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Caterina Foti: My dream is to expose people from 0- to 99-years old to the quantum world

See the videos explaining Heisenberg's uncertainty principle and showcasing Quantum Jungle, a playful art installation that simulates quantum particle movement using Schrödinger's equation
Caterina Foti
Caterina Foti in Quantum Jungle exhibition in Italy.

You are involved in a quantum institute, a quantum online platform, a quantum exhibition, and a quantum startup that just received seed funding. How did all of this happen?

I came to Finland for the first time in 2017 for an internship during my PhD. I was then part of Professor Sabrina Maniscalco's group; she was my very first connection. I moved to Finland in 2020.

My role at Aalto University is related to outreach and education of quantum science and technologies. This role forces me to go deep into quantum concepts. I did my PhD in Italy in the foundations of quantum physics, and I was a postdoctoral researcher for six months. Now I’m part of Professor Jukka Pekola’s group.

Quantum will be the future technology, and there are big initiatives going on. Most likely our society will be reshaped by these new technologies, therefore I find quantum literacy very important.

We need to educate not only the future workforce: everyone should have at least the possibility of understanding quantum physics. Quantum physics is not yet a well-known topic at all, but there is a lot of interest in quantum science and technologies.

Today is the International Day of Women and Girls in science, and also your birthday. Congratulations! How did you become a quantum researcher?

Even though not specifically for physics, my family and teachers have encouraged me to be curious ever since I was a child.

In a way, I think physics was an unexpected decision. I always wanted to be a doctor, but then I had a really good science teacher at school. I participated in a workshop for university orientation with an Italian professor working at ESA, the European Space Agency. He talked a lot about Mars and space exploration, and I fell in love with the topic. In the final year of high-school, I studied astronomy and wanted to be an astrophysicist.

But then in my third year at university, I encountered quantum physics and decided I wanted to do quantum research.

Caterina Foti in Quantum Jungle exhibition
Quantum Jungle is open in Palazzo Blu museum, Pisa, until April.

What are the high points of your career so far?

I’m proud of finishing my PhD—it wasn’t always a smooth path—and my current role in quantum physics outreach is literally my dream come true.

Some publications during my PhD and soon afterwards also make me proud. One of them explained the evolution of quantum processes. When two systems are interacting and one of them is, or is becoming, macroscopic, the dynamics of the system are evolving. Interaction is equivalent to the measurement process.

Another article explains how time is related to quantum physics. This article was published in Nature Communications in March of last year. In quantum physics, space and time are different, with the latter appearing as a parameter external to the theory itself. We considered two non-interacting and yet entangled quantum systems, one of which was acting as a clock. Starting from an overall quantum description, we derived the Schrödinger equation in the case of the classical limit for the clock, and the Hamilton equations of motion in the classical limit of the clock and the evolving system altogether. We noticed that if there is no entanglement between the systems, there is no time or evolution either. Time comes out of the system because of entanglement.

You are responsible for outreach at InstituteQ, the national quantum institute. What concrete plans do you have?

We have organized a Quantum Game Jam and a Quantum Jungle exhibition in Pisa, Italy. The goal is to involve different quantum research groups in outreach about their research at Aalto, the University of Helsinki, and VTT. We’re going to start with quantum thermodynamics.

We also started a collaboration with the education group led by Professor Ismo Koponen at the University of Helsinki. We are looking for effective ways to teach quantum physics to future high school teachers and students.

In April, we’re planning an exhibition about the photonic trail. Quantum week begins April 14 with World Quantum Day. The photonic trail treasure hunt will combine artistic illustrations, stories inspired by fantasy, an introduction to quantum optics and games. It’s targeted at high schoolers and even younger students.

You also coordinate QPlayLearn, the platform for learning about quantum science and technologies in a playful way. How difficult is it to really understand quantum physics?

Quantum physics was born more than 100 years ago, but it is still considered very strange and difficult. It is time to change that perception. Weirdness actually makes it fascinating. It is really important to go beyond what we are used to.

In my opinion, quantum physics is elegant. It is the most fundamental theory, like a map. It is about linear algebra, formulas, equations, matrixes, and vectors. When you write equations, everything is fine. But when we try to explain quantum physics and go beyond equations, it becomes very difficult. The whole second quantum revolution started when a bunch of scientists began to try to understand the concepts of quantum physics in their ultimate meaning, beyond mathematical formalism. I think the key is to change our logic and perspective.

You are also involved in Quantum Jungle exhibition in Italy. What is your role in that?

Quantum Jungle is an evolution of Quantum Garden, which was created by Sabrina Maniscalco’s group at both Aalto and the University of Turku. Quantum Jungle is a collaboration between Aalto and the University of Helsinki and the University of Pisa, and I hope it will be exhibited in Helsinki later. I prepared the materials explaining the concepts in the exhibition.

The springs and the leds of Quantum Jungle are attached to a computer running a real quantum simulation. Each spring represents a node, and each node is connected to six neighbors. The visualization shows the spread of the quantum evolution. The colourful wave produced in the dance is the visualisation of a real quantum walk: how a quantum particle moves around in the Jungle! Once the dance has started and you touch a spring you provoke the measurement. The superposition is destroyed and at the end you only have one output, the state after that measurement. It is a beautiful piece of art in itself and even cooler once you know that there is some quantum physics going on behind the installation.

You are also part of Algorithmiq Ltd, a startup that just raised seed funding to develop quantum software. What is your role there and what are your plans?

Algorithmiq was established two years ago, in 2020, by Sabrina Maniscalco, Matteo Rossi and others. I’m not one of the founders, but I have been involved from the early stages. Besides the main focus of developing algorithms running on near-term quantum devices for life-sciences, we value the importance of quantum literacy, both for the society and for companies. My role is to develop QPlayLearn and its open source and startup sides. I’m part of the branding team. I also do a bit of research connected to fundamental issues and problems.

What do you expect from the future?

Well, we have a lot going on at the moment and I’m very excited. My dream is to expose people from 0- to 99-years old to the quantum world.

Further information:

Caterina Foti

Postdoctoral Researcher

Read more:

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