Université de Montréal's Gilles Brassard is amongst the finalists for prestigious Nobel Prize award for physics, according to the 2012 edition of the annual list prepared by news agency Thomson Reuters. He is joined by two American colleagues, Charles Bennett of IBM and William Wootters at Williams College. In 1993, the researchers published a major article in Physical Review entitled “Teleporting an unknown quantum state via dual classical and Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen channels.” Also in the lead are British astrophysicist Leigh Canham and American physicists Stephen Harris (Stanford University) and Lene Hau (Harvard University). The names of the winners will be announced at the beginning of October.
"It's very flattering, but it's hard for me aspire to the Nobel Prize in physics since I'm not a physicist, and unfortunately, there is no Nobel Prize in computer science or mathematics," says Brassard amusedly, while conceding that the discovery made at Université de Montréal in November 1992 may indeed merit the Nobel Prize for its authors. “It is one of the most fundamental discoveries of the 20th century,” he said. “It was immediately recognized as such, contrary to my previous work in quantum cryptography, which took several years to be fully recognized."
Thomson Reuters' scientific committee does not claim to replace the Nobel Prize scientific selection committee – the agency performs a calculation which they say is the closest to the one that is actually used in Stockholm. Over the last 10 years, the predictions of Thomson Reuters, which also cover medicine, chemistry, and economics, have proven to be correct 26 times.
The committee focuses on the top 0.1% most cited researchers in their discipline. The article by Brassard and his colleagues, which has forced many physicists to revise their conception of quantum mechanics, has been cited 5,380 times since its publication, according to the news agency. Google Scholar, while not mentioned, contains more than 7,749 citations—over one per day since the article's publication 19 years ago. Brassard would like to acknowledge the work of three early collaborators, oddly overlooked by Thomson Reuters in the their Nobel prediction: long-time collaborator Claude Crépeau, now a professor at McGill University, the mathematician Richard Josza (University of Bristol), and the late physicist Asher Peres (Technion Israel Institute of Technology).
“I thought it was spam.”
Anthony Pawson of the University of Toronto is the only other Canadian on the Thomson Reuters list. There are also thirteen Americans, three Japanese, and two British researchers. When he was contacted by email directly by the news agency on September 13, Brassard initially thought it was spam and paid no attention to it. On September 19, several journalists tried to reach him to comment on the news, which, once made public, was publicized through social media. Brassard's first in-depth interview was with Forum, the Université de Montréal newspaper.
A practical man, the academic quickly measured his chances of winning the Nobel Prize for physics, which he considers slim. While the Nobel Prize is awarded to a major discovery rather than an entire career, contrary to what is generally believed, and recent experiments in quantum teleportation have supported his theory, it is never shared by more than three people and it is never award posthumously. Six authors signed the article in Physical Review, five of whom are still alive.
As far as Patrice Marcotte, director of Université de Montréal's Department of Computer Science and Operational Research, is concerned, there is no doubt that Gilles Brassard has what it takes for a Nobel Prize: it is only a matter of time before the Swedish committee recognizes him.
Crowning achievement of a precocious career
At 57, Gilles Brassard has won a multitude of awards, but the Nobel Prize would be a crowning achievement at an international level. The young mathematics prodigy initially discovered by his brother Robert, his elder by six years, Brassard mastered differential and integral calculus in elementary school. Université de Montréal opened its door to Brassard when he was just 13 years old, and he entered into a bachelor's program. The "mathematical elegance” of cryptography captivated him during his doctoral studies at Cornell University, and he immediately redirected his attention to the science of coding, until then the preserve of the military.
His meeting with Charles Bennett in November 1979 was decisive and is the stuff of cinema. A few days before delivering a lecture on cryptography in Puerto Rico, Brassard was bathing in the ocean when he saw a stranger swimming toward him. The man approached him saying that he knew how to duplicate banknotes that are otherwise impossible to duplicate, using quantum mechanics. “That meeting in the middle of the ocean changed my life,” says Brassard.
Twelve years his elder, Bennett had read the title of Brassard's paper in the program and wanted to meet him. The two men became friends and worked together actively, leading to a famous brainstorming session in November 1992. Inspired by an article on quantum physics he had just read, Brassard invited one of the authors, William Wootters, to present his findings in Montreal. He took the occasion to invite Charles Bennett and Claude Crépeau. During the presentation, a question was raised by Bennett that Wootters was unable to answer. The researchers locked themselves in Brassard's office to discuss the matter. “Twenty-four hours later, the theory of quantum teleportation was born,” recalls the scientist.
Returning to their daily lives, the researchers exchanged papers between North America, Europe, and Israel: according to Brassard, the six authors were in a continuum of movement on which the sun never set. It took only 11 days to prepare and submit the article. "I think the principle of quantum teleportation would have been discovered sooner or late because it was inevitable. Our collaboration saved a few years,” he says.
Never tiring of his teaching career after 33 years – first as lecturer at the University at 24, then as full professor nine years later, becoming the youngest faculty member to receive such a promotion in the modern history of the Université de Montréal – Gilles Brassard relishes the freedom afforded by his position. As head of the Canada Research Chair in quantum computing, he continues his work in theoretical and quantum computer science. He currently supervises some ten graduate students, mostly doctoral candidates, half of whom are from abroad. His greatest professional pride comes from learning that a former student has obtained a professorship at a university somewhere in the world, a pleasure he has known more than twenty times already.
Without hesitation, he refuses offers from abroad, enjoying above all the quality of life of Montreal, his hometown. An avid cyclist and hiker, the Nobel contender also loves cooking and listening to music. Most of all, he has an undying sense of humour, peppering his remarks on quantum physics with spontaneous laughter.
“Humourless people are not serious,” goes the French adage.
This document is a translation of an article originally published in French.
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