The Physics may be Theoretical, but the Fun is Real!

Friday 7 June 2019

Hi everyone! I am Riccardo, a third year theoretical physics student. My Laidlaw research project is in quantum mechanics, specifically about “Dissipative Quantum Phase Transitions in Systems with Memory”, which I admit is a quite a mouthful. I won’t go too much into the details (which are not even totally clear to me… yet!), rather what I would like to do is give a brief description of what my project will involve and how the first week of research in my life has been.

As a student who would like to pursue a research career after my degree, I was really looking forward to starting my project. First of all, I was excited about the new physics I would have had the opportunity to explore. Secondly, I wanted to experience what is like to actually do research in an academic environment. In this respect, the first week of my project has fulfilled all my expectations. This doesn’t mean everything went smoothly. Loosing one night worth of coding for no apparent reason speaks for itself… But I was expecting something like this anyways, as they say, where’s the fun without a bit of struggle?! Really, what I was expecting was the joy of exploring the physics I am the most interested in (you guessed it! it’s quantum mechanics) into much more detail than what’s provided in standard university modules, which is exactly what I’ve been doing!

In simple terms, my project is about an algorithm, called ‘TEMPO’, which stands for “Time-Evolving Matrix Product Operators” (the last mouthful, I promise). It allows us to describe and predict the dynamics of some particular quantum systems. My job is to investigate the outcomes of the algorithm as we vary specific parameters of the quantum system we are looking at. In particular, how these parameter are related to each other, how their changing affects the predicted dynamics and whether this corresponds to analytic and numerical results from the literature. Hence, my project is comprised of two main aspects. First, building up my knowledge on the underlying theory of these particular quantum processes the algorithm tries to model, and second, understanding how the algorithm (which is compiled in Python) works so I am able to test it with different parameters and produce insightful results. What the first aspect involves is related to what was covered in the physics modules Quantum Mechanics 2 and Thermal and Statistical Physics last semester, even though there’s a big gap between the modules and what I do now. This is particularly challenging, exciting and inherently tough at the same time. What I love the most is having a bunch of books on my desk and a computer in front of me, as I read and try to understand more and more advanced concepts. As for the coding part of my work, I had to refresh my knowledge of Python, which was covered in one of the maths modules in first semester of second year. To be completely honest, at the time I did not enjoy coding at all as I had no previous experience with it and the first impact was quite a rough one. So, I was expecting a hard time going back into it. Well… it’s been quite the opposite! This time, it came to me much more naturally in comparison to the last time and I picked it all up again in just a couple of days, even having fun in the process!

A photo of my workplace.

So far, this has been an incredible experience and I could not be happier about my first taste of what research really is. Looking forward for what’s to come in the next weeks!


I would like to sincerely thank Lord Laidlaw, without whom this would not have been possible. A special thank you also to my supervisor, Dr Brendon Lovett, and last but not least to the CAPOD staff and the Laidlaw Scholarship Programme.

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