Meet Professor Michelle Simmons

August 2018

Quantum physicist and 2018 Australian of the Year, Professor Michelle Simmons from the University of New South Wales, talks to us about how quantum physics can revolutionise the way we go about our lives and work, and what the field of physics means to her.

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Your work has the potential to revolutionise the way many of us go about our work and our lives. How would you describe quantum physics? And what drew you to it?

Quantum physics describes how the world behaves at very small scales. When we consider the fundamental building blocks of nature—such as atoms—their behaviour is dominated by quantum rather than classical physics. By controlling matter at this scale, we have the potential to create a new form of computer called a quantum computer.

I was drawn to this problem because it combines fundamental understanding of how the world works at the atomic-scale with my experience of engineering and creating new electronic devices. It’s also an important problem. Ultimately, if we’re successful, we’ll create a new computing technology that is highly beneficial for humanity.

What’s been the most unexpected or interesting finding you’ve made?

In creating the new field of atomic electronics, we’re now building electronic devices that have never been made before—enabling us to discover a whole range of unexpected effects.

For instance, we’ve engineered silicon wires as thin as four atoms wide to behave like copper for example, demonstrating that Ohm’s Law (the scientific law stating that electric current is proportional to voltage and inversely proportional to resistance) survives to the atomic scale. Every device we make is unique, and atom by atom, we’re building up a picture of the way the world behaves at the quantum level.

What’s one of the toughest challenges you’ve faced in your career?

One of the toughest challenges was when we first set out to make electronic devices with atomic precision. We broke the problem into eight different stages and at that time, the view within the scientific community was that the chances of getting through all eight stages were near impossible.

Our solution was to combine two technologies that had previously been considered incompatible. To my delight, the approach worked much better than I had hoped, and over a period of around 10 years, we systematically solved all those eight challenges that had been predicted to block our way.

It all culminated in creating the first single atom transistor in 2012.

Who—either in your public life or in your private life—inspires you?

In my private life, it’s easily my husband. He is optimistic, energetic and insightful. He works incredibly hard, is amazingly diligent and always surprises me. He has a unique way of looking at the world and constantly challenges my beliefs and thinking.

In my public life there are so many, but here are a few:

  • Jagadish Chennaputi (for his unceasing hard work and sense of responsibility),
  • Stephen Menzies (for his integrity and intelligence), and
  • Cathy Foley (who’s a trailblazer both for women in physics and for physicists having an impact in the world).

My ideal retirement

I honestly can’t see myself retiring unless my body gives out! I love creating and building things as well as teaching, so those things will always be a part of me.

I also aim to remain as busy and active as I am now. That said, retirement for me would need to include some time for dancing with my husband, painting pictures, and learning to play the piano. I am also looking forward to watching my children grow old and hopefully someday having quite a few grandchildren to muck around with.