QuICS Fellow Awarded 2024 Hermann Weyl Prize

March 22, 2024

Nicole Yunger Halpern, a physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) who is embedded full-time on the University of Maryland campus, has been awarded the 2024 Hermann Weyl Prize for her work in quantum thermodynamics.

The prize is awarded every two years to an early career scientist that has performed original research focused on a better understanding of physics through symmetries, which are the physical or mathematical features of a system that remain unchanged under transformation.

It honors Hermann Weyl (1885–1955), a mathematician and theoretical physicist who is considered one of the most influential mathematicians of the twentieth century.

In recognizing Yunger Halpern for the award, the selection committee acknowledged “… her innovative contributions to quantum thermodynamics in the presence of non-Abelian charges, and her creative use of symmetries that has paved the way to experimental exploration.”

Yunger Halpern says the work she received accolades for involves research she’s been actively pursuing for several years. The idea is, across physics—and particularly thermodynamics—small systems exchange things with large environments. For example, if you leave a cup of hot tea on a table, the tea will exchange heat and H2O molecules with the surrounding air.

But if the systems are quantum, she says, then the exchanged things can be not only energy and molecules, but also things that—due to quantum uncertainty—can't be measured simultaneously.

What, then, happens to common thermodynamic results in this quantum scenario?

“That question had scarcely ever been addressed, or even asked, until colleagues and I discovered it almost a decade ago,” Yunger Halpern says, noting that she proposed and collaborated with others on the first experimental study of this type of quantum thermodynamics via a trapped-ion experiment performed in Innsbruck, Austria.

At UMD, Yunger Halpern is a Fellow in the Joint Center for Quantum Information and Computer Science (QuICS), a senior investigator in the NSF Quantum Leap Challenge Institute for Robust Quantum Simulation, an adjunct faculty member in the Institute for Physical Science & Technology and a co-founder of the Maryland Quantum Thermodynamics Hub.

She leads a theoretical research group that is modernizing thermodynamics, which traditionally describes large things like steam engines. Her team uses the tools of quantum information theory to make a theory of quantum thermodynamics that describes small things like individual molecules and the qubits that are the basic building blocks of quantum computers. She applies her quantum thermodynamics perspectives to problems from a broad range of fields, including atomic, molecular, and optical physics; condensed matter physics; chemistry; high-energy physics; and biophysics.

Yunger Halpern will officially accept the Hermann Weyl Prize this July at a conference in Cotonou, Benin.