Philippe Bouyer tells us about his experience as researcher and the cooperation with China
Research director at CNRS,
Deputy director of IOGS,
Editor in chief of AIP-AVS Quantum Science,
Co-Founder of Muquans
What do you think best defines the job of a researcher?
The profession of researcher is above all a profession in perpetual evolution throughout our one’s career. The very essence of this job is to question our achievements in order to further knowledge. In the course of the research that we carry out, this leads us to imagine new subjects, new directions, and to acquire new skills. Our job also evolves with the responsibilities we take, by becoming responsible for scientific projects, research teams or laboratories. It is also a profession that opens us to the industrial world and to innovation, business creation, the implementation of major projects. Finally, it is a profession where, we perpetually confront young scientists whom we train and who, in return, bring new ideas and new dynamics.
Can you outline your area of research?
Today, my research activity focuses on cold atoms and matter-waves. The topics I cover range from development in quantum technologies, in particular matter wave sensors which can find applications in geodesy or navigation, to more fundamental physics tests such as the detection of gravitational waves, the coupling between relativity and quantum physics or the simulation of condensed matter phenomenon, using cold atoms as a tool.
How do you reconcile your functions as deputy director of the Aquitaine branch of the Institut d'Optique Graduate School, director of the Photonics, Digital and Nanosciences Laboratory, founder of the Muquans company and CNRS research director? What are your working days like?
All of these activities have a common thread: a creative, innovative activity requiring in-depth scientific analysis. Of course, the subjects can be different and the interlocutors varied. For each of these functions, it is necessary to exchange views with our employees and partners. These represent quite busy workdays, where you sometimes have to jump from one subject to another quickly while staying focused.
What are the specific features and positioning of the Institut d’Optique d’Aquitaine in relation to its "parent campus" in Paris-Saclay?
The Institut d'Optique d'Aquitaine is above all a building, built and financed by the Nouvelle Aquitaine Region, which brings together at its heart major players in the “photonics sector”: the University of Bordeaux, Alphanov, the Alpha-RLH competitiveness cluster and the Aquitaine branch of the Institut d'Optique Graduate School. For the latter, particular emphasis is given to deeptech and breakthrough innovations, such as digital, quantum or nanoscience. One of the major challenges is to train engineers who will have the capacity to be at the heart of the development of these technologies, and this implies training them with a solid background in optics and photonics, as at the Palaiseau campus, but with a multidisciplinary openness, in particular to digital.
You have been managing the Photonics, Numerics and Nanosciences Laboratory (LP2N) since its creation in 2011. Can you tell us a few words about the life of your laboratory?
The LP2N was created on January 1, 2011 at the initiative of the Institut d’Optique Graduate School, the CNRS and the University of Bordeaux to develop multidisciplinary research at the interface between photonics, computer science and micro-science. These ten years have been a tremendous adventure: starting with a “blank sheet”, within ten years we built a laboratory that accommodates up to 100 researchers, teachers, doctoral students, post-doctoral students, involved in leading international research programs on gravitational waves, quantum sensors, biomedical imaging, simulation of materials and their appearance... The laboratory has also been particularly active in terms of innovation and development, with two joint laboratories with industry, and 3 start-ups in quantum technologies, lasers and biomedicine launched.
You also are the Director of Innovation and Corporate Relations at Institut d’Optique Graduate School since last year. Can you tell us more about the famous "503" and its Entrepreneurship track, at the origin of success stories such as those of STEREOLABS, DAMAE Medical, IPSELIOS or MINUIT UNE?
One of the historical missions of Institut d’Optique Graduate School is to establish and maintain a bridge between training, research and industry. The "503" entrepreneurial spaces are a perfect example of what the Institut d’Optique Graduate School can do to fulfill this mission. At 503, we host students who have embarked on the Entrepreneurship track (FIE) of engineering training, seasoned entrepreneurs who settle with us and play the role of tutors for students and researchers who wish to take advantage of this unique environment, with a highly technological FABLAB among others. In Orsay, we are going to enter a new dynamic with a complete rehabilitation of the historic building of the institute to offer residents, and also visitors, coworking spaces, design centers, spaces where companies can learn, and test agile and efficient production methods. For more than 10 years, Espace 503 and the FIE track have shown their efficiency, but we now want to go further, supporting entrepreneurs in the growth of their business, with a priority, of course, for disruptive innovation, photonics, deeptech.
Your research group is interested in quantum simulators and ultra-cold atom quantum interferometers. How do you see the future of quantum technologies, and what applications will soon emerge according to you?
The current craze for quantum technologies is no accident. It is a science that is more than a century old, and it has been more than half a century since the great principles of the second quantum revolution have been studied with success in the best laboratories in the world. The most promising, but also the most ambitious, is of course the quantum computer. Even if it still seemed science fiction only a few years ago, today it is becoming a reality, with large groups like Google, Alibaba, IBM, ATOS but also innovative startups like, for example, the company Pasqal which was created at the Institut d’Optique Graduate School and is today one of the potential unicorns in the field. The potential of these machines and what they will help us accomplish is arguably vastly underestimated, as was the case with the first computers just 50 years ago. Quantum sensors are a little more mature, since several are already sold per year, and we are already beginning to see certain applications such as navigation without GPS, underground prospecting without the need for drilling, disaster forecasting such as earthquakes or volcanic eruptions.
A few questions about China :
Do you collaborate with China and, if so, on what subjects?
I have close contact with several research groups, particularly in Beijing, Wuhan or Shanghai. We discuss a lot about potential international collaborations, whether it's to study quantum gases on the space station or to build large instruments capable of detecting gravitational waves. Today, however, all of these programs remain purely national. I also have the honor of being a member of the scientific council of the Shanghai Institute of Optics and Fine Mechanics, where I have the opportunity to appreciate the quality of research developed in these institutes of excellence.
Do you supervise Chinese students? How is their integration into your research group and into the life of the laboratory?
Several Chinese students work in my research group. Contact is often established through contacts and collaborators in China. The team is very international, with Europeans, Indians, Americans and Chinese among others, so it's easy to fit in, everyone speaks English. The lab itself accommodates a lot of Chinese students and post-docs, making integration and everyday life easier.
What advice would you give to a young Chinese student who wishes to embark on a research career in the field of quantum technologies? How do you go about becoming a doctoral student in your research team?
Quantum physics, and research on quantum technologies more generally, is a demanding field which requires the acquisition of a lot of technical and scientific skills. Thesis topics are often long, sometimes frustrating because we would like to move faster. So, you have to be patient and perseverant, and the results will often live up to the effort and expectations. We are always happy to share our passion for quantum with students, but of course they have to be motivated, ready to learn and go out of their "comfort zone": the game is worth the effort.
Philippe Bouyer on Wikipedia