A Vision for Growing New Zealand
Dodd-Walls Centre Director, David Hutchinson sees the core purpose of the Dodd-Walls Centre as nurturing students and growing opportunities for New Zealand.
“It’s about training young people and growing new career pathways so they can stay here,” he says.
As Director, David’s role is to make sure the opportunities are there, capturing what’s good and letting people hear about it.
“We’re already blessed with a large number of individual Marsden Grants [fundamental research funding]."
The centre’s focus on photonics and quantum technologies is significant because that’s where the world’s funding and focus is currently directed. As David explains, it was a knowledge of the latest physics which kickstarted New Zealand’s agricultural export industry and rescued our economy in the 1880s.
“Engineers who knew about recent discoveries in thermodynamics were able to retrofit ships with refrigerators sending lamb and butter to Britain.”
Today photonics and quantum technologies have the potential to do the same.
“Across the world there is massive investment in photonics,” says David. “New Zealand already has a strength in this field. We are known for it internationally. I see a vast opportunity here for developing a workforce that can help to build this new wave of technology.".
Education and Outreach with the Otago Museum
"The beauty of an organisation like this is that it's full of good people"
"The Centre of Research Excellence funding allows us to link those projects together so more adventurous, diverse and useful research can be funded."
David is on the board of the Otago Museum and has forged a strong relationship between the Museum and the Dodd-Walls Centre.
“Museums play this wonderful role of nurturing and exciting kids,” he says. “You get the parents and grandparents coming along too so you reach a wider audience and it’s intergenerational.”
The Dodd Walls Centre has worked closely with the Otago Museum, putting on festivals, school visits and events, particularly for the International Year of Light in 2015.
Collaborating across Centres of Research Excellence (CoREs)
David sees a special role for students in new collaborations. In 2016 he initiated a joint student symposium along with the Director of the MacDiarmid Institute, another Centre of Research Excellence, focusing on nanotechnology and materials research.
“We thought the best way of cross-fertilising ideas was to have the students interacting with each other,” he explains. “They are the ones at the coalface. They can do the exploratory early stage work and help each other solve the technical problems; the first steps to forming a new project.”
Quantum Biology, Cold Atoms and The Hunt for the Underlying Mathematics of Quantum Physics
"If we could show bacteria use quantum physics to harness light we could use the principles of nature to make more efficient solar cells or light harvesting machines."
"These are the practical applications. But for me the fun is in seeing if quantum physics is utilised or perhaps essential for life."
In our everyday experience there are solid things, like bodies and walls, and there are non-solid things like light, sound and heat, which in Physics are called waves. The weird thing about quantum physics is that if you zoom in to a very small scale the distinction vanishes. Solid particles spread like waves, sometimes appear in more than one place at once, tunnel through barriers and seem to communicate across distances. This strange and unfamiliar world is David’s playground. He is a theoretical physicist and develops computer models to investigate quantum phenomena. His mission is to find ways of using quantum physics to achieve things on an everyday macroscopic scale.
Harnessing these strange quantum phenomena would completely revolutionise technology, contributing to the development of quantum computers and extremely sensitive measuring devices. But for David the main attraction is discovery - peering behind the curtain to discover how the quantum world works. This has led him to ask fundamental questions like ‘What is time?’ and ‘How many dimensions are there in the universe?’ He recently completed a PGDip in Philosophy.
David is currently involved in three research areas: quantum biology, cold atoms and the mathematical foundations of quantum physics.
Anderson Localisation in Cold Atoms
Until recently quantum phenomena have been extremely difficult to observe in the lab. But now, with cold atom research, a whole new playground has opened up.
“At room temperature atoms behave like little solid lumps - not too different from pebbles or grains of sand,” David explains. “But if you cool them right down to near zero then whole atoms start behaving like waves.”
You can cool a whole bunch of atoms down and have precise control over their behaviour. This means that the models that David creates can be tested in the lab. He is currently investigating a phenomena called “Anderson localisation”. In his computer experiments, electrons spread throughout space and create patterns like ripples on water.
Birds, Bees & Bacteria
David’s latest passion is Quantum Biology - looking for examples in nature where quantum physics is used in living processes. He is currently investigating how birds navigate and bees smell, projects with potential applications for horticulture. He is also studying how certain bacteria found deep underwater manage to survive with such little light. He is modelling the molecules involved in photosynthesis to see if they use “quantum tunneling” to transport energy from the point where the drop of sunlight hits to the reaction centre where it is converted into energy.