The discovery of quantum mechanics in the early 20th century spawned a revolution that tore through scientific disciplines with abandon. It helped to explain, among many other things, the structure of the atom; the periodic nature of the elements in chemistry; and why some solids conduct electricity while others do not. Armed with this foundational knowledge, scientists and engineers developed transistors, which were assembled into integrated circuits, which became the central architectural elements of sophisticated processors of information.
Computers initially filling up entire buildings and cost many millions of dollars; now they fit comfortably fit into the pocket of a teenager. Our understanding of light and subsequent invention of the laser led to fiber optic networks, satellite communication and the physical underpinnings of the global internet. Physicists do not use the term “revolution” lightly.
Now, scientists and engineers are excited about a “second quantum revolution,” one whose impact could potentially eclipse the first. An outgrowth of our quest to understand and control quantum behavior has given rise to remarkable developments—the idea of a “quantum computer,” and a “quantum internet.” Quantum computers can solve certain types of problems exponentially faster than ordinary computers. If a sufficiently powerful quantum computer can be built, it could factor numbers (e.g., 15 = 3 x 5) faster than any known supercomputer. This “quantum party trick” could completely undermine the encryption schemes currently used to send information securely over the internet. And if a quantum internet can be built, it could completely replace these insecure communication protocols with ones whose reliability are governed by the laws of quantum mechanics—the ultimate rules of our universe.
The race to develop these quantum technologies is global. China has already demonstrated a “quantum satellite” that can transmit video over a quantum-secure channel. Spooked by this “Sputnik moment,” the U.S. quickly launched a National Quantum Initiative, which recently celebrated its second birthday. Other initiatives include the European Quantum Flagship program and a major quantum computing effort in Australia.
However, we are losing ground in the race to develop these technologies, in part because of a highly limited pool of trained scientists and engineers. Why? There are many reasons, including restrictions of international STEM talent, but a glaring omission is what I call the “factor of two” problem. Physics, computer science and engineering have only about 20 percent of degree recipients identifying as women for the last decade. We are largely missing out on the talents of half of the population.
Many theories have been put forward for the low representation of women in these disciplines in the U.S. But a major reason is the chilly climate and culture. I am a woman physicist. I know firsthand what it is like to be part of the “physics culture.” When I attended college in India, I was one of nine women out of 500, the same ratio as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg when she attended Harvard Law School. I worked hard, excelled, and applied to graduate schools in America, the land of milk and honey, where surely the situation would be improved. To my dismay, I learned on the first day that I was the only woman in a class of 36.