Kortny Rolston-Duce, Director of Marketing Communications
Walk through any office building and the conference rooms likely are numbered or named according to a theme such as geographic landmarks, fictional characters, or notable figures in a field.
We initially planned to take a similar approach at our newly opened research and development facility in Boulder, Colorado by recognizing well-known physicists whose research laid the groundwork for the rapidly evolving field of quantum computing. People such as Niels Bohr, whose work on the structure of atoms earned him the 1922 Nobel Prize for Physics, or potentially Richard Feynman, one of the first to put forth the idea of quantum computers.
Then Rob Hays, our CEO, challenged us to go beyond the usual names and consider lesser-known and more diverse researchers. We gladly accepted the challenge and naively believed such information was a few Google searches away. It wasn’t. Finding names and information from verified sources was a struggle – until we discovered the Center for the History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics.
We contacted the center and to our delight, Joanna Behrman, an assistant public historian, researched a list of scientists who made significant contributions to quantum physics in the early 20th century. Each of our conference rooms now proudly display a sign outside the door commemorating these heroes of physics and computation with a brief description of their scientific breakthroughs:
The room names have sparked conversations amongst Atom Computing staff and with customers and other visitors to our Boulder facility. A few of our physicists didn’t know some of these researchers despite having studied and worked in the field for years.
Sadly, many of these pioneering scientists struggled to establish careers in science once they earned their doctorates because of the limited opportunities available.
“Most of the major research institutions or universities at that time did not hire female or African- American professors,” Behrman said. “Once they graduated, it was hard for them to find positions in which they could continue their research. Most ended up teaching at historically black or female universities or colleges and even there, some faced challenges.”
Unfortunately, that is not unusual.
“They faced overwhelming odds during the time at which they were alive to make these contributions. People like Emmy Noether made amazing contributions anyway. Her ideas about universal symmetries and conservation principles are still fundamental to physics today,” Behrman said. “If you don’t get much credit during your lifetime, it’s unlikely that you will get it after you die and people will continue to say ‘Well, I haven’t heard of her so therefore she didn’t make very many contributions.’”
Behrman, her colleagues at the American Institute of Physics, and other organizations are trying to change that. A team at the Niels Bohr Library and Archives produces Initial Conditions, a podcast that focuses on understudied stories in the history of physics, while Behrman and others develop lesson plans for teachers.
“In recent decades, many of these people’s names have been wonderfully resurrected from the depths of history. People are writing books and having conferences,” she said. “There are definitely movements within the physics and the history of science communities to make sure that contributions from under-recognized physicists get their due.”
At Atom Computing, we are happy to play a part in this effort and support diversity, equity, and inclusion. We are now in the process of renaming the conference rooms at our headquarters in Berkeley, California along a similar theme. There are many more unsung physics heroes who should be celebrated.