News - Quantum Leap

Quantum Leap

By Carla Morris

Shuto OsawaEntangled photons, cryptosystems, secure data transfer—the language of quantum information science fills Room 103 in Snyder Hall as Shuto Osawa defends his honors thesis. Professors probe with questions; he responds with poise. They draw new ideas into the mix; he engages them with confidence.

The give and take centers on the wonder of photons, particles of light that hold the promise of faster and more secure communications. From opening prayer to final applause, the session reveals another wonder too: the quantum leap in Shuto’s scholarship and enthusiasm for his discipline since he first set foot on GC’s campus four years ago.

6,000 Miles From Home

Then, 18 years old and nearly 6,000 miles from his home in northern Japan, Shuto struggled with the English language. His high school studies covered reading and writing in English, but college-level exchanges demanded more. He plodded through the process of improving his language skills, but at the same time yearned for a project that would satisfy his surging curiosities in other areas, particularly math. None materialized.

That was before Hyung Choi arrived at Greenville College to chair the physics department, before Choi ignited Shuto’s imagination with a course in quantum mechanics and before he asked Shuto and two other students to help build a quantum information lab in Snyder. It was before Shuto cemented friendships with his lab partners and grew fascinated with the development of true random numbers—a key concept to the security of computer systems and relevant to the study of photons.

“Quantum information science stole my heart,” he later confessed, an understatement by any measure.

Light Particles Inextricably Entwined

Instead of returning to Japan last summer, Shuto headed to Vienna, where he interned with Dr. Anton Zeilinger’s research group at the Institute for Quantum Optics and Quantum Information. Under the guidance of researchers, he worked at a table comprised of optical devices, lasers and crystals. He studied “entangled” photons—pairs of photons so inextricably linked that they interact with each other even when separated by great distances.

Shuto explains his experimental work as a conundrum. “In quantum mechanics, when we take measurements, the measuring corrupts the state of the photons, so they are not entangled anymore. But, if you don’t take the measurement, how can you tell they are entangled?”

Zeilinger’s researchers revealed several solutions to that puzzle. Buoyed by his breakthrough in understanding, Shuto moved ahead with his work in Vienna and continued it upon return to Greenville.

“Sometimes, I’d forget to eat,” he recalls of his time at the Institute. “There was no clock in the lab. If we work under the light, it can break the photon detectors, so we cannot really turn on the lights when we take the measurements. Basically, it is a dark room; the window is always blocked. Sometimes when I was done, it was 8 p.m. Sometimes I would work 12 hours a day . . . I really enjoyed it; I even enjoyed the struggle.”

Beautiful Window Into the Unseen

If anyone appreciates the mystery of inspiration entwined with disciplined study, it is Hyung Choi. Inspired by light as a metaphor for God, Choi examined the nature of light in his doctoral research. He explains the quantum world as a strange and beautiful window into the unseen. Like Newton, Copernicus, Faraday and Eddington, Choi regards his study as part of a spiritual journey: “To me, knowing God and studying physics have never been two separate things.”

“He has good insight,” Shuto says of his mentor.

Beyond Undergraduate Work

The conversation lightens at the end of Shuto’s defense as he fields questions. Attendees learn that his academic work has garnered attention from several universities. He will begin PhD studies this fall at Boston University with the University covering his full tuition and supplying a generous stipend.

His is not the last word, however. That goes to Choi, who reiterates to guests what most suspect by the end of the hour: “Shuto went well beyond the undergraduate level of research.”

The affirmation is a perfect send-off for the gifted scholar, who, after a pause for graduation, will continue pursuing the mysteries contained in tiny, entangled particles.Quantum Physics Trio Lab

Note: The three students who built GC’s quantum information lab received a combined total of 12 offers from leading PhD programs nationwide. Elle Shaw, recipient of GC’s President’s Citation, will study with the nation’s top condensed matter group at the University of Illinois. Xiaotong “Toni” Zheng will study astrophysics at the University of Utah.

This story originally appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of GC's alumni magazine, The RECORD.



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This story was published on June 29, 2016

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