the unique phenomena contained in 2-D electron sheets may soon give us another application—the increased power of quantum computing—to take for granted.

Stormer, the I.I. Rabi Professor of Physics and professor of applied physics at Columbia University, received the Nobel Prize in 1998 for discovering the Fractional Quantum Hall Effect. He and his colleagues at Bell Labs created a new type of liquid composed entirely of electrons by cooling an electron gas almost to absolute zero.

One of those collaborators was James Hwang, now a professor of electrical engineering at Lehigh, who wrote 16 papers with Stormer.

Stormer delivered his 45-minute address without notes, forgoing at the last minute a slide presentation he had prepared. He was introduced by Shalinee Kishore, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, and interviewed after his address by Thomas L. Koch, the Daniel E. '39 and Patricia M. Smith Chair and director of the Center for Optical Technologies, professor of electrical and computer engineering, and professor of physics.

The title of Stormer’s address, “Conveying Sense,” is the name of a semester-long program at Columbia in which all freshmen study and debate topics in modern science, including dark matter, the origin of the universe, the descent of man, global warming, and, of course, quantum mechanics.

“I am convinced that this kind of course should have a central place at every university,” Stormer said. “Teaching science is something one does in the classroom or lab or at a conference. Conveying science is something a scientist does with a layman, a skeptic, or an expert in another field.

“Science changes our Weltaunschaung, our picture of the world. It can expose all of us to the really small things that the world is made of, and to the grandeur of the universe.”

To read about the other Academic Symposium sessions, please see Academic Symposium explores global impact of research.

--Kurt Pfitzer

Posted on Thursday, April 12, 2007

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