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Get to know Carlo Beenakker and discover the world of the very small

For decades, scientists have dreamt of the quantum computer that will change our lives completely. If we want to build one, we need to learn all about the very smallest particles on earth… or not yet on earth.

Read more about the research of theoretical physicist Carlo Beenakker and his students and colleagues into the strange world of the very small. A world that increasingly influences our daily life.

Discover the world at Leiden University.

Research: thousands of times smaller than a human hair

Our world is shrinking, or at least our electronic devices are. From PCs to mobile phones: everything is smaller and thinner. The smaller the chip, the better it can conduct electricity and pass on information. We are able to make these chips smaller, because our knowledge about the smallest particles in the world, such as electrons and protons, is increasing. How small are these particles? Imagine the tip of a human hair but then thousands of times smaller. Leiden physicist Carlo Beenakker knows all about this world. He looks at the behaviour of these particles and considers how this knowledge can be used to develop new technologies. He is currently considering how to build a quantum computer in a laboratory (see picture).

A completely different world with other laws is hidden behind the ‘normal’ world that we see with the naked eye. As you zoom in on the very smallest particles that make up matter, you see how curiously these particles behave. They can be in two places at once or simultaneously spin clockwise and anti-clockwise. And each particle has an anti-particle. If these meet, they eradicate each other. The laws of physics as we have always known them do not apply to this empire of the smallest, also known as the quantum world. ‘We have known for 20 years that the effects in the quantum world also occur in somewhat larger things such as computer chips and small threads,’ says physicist Carlo Beenakker.

Beenakker feels completely at home in this crazy quantum world that always has new surprises in store for him and his students. He is a theoretical physicist, which means that he does not carry out experiments but comes up with the recipes for them. ‘You should never put me in a laboratory; I would only break everything. What I enjoy is devising experiments, solving problems. These experiments result in technological developments, for example the production of even thinner, even better touch screens.’ His current quest is for the holy grail of science: how to build a quantum computer. This would be able to carry out the same number of calculations in one go as would take our current computers 20 years. It would open the way for infinite possibilities, such as much faster drug development and the creation of yet unknown materials.

Research themes: small particles, big deeds

The super computer: programming Mother Nature

Superfast calculations. New metals with fantastic properties. Medicines that have been a long time coming. The quantum computer would make all of these possible. As one of a Delft-Leiden team of three, Carlo Beenakker is going to build a quantum computer. They have been awarded millions in research funding from the European Union to set up a proper workplace.

More about The super computer: programming Mother Nature

The hunt for the Majorana particle

Carlo Beenakker was closely involved in the hunt for the Majorana particle, which was finally observed in 2012 by Leo Kouwenhoven and his research group in Delft. This world-class discovery may well represent a breakthrough in the attempt to build a quantum computer. (Photo right: a representation of the Majorana particle. Photograph provided courtesy of Alexey Drjahlov.)

More about The hunt for the Majorana particle

A voyage of nano discovery

‘The more we know about the world of the very small and the better we can develop a language to describe all that happens there, the easier it will be to understand this world,’ says Carlo Beenakker. He and researchers from other Dutch universities are embarking on a voyage of discovery that will that will take them the next few years.

More about A voyage of nano discovery

Graphene: the thinnest material in the world

‘The thinnest, strongest, greatest material in the world,’ is how Carlo Beenakker describes graphene, a carbon layer only a single atom thick. We may be able to use this material to make new, superconducting computer chips or ultra-thin touchscreens. Beenakker and his colleagues devoted five years to the conducting properties of graphene.

More about Graphene: the thinnest material in the world
‘A particle that is its own anti-particle is a building block for the quantum computer.’

Teaching: playground for students

Carlo Beenakker lets his master’s students and PhD fellows discover the quantum world for themselves and take part in groundbreaking experiments. Students conducted the bulk of the research into the Majorana particle. ‘I encourage my students to find answers to questions that I, the professor, cannot answer. My research group is a kind of playground for them.’

Just because you study physics doesn’t mean you have to become a scientist. ‘You learn to think in a certain way, how to identify the essence of a problem,’ says Beenakker. ‘And, most importantly, not to let anything scare you, not to immediately think, “I do not know anything about that”, but to be able to get to the crux of a question even if you have no experience of it. Having mastered this skill, our students end up all over the place, from jobs in industry to consultancy work.’

More programmes in the area of particles

Life Science & Technology : All life is built of cells. What exactly are cells? How do they behave? And how can we use this knowledge to heal people? These questions are covered in this programme.

Molecular Science & Technology : In this programme, you learn about the fundamental, industrial and social aspects of chemistry, which will enable you as a chemist to conduct fundamental research in the field of public health.

Physics : A voyage of discovery to knowledge about the matter that everything is made of. Modern physics covers a broad package of topics varying from the study of life processes and the study of quantum phenomena to the study of the very small or the very large. A possible continuation to the bachelor’s degree in Physics is the Research Master’s programme in Physics (Casimir pre-PhD, see mastersinleiden.nl, Physics).

Astronomy : This programme provides greater insight into a universe that is expanding increasingly quickly with planets around other suns, the life and death of stars, massive black holes and colliding solar systems.

Mathematics : Here you can assemble your own degree programme based on your own interests and objectives. You can choose to specialise in analysis and geometry.

More researchers of the very small

  • Jan Aarts
  • Thijs Aartsma
  • Ana Achúcarro
  • Gerard Barkema
  • Marileen Dogterom
  • Joost Frenken
  • Edgar Groenen
  • Martin van Hecke
  • Martina Huber
  • Tjerk Oosterkamp
  • Michel Orrit
  • Jan van Ruitenbeek
  • Helmut Schiessel
  • Jan Zaanen

Jan Aarts Professor of Experimental physics

Researches magnetic and superconducting properties in materials.

Thijs Aartsma Professor of Biophysics

Studies the physics of life. Researches photosynthesis: source of life and sustainable energy.

Ana Achúcarro Professor of Astroparticle physics and quantum field theory

Works at the interface between particle physics and astronomy. Voted best lecturer in the Faculty of Science 2012.

Gerard Barkema Extaordinary professor of Computational statistical physics of (bio)polymers

Research includes mechanical properties of biomolecular networks

Marileen Dogterom Professor of Atomic and molecular physics

Studies the dynamics of the cell skeleton. Discovered that tiny molecular machines regulate its organisation.

Joost Frenken Professor of Mesoscopic physics

Uses his own probe microscope to image moving atoms. Looks at catalysis under industrial conditions, for instance.

Edgar Groenen Professor of Experimental physics

Studies molecules one by one in living and dead matter.

Martin van Hecke Professor of Organisation of disordered matter

Studies the physics of soapsuds, sand and mayonnaise: often mixtures and always chaotic.

Martina Huber Biophysicist

How proteins are all-determining for health or disease. Huber discovered the horseshoe shape that typifies Parkinson’s Disease.

Tjerk Oosterkamp Professor of Experimental Physics

Maps atoms in protein with the most sensitive probe microscope that there is. Wants to be able to use magnetism to ‘feel’ quantum behaviour.

Michel Orrit Professor of Spectroscopy of molecules in condensed matter

Maps moving molecules one by one: from molecular glass to proteins in the cell.

Jan van Ruitenbeek Professor of Experimental Physics

Strips electricity to the bare minimum. Sends electrical currents through a single molecule.

Helmut Schiessel Professor of Theoretical physics of life processes

His book ‘Biophysics for Beginners: A Journey through the Cell Nucleus’, was published in 2013.

Jan Zaanen Professor of Theoretical Physics

Theorist like Beenakker. Researches collective quantum behaviour in solid states.

Impact: influence on the world

The world of...

If you speak Russian, Chinese or Romanian you will always find someone to talk to in Carlo Beenakker’s research group. Scientists and students from all corners of the globe come and go in his group. On the map, you will see the names of PhD fellows whom Beenakker has supervised or is supervising, where they come from and where they have continued their careers. The first step for students if they want to proceed further in science.