March 29, 2022

Article at Sydney Quantum Academy

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Cracking the code of reality

dan george in front of industrial building
Dan George, Sydney Quantum Academy PhD Scholarship recipient at Macquarie University.

The mind-bending nature of quantum mechanics only makes sense with deep mathematics – along with the type of high-end simulations Dan George is helping to build. 

By Wilson da Silva

“THERE’S NO GREATER PROBLEM to solve than figuring out the fundamental nature of the universe, figuring out how it all fits together,” says Dan George, 28, a Sydney Quantum Academy (SQA) scholarship recipient. “And at the quantum scale, the universe operates differently to what we see every day. The mathematics is quite mind-bending – even for people who have been doing it their whole lives.”

That’s partly what attracted Dan to the field. “It’s part of the beauty, I suppose. Sure, it’s difficult and very challenging at times, but that’s also what makes it so attractive,” he grins.

At Macquarie University, he’s doing his PhD under Professor Gavin Brennen, director of the Macquarie Centre for Quantum Engineering and a chief investigator at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Engineered Quantum Systems (EQUS). And Dan is tackling a worthy challenge: exploring wavelet transforms as a technique to probe quantum field theory in computer simulations.

Wavelet transforms are a mathematical tool increasingly being used in many areas of research, such as astrophysics, seismology, optics and even chaos theory. They are a way of taking an unbroken stream of data over time – often riddled with shapes and patterns that make it hard to analyse as a whole – and breaking them down into representations of short, wavelike oscillations.

In this way, wavelets can be used to ‘de-noise’ data by cutting a signal into smaller portions, each centred around a specific wavelength that can be analysed by being paired with a matching wavelet. This can help researchers see patterns in complexity and analyse entire datasets at once.

But how useful are they in quantum mechanics? That’s what Dan wants to find out.

“I’m working on applications of wavelet-based information processing techniques to quantum field theories, to see whether we can use them to improve the efficiency of simulations, and better understand quantum field measurements,” he says. “Can we use wavelets to analyse what’s happening in a system at a broad scale, then at a finer scale, and even right down to the nitty-gritty? I hope so. Wavelets give you that additional dimension of scale.”

Although he spends a lot of his day wrestling with equations, it’s not a solitary pursuit. “Theoretical physics is actually very collaborative – you spend a lot of time talking to colleagues or working problems out on whiteboards and having a lot of brilliant conversations over Zoom. That’s where you develop strategies to tackle problems that come up.”

Since being awarded an SQA supplementary scholarship in 2020, he’s expanded his network and taken courses at other universities and connected to a larger network. “That’s been really great,” Dan says. “I get to engage with researchers at other universities and meet other PhD students.

Dan, originally from Sydney, did his undergraduate degree in physics and biochemistry at the University of Western Australia in Perth, worked as an IT systems administrator, and then left Australia for a two-year stint teaching physics and IT at a school in Mauritius. But he was eventually drawn back to research. “I really enjoy teaching, and I can see myself doing it again – perhaps at university, where research and teaching go together really well.”

It’s not just the challenge, but also the creativity required, that keeps bringing him back to physics. “Solving any kind of problem requires creativity in the way you approach it. Sometimes you can identify similarities with past problems, but sometimes you stumble across something unexpectedly deep, and you have to look further afield for approaches and – if they still won’t work – invent new ones. And that’s brilliant.”