Pugh taking quantum leap

May 1, 2017

Chris Pugh, right, and Jeongwan Jin of the University of Waterloo's Institute for Quantum Computing mount a telescope in an airplane. (Photo courtesy of National Research Council)

Courtesy of the Brandon Sun

By Ian Froese

Maybe, when Brandon high school students read about quantum information decades from now, they’ll come across the name of one of this city’s own.

It’s a lofty vision to even think about, Christopher Pugh admits when asked, but lofty too was what the 28-year-old and his team of scientists accomplished last fall — worthy of a front page Globe and Mail article, at least.

Pugh and his colleagues from University of Waterloo became the first team to beam an encrypted quantum transmission from the ground to a flying aircraft.

“We have protons!” Pugh said of noticing the particles of laser light through his telescope. He was on the plane for the successful experiment last September.

Quantum technology is seen as a new frontier, with scientists around the world racing to make their mark.

Today’s computers use randomly generated algorithms to protect personal data and banking information.

Those complicated algorithms, however, can be debunked with ease by the quantum computers expected to propagate the world a decade or two from now, Pugh said.

For this reason, scientists worldwide are devising how to send encrypted messages using quantum technology, which not even quantum computers can hack. The photons would be used to create the encrypted message and transmit it, in this experiment’s case from ground level to a flying plane.

“I was pretty excited when it happened,” Pugh said of the test, which his PhD thesis was riding on. Their experiment is recognized as a major step toward developing transmissions between quantum computers.

It took the better part of six years to get to this point for the team, Pugh, the lead researcher, said. Their test progressed up to this point, shifting from using a building to detect the laser beam transmitted from the ground to a moving truck and finally a plane.

The next step, Pugh mused, is a transmission through a longer distance, using an orbiting satellite.

Brandon, where he was born and raised, led Pugh toward his present path.

A Vincent Massey High School student, he remembers mulling between a science or technology focus with his guidance counsellor.

He decided upon science, and eventually narrowed in on physics as his favourite. He enjoyed the laboratory work and theoretical concepts.

“I was doing well, which also spikes your interest if you do well at something,” Pugh said with a laugh.

Graduating from high school in 2007, he moved on to Brandon University to major in physics and minor in math and computer science. He conducted research projects over his summers at BU with professors Austin Gulliver and Margaret Carrington, who he credits as influencers.

He took graduate studies at the University of Waterloo’s Institute for Quantum Computing beginning in 2011. He completed his Masters of Science in Physics (Quantum Information) on experimental investigation into spatial quantum optical properties for satellite targeting.

He hopes to complete his PhD in the same field later this year.

“Of course, there’s the step in writing the papers and such, but the experiment worked that led me on the path to graduation,” Pugh said.

He may remain involved in quantum technology in the future.

Understandably, the intricacies of Pugh’s work are too complicated for people outside the quantum field to understand.

Thus, they quickly compare the Brandonite to one of popular culture’s more renowned geniuses.

It’s “typical, everybody that I meet, they always call me Sheldon from ‘The Big Bang Theory,’ and then I always say, ‘No, I’m more like Leonard because he’s an experiential physicist.’”

Pugh said he returns to Brandon a couple times a year, including around Christmas and to help an audio company during the Brandon Jazz Festival.

His family “is excited to see that I’m enjoying something and having a lot of fun doing it,” Pugh said of his education.

Perhaps a young science mind will be inspired in the future, learning about quantum technology in high school.

“It’s exciting to think that in many years I might be considered one of the first people in this field,” Pugh said.

» ifroese@brandonsun.com

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