Female scientists: not martyrs, but heroes.

Last week I attended the APS March meeting in New Orleans, and there was a session in honor of the 150th anniversary of Marie Curie, in which we had talks on Marie Curie’s life, as well as lively discussions on the challenges faced by women in physics today. Professor Emerita Ruth Howes gave an incredibly inspiring and entertaining talk about Marie Curie. With the title “Marie Curie: physicist and woman” Professor Howes showed us a side of Marie that, at least I, was not aware of. The way her story was told and the details I learned about her life made me feel closer to her, not only as the pioneer she was but as a woman: the mischievous pranks of that summer in the countryside, her horror at being underprepared for the Sorbonne, the persecution of the French media when her affair with Langevin was discovered. During that talk, somehow Marie gained a new dimension, outside the well-defined outline of her scientific life. I realized this is something I had felt missing before, in the biographies of trailblazing women in science. We usually put so much emphasis in highlighting the difficulties they overcame, their hard work, their scientific discoveries, that we end up making them so perfect that is hard for girls today to identify with them. Their brilliance is an inspiration, even more so when you consider the injustices they faced, but I believe we should remind ourselves, that they were women just like us, with their personal struggles and failures. They were not one-of-a-kind martyrs, but heroes that we can emulate today.

Professor Howes

As a woman and a physicist, it bothers me that other girls and women might not feel welcome in the field. We still need to overcome challenges until we are in a position of equality with our male colleagues, and I (as am sure many others like me) often think about what is the best way in which I can contribute. There is an ever-growing community of scientists (both men and women) who champion equal opportunities and put in place programs that help this effort. Our greatest strength is our community, the mentors who help and champion students and young scientists, the role models that increase representation in the field and encourage new generations.

We want to shine the spotlight on the achievements of female scientists, in particular, those that have had to overcome particularly dire circumstances. But I think we should be careful that we don’t portray them as superhumans who have succeeded where no other person could, as by doing so we risk intimidating the same people we want to encourage. Science should not be the field of the brave but of the interested. We want to inspire young minds, and we want all the young people interested to feel they have a place in the scientific community.

I loved watching the film “Hidden figures” and one of the things I enjoyed the most was the companionship and support the women offered each other. And I loved it not only because it was inspirational and emotive, but because this is a part of my experience as a female scientist that I don’t see highlighted often. Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin, Emmy Noether, Lise Meitner, they all had to face challenges on their own, but nowadays we have an extraordinary community of women doing scientific research, championing each other and looking for ways of levelling the playing field in the sciences. During my research in quantum computing, I’ve met incredibly smart, kind and all-around amazing women, some of whom I’m now lucky to call my closest friends. As female scientists of 2017, we still have challenges, but we are no longer alone.

Some groups and resources for women in physics:

Fault-Tolerant Quantum Technologies ’16

After some weeks’ hiatus, Quanta for Breakfast is back! Today I want to give my thoughts on the Fault-Tolerant Quantum Technologies Workshop that I attended this summer in Benasque, Spain. It was my first time visiting the beautiful town and both the location and the workshop definitely lived up to my expectations.

The conference took place at the Centro de Ciencias de Benasque Pedro Pascual, a facility for hosting workshops and scientific meetings and truly a dream come true for physicists at a conference. There were blackboards everywhere: conference theatre, meeting rooms, corridors, outside blinds… It has all the facilities needed to be a place of scientific work and discussion and there is really no excuse to not talk about physics all day long. The building itself had a very interesting design and was built with sustainability in mind. The Centre was named in honour of the Spanish physicist Pedro Pascual, whose Quantum Mechanics book, co-authored with Alberto Galindo, I thoroughly studied as an undergrad at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. Benasque itself is charming, full of hikers, incredible scenery and good food. There were some complaints about the time it took to have lunch, but what can I say, it’s a holiday town in Spain, restaurants assume the diners want to relax and enjoy the food 🙂 . However, for the people who couldn’t wait to go back to the blackboards, there was always the option of grabbing some tapas.

The meeting was really fantastic, from the content of the talks to the atmosphere throughout the two weeks. On top of the welcome drinks and conference dinner, there were some great activities organised, such as a couple of group hikes, an ascent to Aneto (the tallest peak in the Pyrenees), canyoning and an AMA Reddit session.


Group hike


On top of all these activities, there was plenty of free time for work and discussion, which is mostly missing in other conferences. This free time combined with the group discussions truly gave us the opportunity to learn new concepts and work together. Speaking for myself, not being an expert in Quantum Error Correction, I came back from the conference having a much better understanding of many concepts, in particular around the concept of cellular automata decoders, which featured in several talks (including a video demonstration by Barbara Terhal, shown in the GIF below). The concept of algorithms using cellular automata in quantum information processes is very powerful, particularly when considering cluster state computations or topological error correction, where the information is stored in global degrees of freedom and can be acted upon with local operations.


Demonstration of a cellular automata decoder


The biggest highlight of this workshop was, for me, the extensive discussion around experiments. There were several talks dedicated to the topic:

Steve Flammia: Comparing Experiments to the Fault Tolerant Threshold

– Hector Bombin: On the effect of correlated noise

James Wooton: A decoding algorithm for proof of principle experiments

Ying Li: Resource cost of fault-tolerant quantum computing in hybrid quantum computers and LOQC

Niel de Beaudrap: NQIT

– Yours truly: Fault-tolerant considerations when designing a linear-optical quantum computer

Hugo Cable: Minimised switching in linear-optical quantum computing

– James Auger: Topological Error Correction with Faulty Components

Joe O’Gorman: Realistic magic state distillation factories

Also, there were some technical discussions on experimental implementations of quantum computers, as well as which codes should be the first to be implemented  in small scale experiments.

We are currently at a very exciting point in the development of quantum computers. Experiments are starting to get large enough that some small codes can be tested on them. Proofs of principle experiments of topological codes have been implemented with superconducting qubits, as well as with photons and ion traps. However, the community is not in agreement on which codes are the most useful and what scope we have to find yet better error correction codes. On top of that, it might be the case that the different constraints of the various physical systems make it impossible for a single code to be optimal for all. Good news is that, now that the Quantum Error Correction and experimental communities are engaging so much with each other, we can expect vast improvements on the performance of small quantum computers thanks to codes tailored to the specific requirements of the physical systems.

Finally, I would like to thank the organisers – Dan Browne, Earl Campbell and Michael Kastoryano – for such a fantastic experience, I look forward to future editions of the workshop!



I don’t want to leave the post without mentioning the game Decodoku, a browser and mobile citizen-science game based on Quantum Error Correction, which was advertised at the conference. It’s presented as a series of puzzles, reminiscent of the popular sudoku, 2048 and Threes, but in which the problems solved mimic the effects of noise on a topological code. Good strategies for solving these puzzles efficiently could potentially become new decoding algorithms, it gives an excellent excuse for the time spent playing 😀 . If you find out you are really good at it, let the developer (James Wooton) know.