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

A theoretical physicist who has never held a regular job has won science’s most lucrative prize for his pioneering contributions to the mind-boggling field of quantum computing.

David Deutsch, who is affiliated with the University of Oxford, shares the $3m (about £2.65m) Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics with three other researchers who laid the foundation for the wider discipline of quantum information.

Deutsch, 69, became known as the “father of quantum computing” after proposing an exotic – and so far unbuildable – machine to test 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 that involved a computer, and that computer had some quantum components in it,” Deutsch recalls. “Today it would be called a universal quantum computer, but it took me another six years to think of it that way.”

The Breakthrough Awards, described by their Silicon Valley founders as the Oscars of science, are presented annually to scientists and mathematicians deemed worthy by committees of previous winners. This year there is one prize for physics, three prizes for life science and another prize for mathematics. Each is worth $3 million.

A life science award honors researchers who traced narcolepsy to the brain cells that are destroyed by addictive immune responses. The discovery opened the door to new treatments for sleep disorders.

Clifford Brangwynne
Princeton’s Clifford Brangwynne shares Life Sciences Award for work on proteins. Photo: Dee Sullivan

A second prize goes to Princeton’s Clifford Brangwynne and Anthony Hyman of the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Biology and Cell Genetics in Dresden for discovering that proteins – the battlehorses of cells – form flash mob-like teams , with implications for neurodegenerative diseases. A team from London-based DeepMind has won its third Life Sciences Prize for AlphaFold, an artificial intelligence program that predicted the structures of nearly every protein known to science.

The mathematics prize goes to Daniel Spielman of Yale University for work that helps high-definition televisions handle messy signals, delivery companies find the fastest routes, and scientists avoid bias in clinical trials.

Deutsch was born in Israel to parents who survived the Holocaust, and grew up in north London, where his family ran a restaurant. For his PhD, he worked on quantum theory under Dennis Sciama at Oxford, who previously supervised Stephen Hawking and Lord Rees, the Astronomer Royal. While delving into the foundations of the theory, Deutsch became a fan of the “Many Worlds” interpretation proposed in 1957 by American physicist Hugh Everett III. Believe Everett – although many fight for it – and the events that unfold in our universe give rise to unseen parallel worlds where alternate realities play out.

Deutsch, who makes a living from books, lectures, grants and awards, advanced quantum computing with descriptions of quantum bits, or qubits, and wrote the first quantum algorithm that would outperform its classical equivalent.

He shares the prize with Peter Shor of MIT, 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 – a way of sending information from one place to another.

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

It took years of painstaking work by Emmanuel Mignot of Stanford University and Masashi Yanagisawa of the University of Tsukuba to discover the cause of narcolepsy, a serious sleep disorder, for which they share a biology prize. Mignot’s studies of narcoleptic dogs traced the condition to mutant receptors in the brain. Meanwhile, Yanagisawa discovered orexin, a neurotransmitter, that worked through the receptor. At first, Yanagisawa thought orexin played a role in appetite, but mice lacking it appeared to eat normally. Only after he decided to film the animals at night (mice are nocturnal) did his team notice that they had suddenly fallen asleep. “This was really a eureka moment,” Yanagisawa said.

Later work by Mignot found that people with narcolepsy lack orexin in a part of the brain called the hippocampus. Clusters of orexin-producing cells are thought to be destroyed by wayward immune reactions, which is why narcolepsy surged in the “swine flu” pandemic of 2009. The work paved the way for new drugs that treat narcolepsy by mimicking orexin.

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

A third life sciences award went to Demis Hassabis and John Jumper of Alphabet company DeepMind. The team set out to solve a 50-year-old grand challenge in biology, namely predicting how proteins fold. Because the shape of a protein determines its function, it is of immense importance to understanding diseases and finding drugs to treat them.

Earlier this year, the DeepMind team released the 200m protein structures, stimulating work in areas as diverse as malaria and plastic recycling. Hassabis calls it both “the most significant thing done with artificial intelligence in the sciences” and a starting point: a proof of principle that puzzles that are expected to last our lifetime can be solved with artificial intelligence.

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

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