The Wolf Prize brings Gilles Brassard closer to a Nobel

  • Forum
  • 06/18/2018

  • Mathieu-Robert Sauvé
(L-to-R): Gilles Brassard, Israeli education minister Naftali Bennett, Israeli president Reuven Rivlin, Israeli journalist and deputy speaker of the Knesset, Nachman Shai.

(L-to-R): Gilles Brassard, Israeli education minister Naftali Bennett, Israeli president Reuven Rivlin, Israeli journalist and deputy speaker of the Knesset, Nachman Shai.

Credit: Wolf Foundation

In 5 seconds

The computer scientist was honoured at a ceremony May 31 at the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem.

By receiving the Wolf Prize in physics in Israel on May 31, Gilles Brassard, a professor in the Department of Computer Science and Operations Research at Université de Montréal, has taken a step closer to perhaps one day receiving the Nobel Prize in physics.

"This is without a doubt the most prestigious award I have received in my career," said Brassard, who shares the honor with his colleague Charles H. Bennett of IBM Research in New York City. The award comes with a medal and a cheque for $100,000 U.S. Brassard is the first Canadian to win the prize.

Brassard and Bennett came to the jury's attention through their theoretical work in quantum cryptography (1984) and quantum teleportation (1993). Global industry is now investing billions of dollars in quantum technologies, particularly in China and Europe, and Brassard's theoretical work has been essential in getting the discipline off the ground. Although he began developing quantum computing at the age of 24, Brassard he says he never thought that his discoveries would someday lead to technological applications. "I am a theorist," he said. "What interests me first and foremost is to understand nature."

Dubbed the "Israeli Nobel," between 1978 and 2010 the Wolf Prize was won by 14 of the 26 research scientists who then went on to receive a Nobel. Brassard said he would be happy to land the Nobel himself one day. "But I'm not holding my breath!" he added with a laugh.

Pencil, paper and good students

Conducting basic research in quantum theory requires "only a pencil, paper and good students," Brassard said. But, he added, a theorist must also read everything published in his or her field of expertise and participate as much as possible in international meetings. This, he believes, is the best way to nurture new ideas.

Teaching is also a good way to strengthen one's research team, he said. Almost every year since the beginning of the century, Brassard has taught his department's undergraduate introductory course in quantum computing. Every two years he has also been in charge of the second-year introductory course in algorithmics, which he created in 1980. Several times, he recruited his best students to come work under his supervision on their master's and PhDs. One of them, Paul Raymond-Robichaud, made a particularly significant contribution to science with his PhD.

Associating with Bennett very early on, just after he completed his PhD, Brassard believes the two scientists formed a particularly  productive union. "By pooling our fields of knowledge, we have created a new dimension for reflection," he said. "Quantum cryptography could not have been possible without this alliance between physics and computer science."

Prizes in six fields

The Wolf Prize is awarded by the Wolf Foundation, an Israeli organization founded in 1975 by Ricardo Wolf, a German-born Cuban inventor who made his fortune in steel. The prize is awarded to the most significant researchers in six fields: agriculture, mathematics, medicine, physics, chemistry and one of the arts. The ceremony is held in May at the Knesset in Jerusalem. Sir Paul McCartney, of Beatles fame, was among this year's winners, for music, but did not attend. Reuven Rivlin, Israel's president, bestowed the awards.

Describing this year's winners, the Wolf Foundation said the physics prize went to Brassard and Bennett "for their role in launching quantum information theory." "Though it is only a metaphor," the jury wrote, "one could say that whereas classical information is like the information in a book, quantum information is like the information in a dream."

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