Friday, December 10, 2010

Michael Horne

By Brad Constant

Quantum physicist Michael A. Horne doesn’t need much to conduct his research, just a notebook and his mind.

“Just sitting in my rocking chair watching the Red Sox with my notebook in my hand and during timeouts or slow periods in the baseball game I’ll think about what’s in my notebook. I’ll sometimes put my notebook down and play music and then pick my notebook up again.”

This is a typical way to research for Horne, a physicist who can say he has disputed some of Einstein’s theories about how the world works.

However, Horne is not just a physicist, he also enjoys watching sports and movies, playing the drums in several bands, listening to music, and cooking. At heart though, Horne’s favorite hobby has always been thinking about quantum physics.

Quantum physics is the physics of atoms. It also deals with the fact that energy comes in discrete packets, quanta, which is essential to how electrons, atoms, and molecules behave. Essentially, Horne thinks about the little things that make up the world in which we live.

Despite saying he “certainly contributed” to the field of quantum mechanics, as his many publications and books would suggest, he consistently says his success has much to do with having equally brilliant friends and collaborators, “keeping things simple,” and most importantly, “being in the right place at the right time.”

“I am pretty slow, not quick on my feet, and can’t compute,” he jokingly added.

Horne’s interest in physics began when he was still in high school, not from a physics course but from discovering some paperback books, written in the late 50s by physicists.

“I was captivated,” said Horne, “from the beginning I was interested in the whole of physics, it was so easy and simple and always made contact with real experiments, but it seemed like you could dream up anything you wanted to, I knew right away I wanted to study physics before I even took physics in high school.”

After high school Horne went to the University of Mississippi to study physics and then attended Boston University to get his Ph.D. in physics. Horne recalls “wanting to go to some place where there was a lot of physics activity.”

Boston was the place.

He worked with a professor who was interested in a combination of the history of physics, the philosophy of physics, and quantum mechanics, just like Horne.

Together, they started working on new evidence that the nature of quantum mechanics is incompatible with Einstein’s famous theories.

Horne’s thesis project was to create an experiment to disprove one of Einstein’s theories, a project he called “the thesis project from heaven.”

This is when Horne first mentioned “being in the right place at the right time.”

He was at Boston University looking for a thesis adviser and found a thesis adviser who had just come to BU, who just happened have a great idea that Horne was also interested in.

Within a few years Horne, along with his collaborators, published a paper designing an experiment to check and disprove one of Einstein’s hallowed theories. The experiment designed was later conducted and the results conflicted with Einstein’s theory of the way atoms behave, Horne was disproving Einstein.

Horne said that “[that experience] launched me into a career of being interested in the foundations and nature of quantum mechanics.”

After finishing his thesis project, Horne was hired at Stonehll College, which he said was very fortunate because Stonehill did not have a physics major for the first 40 years he worked here which also meant no big-time politics.

“I didn’t have to publish just to publish and could think about physics topics I was really interested in and take my time,” said Horne “Stonehill was just right for me.”

Being so close to Boston allowed him to still collaborate with his peers and make new contacts.

One of these “fortuitous contacts” came in the mid 70s when Horne attended a conference in Sicily. Horne met physicist, Anton Zeilinger, “now one of the most prominent physicists in all of Europe,” working in a similar field, neutron physics.

For years they worked together making quantum physics breakthroughs at MIT, along with Nobel Prize winner, Clifford Shull.

Later, also at MIT, Horne met Danny Greenberger, another collaborator. Together, Horne, Zeilinger, and Greenberg “had some good ideas” and collaborated on newsworthy quantum physics breakthroughs for many years, changing the way in which humans understand the world.

One of these projects was designing an experiment proving that “things out in the world do not have objective properties… until you look at them,” said Horne. “Reality develops when it’s observed.”

Some of Horne’s pioneering ideas have become major fields in quantum physics that are being worked on by thousands of people.

One of these is quantum cryptography, which Horne describes as encrypting information by using quantum entanglement, a branch of quantum physics that deals with the theory of an object being able to be in two different states at once.

Also, quantum computers are being developed that can hold and compute much higher magnitudes of information, another area that Horne’s work helped start up. Quantum computing states that a switch can be both on and off, not on or off, as classical computers function.

Horne also attributes a lot of his success to “being there before anyone else,” and “being the first one to think about things.”

“It’s easy to make contributions because no one else is even thinking about the same things,” he said.

When describing the type of thought research he does Horne says he “has one foot in experiments and one foot in theory,” thinking about interesting features, while also thinking about how to check them.

“I’m not an ivory tower theoretical physicist thinking big thoughts, but I’m also not an experimental building apparatus, I’m just a middle man.”

Horne was born in Gulfport, Mississippi and lived there until he went to college. He has been married to Carole Horne since 1965, who he met his sophomore year of college.

Horne plays the drums in Stonehill Jazz Band, along with other professors, as well as with other friends, several times a week, including last Sunday at a restaurant in Dorchester. He also practices playing drums by himself in his spare time, a hobby he has kept up since he was 10 years old.

Besides watching the Red Sox and Patriots, Horne enjoys watching Law and Order, mystery shows on public television, and “movies from all generations.”

Cooking is also one of Horne’s favorite activities and his best dish is a “meatless spaghetti called Spaghetti Marco Polo, which I got from Julia Child.”

With Horne, it always comes back to physics in the end “Just thinking about physics is my favorite hobby.”

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