Interview with Professor Immanuel Bloch
„There is still so much to discover, so many unresolved, important questions“
Since 2009, Professor Immanuel Bloch has been head of the Quantum Many Body Systems department here at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics (MPQ). Furthermore, he is the chairholder of the Faculty of Physics at the LMU Munich. At the beginning of this year, he took up an additional role when he was appointed as managing director at the MPQ. In recent months, he had his hands full with managing a pandemic. Nevertheless, he always keeps his eyes close to the other important and longer-term concerns of the institute. In this interview, he talks about what he has in plan for his two-year term of office, about the future of quantum optics, and his very personal path to physics.
Professor Bloch, you have been in office as the new managing director of the MPQ for almost half a year now. How are you feeling about it?
During the last months, we were experiencing turbulent times that go far beyond the standard program. The Corona pandemic will keep us busy for a while. I hope that we will soon be able to return to other topics that are much more important for the Institute in the long term. During this time, the safety and the best possible protection of our staff is our top priority, as well as the continued containment of the virus and the need for us as an institute to stay capable of action and flexible in extraordinary situations with unpredictable dynamics.
What specifically do you worry about more as a Managing Director than as a Director? Everyone certainly cultivates his own style in such a position - what is particularly important to you?
The welfare of the entire institute is now even more important to me than before and I also take responsibility for it. I think it's good that we take turns every two years so that everyone can contribute his ideas and impulses to the institute's management, as we Directors are all very different from each other.
It is particularly important to me that we maintain an open atmosphere at the institute, where everyone can approach everyone if there are any problems or questions. We want to be open to criticism and suggestions for improvement as an institute as well as within the individual working and research groups. Nothing is perfect, neither is the MPQ, but we want to work on that in order to make constant progress. Therefore, it is very important that everyone feels comfortable at his or her workplace. That´s why we want flat hierarchies, an open working atmosphere, and a respectful interaction with one another. That would be my wish. Everyone should be able to express criticism as well as compliments and I deeply encourage everyone to do so.
What are your plans during your tenure of office?
We are an internationally leading institution in quantum physics and quantum optics, and we want to expand this position and reputation even further which we have built over many years. This means opening up new fields of science and – what has been bothering us for a long time now – finding a new director who will complement the institute in his or her own way. We have been looking for someone to support us in the field of solid-state physics for a long time now, as there is still a need at the institute in this area, but in principle, we are open to other fields of research as well.
We are also planning to develop new concepts in the promotion of young talent. We are keen to remain competitive in this area, therefore we welcome all creative approaches that support young scientists in founding their group or first team and setting up their first experiment. I think it is important that we encourage more independence and consider how we can offer a permanent position to brilliant scientists in the future. Beyond the outstanding scientific environment we offer, this is often the decisive factor in attracting young talented people. Overall, we can already look back on a very impressive series of successes. Our former employees are employed at the highest institutions as well as at the best universities worldwide, and they are in great demand in the industry. This makes us very proud. The employees are often offered jobs long before they have finished their work. This means, a station at MPQ opens many doors, and having worked here is obviously a quality seal. Moreover, it is very important to me that we attract as many interesting young scientists as possible. But I have noticed, especially when talking to Americans, that a lot of people are not very well aware of how a doctorate in Germany works and that they will often find much better conditions here than in the USA. This is something we should emphasize more in our display and communication. Furthermore, we are close cooperation with our graduate school, working on making the field of education even more interesting. Next year we will introduce a new special Master's program in quantum sciences and technologies at LMU and TU.
Another goal is to update the institute's external and internal image by renovating our communication channels and introducing a new intranet as a collaborative and social platform. We have already started to make information channels easier, to reduce administrative processes, and to help all employees to network better with the aim of promoting social exchange even outside the workplace. For example, if you want to go hiking at the weekend, it should and will be easier to find others with whom you could go together. This will hopefully lead to new friendships at the institute.
What do you think is so special about the MPQ?
We really have fantastic employees and we attract the best people from all over the world and that is a great privilege. Furthermore, do we have a wonderful support team, because not only the scientists are awesome, but everyone around them is very carefully selected. We work hard to find the right people for the different areas. This results in excellent research conditions - from the workshop to the entire administration and technical support, everyone is on-site at the institute, so distances are short. Therefore, we are not strangers to each other, but rather know one another and can solve tasks and problems very quickly. This creates a unique environment that is rarely found elsewhere, I think.
In many places, there are great efforts to promote the scientific career of women. What are you intending to do at the MPQ in this respect?
Unfortunately, the proportion of women, even among our youngest junior researchers is far too low. That is very regrettable. For this reason, we try to make our contribution to gender equality, by accompanying especially our female scientists throughout their careers and encouraging and supporting them to be more visible in public. At the same time, we try to motivate female students at an early age to pursue a scientific career. In this respect, our own female scientists at the MPQ are important role models, but unfortunately, the shortage of young female scientists begins even long before the entry into a scientific career.
Moreover, we are currently launching many programs in our Cluster of Excellence MCQST and at the MPQ to create a higher awareness of this topic. In addition, there are events such as "Women in Quantum Science and Technology", where female scientists come to the institute to give lectures and colloquia. At these events, women researchers can meet and exchange ideas. It is our goal to have a high percentage of female scientists in the colloquia to visibly demonstrate to the outside world that there are a lot of women in the field who are making careers and to encourage many of our own female scientists to pursue such a career as well.
You became director very early on, at the age of 37, and have had an extraordinary career - was physicist always your dream job? Where did you see yourself as a child? Is that consistent with what you are doing nowadays?
Actually, I already knew during my school days that I wanted to do something scientific. My father is a chemist, so chemistry was in my focus of interest for a while, but then I realized that it is better to go a different way than my father, and so I came to physics. That was actually a very good combination of my technical interest since I dealt with computers early on and electronics, but on the other hand, I always wanted to do something scientific as well. Therefore, I think that studying engineering would not have been the right thing for me, whereas physics is a good mixture of theory and application and was absolutely the right choice, although I wasn't even super fixated on science when I was a child or a young person.
You are the head of the Quantum Many Body Systems Department, which means that you work in a field that you yourself helped to found. Why do you have a passion for this particular field of physics?
I find it exciting because we try to deduce from elementary rules of atomic interaction how atoms interact with each other, how they behave as collective. So, in a sense, we want to figure out what the "social behaviour" of the particles is and what new properties arise when they interact. Although we already know the basic rules very well, it is often difficult to predict what new properties will appear. This knowledge is for example necessary to investigate new states of matter or to develop materials with very specific and customized properties. These are very complex questions, which we investigate in experiments under extremely controlled conditions using completely new techniques on our quantum simulators. This brings many new insights and there is an enormous potential to discover something fundamentally new, which makes this field so incredibly exciting. Our systems are complex and controlled enough that we really have the chance to discover fundamentally new phenomena. Something that no one has thought of before or that is completely misunderstood. I think for a researcher it is the most beautiful moment when he discovers something that no one has ever seen before or that is not understood yet and needs to be unraveled.
When was the last time you had such a moment?
It was pretty exciting when we investigated how impurities move in the solid and how they influence their environment. This is a quite complex problem and we were able to take microscopic pictures of these so-called polarons for the very first time. These shots show exactly how the environment is modified by these individual impurities and that was a real sensation. Whenever I look at these pictures now, I am just amazed.
Where do you see the MPQ in 2040?
It is quite difficult to look ahead for twenty years. I can hardly say what will happen in the next ten years. Actually, the institute was founded about forty years ago. I was at the institute from time to time during my Ph.D. at the LMU, about 20 years ago, and I got a vague idea of what the institute looked like at that time. However, I am sure that with the new generation of directors the climate at the institute has changed to some extent and new fields of research have been opened up. Twenty years from now in 2040, I will likely be the last of the current generation of directors to retire. I guess that due to the dynamics of our research field, by then the MPQ will be an institute quite different from now and will possibly have a completely different focus. However, I am very confident that quantum physics and quantum optics are topics that will continue to keep us busy in the long term – in research, in industry, and in technology development. Although it will certainly be about questions completely different than the ones, we are asking ourselves today.
So, you see a bright future in store for quantum optics?
Yes, absolutely. There is still so much to discover, so many unresolved, important questions. One question that keeps coming up in the context of our research is: how does this ominous high-temperature superconductivity work, which allows materials to frictionless conduct electricity? We hope that we can give some answers to these questions with our controlled experiments. It would be amazing if we could make progress in that field. But this is just one of many challenges. Nevertheless, the results of our work are necessary for other areas as well. For material science, for example, it is important to be able to numerically predict how a material must be structured to obtain certain properties, in terms of conductivity, resistance, magnetism, and also optical properties. These are questions that are extremely important but very difficult to answer. In this respect, our experiments serve as a reference for the theory, which then again can be applied to real materials. According to the motto of Max Planck: "Insight must precede application”, and this is what we're working on at the institute.
Prof. Bloch, thanks a lot for this inspiring conversation!
(This interview was conducted and written by Katharina Jarrah)