When he is practising his moves on a surfboard equipped with a sail, light to him is not a wave, only rays of sunshine heating up his skin. But in his everyday work, instead of catching rays on his wind board, Michał Parniak, who has won distinction for his scientific achievements in the 2019 START programme of the Foundation for Polish Science, is capturing individual photons and working on a device that can remember light and store it in quantum memory. Ambitious? “I always loved to surf the big waves,” says the devoted, ardent windsurfer. But by professional calling, he is a physicist.
Parniak, who holds a doctorate in physics and works at the Centre of New Technologies at the University of Warsaw, is developing multimodal quantum memory. In human terms, we could say that the researcher is working so that in the future we will be able to record light not only as an image. Success in harnessing this combined wave/stream and playing it back with the precision down to a single photon would create quantum memory. From there it would not be far to achieving secure communications immune to eavesdropping, and to building a quantum computer.
Creating a device in which light could be recorded is a huge challenge for quantum physics. For now, the applications can only be imagined. Currently, to “catch” exactly one photon requires the efforts of a team of scientists and a huge lab. But if this is successful, a photon could be used to secure data. Banks and other institutions could exchange information that no one could spy on—unless they wanted to get caught.
As Parniak explained, “If someone attempted to eavesdrop on communications in which a one-quantum bit is recorded on a single photon, we would learn of it immediately. Since there is just one photon, it would not be possible to steal just a little of our signal and eavesdrop on it. We would immediately cease receiving that signal.”
Parniak is involved in the construction of light memory and seeking a source of individual photons. For a “memory card” he uses atoms of rubidium. Rubidium is a metal, but when heated it vaporizes. Light can be recorded in this gas of atoms at room temperature. But it is hard to obtain precision to the level of individual photons, so researchers cool the gas.
If we entered his lab, we would see not a forest, but a complicated arrangement of optical tables, at least 3 m long and 1.5 m wide. On one table there are 11 lasers, which control atoms. Another table contains the memory system. Exploring further, we would encounter a big surprise. We might intuitively assume that the laser heats up atoms. Here, the atoms are cooled by laser beams.
“Using light, we can reduce the atoms from room temperature to 20 millionths of a degree above absolute zero,” says Parniak. “That’s a very, very low temperature.” When such atoms are suspended in a vacuum chamber, they constitute a precisely controlled medium, i.e. a micro device, which for a few moments can both store light and generate individual photons. “Our memory can remember complex images,” Parniak explained, “which is why we say that it is spatially multimodal.”
He also discusses the accomplishments of his team at scientific conferences and during visits to partner research institutions. And this is not just empty boasting, as the Poles are frequently cited by their foreign colleagues. These travels are an opportunity to visit excellent universities and interesting places. Parniak is currently on a fellowship in Copenhagen, and has been in Silicon Valley and Hong Kong. This is a friendly way to battle the scientific competition. “We have competitors in China,” he said, “so it’s important for us to show Chinese teams what we are doing, so they can cite us.”
Before he became a physicist, Parniak used to spend a couple of weeks a year on the water, windsurfing. It was his passion. On the Bay of Puck, between Władysławowo and Chałupy, he learned to windsurf, and for years he spent every summer holiday there. Now it’s hard for him to find two solid weeks of vacation. Instead he goes to Tenerife, where the weather guarantees good training conditions.
“You can also windsurf ambitiously in Poland, but there’s not always good wind,” he explained.
“On the Canary Islands you can catch huge waves for the whole week. It saves time. I don’t take part in regattas. Where I go, the surfing world championships are held every year. The winner is the one who makes the best jump, the best turn on the waves. That’s a discipline that interests me. Sometimes my friends and I try the same thing. We learn together.”
So if you encounter a young man at the airport with a surfboard under his arm and the wind in his hair, remember that maybe it’s a laureate of the Foundation for Polish Science taking his only week off this year from research that could change the world.
Pictured: Magdalena Wiśniewska-Krasińska