‘Since coming to Leiden, I’ve never worried that something might be too difficult to do’

The Italian physicist Andrea Morello is one of the pioneers of the quantum revolution. He is currently doing research at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, but cherishes his time as a PhD candidate in Leiden.

Why did you choose for a PhD position in Leiden?

‘I first had the opportunity to work with low temperature physics during a graduation internship in Grenoble, and I thought it was absolutely fascinating. I knew that the Kamerlingh Onnes Laboratory in Leiden was the first laboratory in the world to study that specialism, and that it still is one of the leading institutions in the field. Moreover, I worked with a lot of Dutch colleagues in Grenoble and we got along very well. I appreciate the Dutch ‘no nonsense’ approach to working: the Dutch have a very direct and efficient style. It therefore made a lot of sense, and seemed like fun, to try and find a PhD position in Leiden.’

What exactly did you do here in Leiden?

‘My first project was constructing a very special setup capable of measuring the levels of magnetisation of various materials, even at temperatures of 0.01 degrees Celsius above absolute zero. That means you need to carefully move a large, extremely powerful cooling machine through a coil of superconducting wire, which itself is connected to an extremely sensitive measuring device. It felt like trying to delicately stroke the wings of a butterfly with a power drill, but it actually worked very well. After that, I worked on experiments centred on magnetic molecules. I also confirmed a precise theory that predicts how the surroundings of a magnetic molecule determine whether the molecule will move in a classic or in a quantum pattern.’

How did you experience life in Leiden?

‘It’s been a very important and very positive period in my life. I consciously decided to actively participate in Dutch culture and lifestyle and I’m very happy I did so – though I did stick to great Italian dinners every evening. I also made wonderful friends there and even fell in love with – and eventually married – a Dutch woman.’

  

 
Who: Andrea Morello (1972)

Research: PhD candidate in physics in Leiden from 1999 to 2004.

Favourite place in Leiden: 'Café de WW. Low-temperature physicists in Leiden had a great tradition of going to the WW every Friday night. The tradition was honoured for more than 25 years, but sadly my colleagues and I were the last generation to keep it alive.’

 

  

Andrea Morello with the construction he built in Leiden

Andrea Morello with the construction he built in Leiden

What type of research did you work on after life in Leiden?

‘I spent two years in Vancouver working with magnetic molecules after completing my studies in Leiden. Since 2006, I’ve been working at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, with the goal of constructing a silicon quantum computer. It’s a very ambitious programme, but my research team has already proven that it is possible. We were the first scientists in the world to read and guide the quantum condition of a single phosphorus atom in silicon.’

What does that mean?

‘We’ve built a quantum bit, which is basically the building block of a quantum computer. And we have now also constructed the best solid-state quantum bit in the world, which can hold quantum information for more than thirty seconds – a very long time in the quantum business. If we connect a number of these bits together we will be able to construct a very special calculator, capable of solving problems normal computers can’t handle. We predict that this type of quantum computer will be very suitable for analysing and designing complex materials and molecules, for instance, for medication.’

What kind of lessons and experiences from Leiden still play a part in your research?

‘In Leiden I’ve learned to design and construct very complicated experiments. Since then, I’ve never worried that something might be too difficult to do. I’ve also learned to work efficiently and productively, without becoming a workaholic.’

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?

‘Always go to the root of a problem, meaning: always go back in time until you reach the first time a problem was described. That advice was given to me by my supervisor in Leiden, Professor Jos de Jongh, and it has since proven to be invaluable.’

(24 February 2015 - LvP)

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Last Modified: 04-03-2015