30 under 30: Teaching Computers to Simulate Natural Phenomena

Meet Jonathan Welch, 25, one of the up-and-coming physicists attending this year's Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting

Image courtesy of Jon Welch

The annual Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting brings a wealth of scientific minds to the shores of Germany’s Lake Constance. Every summer at Lindau, dozens of Nobel Prize winners exchange ideas with hundreds of young researchers from around the world. Whereas the Nobelists are the marquee names, the younger contingent is an accomplished group in its own right. In advance of this year’s meeting, which focuses on physics, we are profiling several promising attendees under the age of 30. The profile below is the 28th in a series of 30.

Name: Jonathan Welch
Age: 25
Born: Colorado, USA
Nationality: American

Current position: PhD student at Harvard University
Education: Bachelor’s of science in physics, University of West Florida

What is your field of research?
Currently I work on developing algorithms for quantum computation/simulation, generally with a focus on chemical properties and dynamics.

What drew you to physics, and to that research area in particular?
I have always had a desire to understand the inner workings of everything from atoms to airplanes. What determined the rules that govern their dynamics, how can they be changed? I found early on that one of the best ways to understand a difficult physical phenomenon was to try and design a simulation that could reproduce the effect on a computer. You have to tell the computer how to do every step of the process, and hence must know in great detail what the underlying mechanisms are that govern the dynamics of the simulation. As one moves to studying quantum systems, it requires a completely different way of thinking about and visualizing the problem. New uniquely quantum effects are unintuitive, and often difficult to directly translate into a classical algorithm that can be programmed on your home computer. Quantum computers have the ability to intrinsically work with these unusual quantum effects, since the quantum computer is itself a quantum object. This makes it an ideal system for trying to find new problems in physics that classical computers cannot solve.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
There are so many fun things you can do with physics, like solving the equations that tell you the exact frequency distortion you hear when talking into a desktop fan. We have all done it since we where children, but physics can tell you why, and exactly what you expect to hear. It may not tell you how to build a working quantum computer, but it’s fun regardless. That’s why I study physics, to have fun solving all types of problems. My hope would be in 10 years that I still find the world as fascinating as I do now. As far as a real puzzle, my passion will always be to understand the intimate connections between mathematics and nature. Few things bring me as much excitement as discovering a new physical system designed by nature that has the intrinsic ability to compute an advanced mathematical operation. It is truly fortunate that nature decided to follow mathematics… and that we are given a glimpse of such amazing structure.

Who are your scientific heroes?
Richard Feynman is probably one of my biggest inspirations, not for his contributions to physics (which were substantial to say the least), but for his approach to science. His way of teaching and speaking made clear that he did physics not to make some great discovery, but because he enjoyed it and wanted to learn all he could about the world. He gave me a love for physics that I didn’t know existed and made me see what it meant to actually understand a phenomenon rather than just recognize it.

What activities outside of physics do you most enjoy?
I love to play the piano. Anything from Classical to Jazz to theme songs from my favorite shows. Occasionally I will just sit down and improvise to relax, and have even been known to compose a few pieces here and there.

What do you hope to gain from this year’s Lindau meeting?
Going to Lindau will give me an unprecedented opportunity to meet like-minded people from around the world. I am looking forward to listening to the great minds of our time discuss their research and methods for approaching it. It will also give me an opportunity to meet potential collaborators and establish new relationships that may lead to new ideas and more ways for me to engage in my passions for learning new things.

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27. Sigrid Milles
30 Under 30:
Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting
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29. Claire Thomas


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