The vibrant diversity of a quantum physicist

Father of three, quantum physicist, ornithologist and committed open science advocate: there are many sides to Vincent Mourik’s life.

9. März 2023

Just recently, Vincent Mourik had another interesting conversation about quantum physics – with a dancer. Granted, it was less about the interaction of tiny particles and more about the abstractness of the concepts: “That’s exactly what connected the artist, who specializes in modern dance, and me, the physicist: abstractness as a common ground,” explains Dutchman Mourik, whom the North Rhine-Westphalian Academy of Sciences and Arts accepted to its Junges Kolleg as a scholarship holder last December. Since the end of 2021, the 36-year-old has worked at the JARA Institute for Quantum Information at Forschungszentrum Jülich and has been setting up a young investigator group as well as his Solid State Quantum Devices Laboratory (SQUAD), which is located on the RWTH Aachen University campus.

Today, however, the man with the distinctive, full red beard can be found neither in Jülich nor in Aachen – but in his little house in the Dutch province of Limburg, where he lives with his wife and three children. A few budgies are chattering in the background. “They help against our homesickness,” the researcher tells us and laughs: he had been doing postdoctoral research in Sydney at the University of New South Wales from 2016 to 2021. “While there were really many good reasons to return to Germany and Europe, the weather’s definitely not one of them. In Australia, we never had to worry about the children’s clothes,” Mourik says with a twinkle.

What he actually sorely misses: nature and the wilderness. “It was only in Australia that I realized how much pressure bears down on this planet, what role biodiversity plays and how much humans are destroying nature,” says Mourik. It was then that he decided – in addition to his work as a physicist – to collaborate on monitoring studies on birds. Even as a child, Mourik had used every free minute to watch birds, though he did not want to become an ornithologist. “That would’ve been kind of uncool when I was 18,” says the broadly interested researcher. So he studied physics at Delft University of Technology.

“Even as a student, I was fascinated by how our macroscopic world emerges from a microscopic world, which in turn is described by quantum mechanics,” he says with enthusiasm. The then 19-year-old was fascinated by the contrast between, on the one hand, a theory that has the potential to revolutionize our technologies and thus our society and, on the other, a practice that is difficult for laypeople to access – a fascination that continues to this day.

Die bunte Vielfalt eines Quantenphysikers

Open science as a matter of the heart

Scientific transparency is close to Vincent Mourik’s heart. Against this background, he is committed to open science and comprehensive data exchange. He advocates open online publishing including open peer review without rejections of submissions. “Publication platforms should be non-profit and commercial scientific journals abolished,” Mourik states.
He is also concerned with how to deal with criticism. “It should be perfectly normal to discuss scientific problems publicly – for example, if there are inconsistencies in a paper that has already been published,” says the Dutchman. He knows from his own experience that someone who criticises such a case is quickly considered a whistleblower by the community. “That’s why young researchers fear for their careers if they point out possible mistakes. That has to change,” says Mourik.

Die Zeit in Jülich hat der Physiker bisher vor allem genutzt, um sein Labor aufzubauen. Hier möchte Mourik sein Projekt „GeBaseQ“ (Germanium Based Qubits) realisieren, für das er im Jahr 2022 über den vom Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung ausgelobten Nachwuchswettbewerb „Quantum Futur“ 4,8 Millionen Euro eingeworben hat. Seine Motivation: „Ich will mit meiner Gruppe binnen drei bis fünf Jahren Experimente etablieren, die helfen, die Quantenphysik besser zu verstehen und dazu beitragen, Quantencomputer bauen zu können.“

Quantencomputer sind gewissermaßen das i-Tüpfelchen der Quantenphysik. Das Problem: Um einen Quantencomputer zu bauen, der für die Praxis relevante Dinge berechnet, müssen Millionen von Recheneinheiten, die Qubits, erzeugt und kontrolliert werden. Bisher gelingt das noch nicht und es ist offen, welche Arten von Qubits sich durchsetzen. Qubits lassen sich etwa mithilfe von Supraleitern, Ionenfallen oder Halbleitern erzeugen.

Mourik counts on semiconductors. This material, which is mostly made of silicon, can already be found today in almost every laptop, smartphone or television in the form of microchips. “We want to find out whether a special semiconductor made of a combination of silicon and germanium is suitable for quantum bits,” explains Mourik. There is comparatively little research on this combination in Germany. Mourik intends to close this gap. So he dives deep into his quantum concepts again and again. “And from time to time, I go out into nature: I see, smell, taste and hear life there. It’s tangible – and not abstract.”

Text: Katja Lüers | Photos: Forschungszentrum Jülich/Ralf-Uwe Limbach and Tobias Fischer

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Last Modified: 19.09.2023