A chess game got Australian of the Year Michelle Simmons on the path to quantum physics
From an early age, Michelle Simmons liked to understand things.
She used to watch her brother and father play chess, a lot.
“One day I asked if I could play my father and he was a little bit surprised. I could see he wasn’t expecting it,” the 2018 Australian of the Year said.
“After about 20 minutes I thought, ‘gosh I think I’m going to check-mate him’. And I did and he was totally surprised.
“It made me think ‘wow he didn’t really expect me to be able to do this’ and that really got me thinking ‘there must be other things that people don’t expect of me, let me find out what they are’.”
One of those things was understanding the world at a level of physics and mathematics.
“So I got into it,” she says.
“And I found that the more difficult the challenges I took on, the more rewarding it was and I thought wow this is a phenomenal world to be in.
“It’s absolutely rewarding in a way I didn’t get with easier things. From that point on I thought what can I do that’s going to be useful for the world.”
She went on to become one of Australia’s top scientists.
The 50-year-old mother of three is a professor in quantum physics at the University of New South Wales, and has placed Australia at the forefront of research that could reshape the way we live.
But even though her world is filled with fascinating concepts, Professor Simmons concedes being Australian of the Year is a bit unusual.
“As a physicist we fly under the radar a lot. We’re not in the public eye very much so for that reason it’s very strange,” she said.
Calling Australia home
Professor Simmons grew up in London and went to some of the best universities in the UK.
She looked at going to the US and Europe but settled on Australia because of its society, ambitious attitudes and culture.
“I looked at Australia and I thought wow, they have an egalitarian society. You come in at an early age and they encourage leadership from a young age,” she said.
“You’re able to get your own funding, you’re able to do your own thing.
“But also just the Australian culture of giving it a go, not taking themselves too seriously, working hard, being ambitious. I just thought ‘wow, that’s a place where I feel that I could actually do things in a way that would suit me’.
Since arriving in Australia in 1999, Professor Simmons has transformed her quantum physics department into a world leader in advanced computer systems.
In 2012, her team created the world’s smallest transistor made from a single atom.
They put out an eight-stage plan and it was questioned internationally over whether all, if any of those stages were possible. But that was no deterrence to getting it across the line.
“We thought, ‘we think it’s possible’,” she said.
And it certainly was.
“When we got to the final stage … you can actually see the atom in a microscope. So we could see it was there but then we had to prove that it behaved as a transistor,” Professor Simmons said.
“And then when we actually saw that it worked, that feeling is absolutely phenomenal and it will stay with me for the rest of my life.”
The next thing on Professor Simmons’ radar is to build a quantum computer — one that could solve problems in minutes, that would otherwise take thousands of years.
“It really starts to allow us to do things that we simply wouldn’t be able to do in a timely fashion,” she said.
Something like this would have the potential to revolutionise things like artificial intelligence, self-driving cars and drug design.
Achieving the ‘unexpected’ in a male dominated area
Some would say quantum physics is a man’s world.
But Professor Simmons said most of the time she has not been aware of a gender divide, other than the fact people had lower expectation of what she could achieve.
“Because they’re not expecting me to do anything, I can actually get on with it. No-one’s paying attention to me, I can actually get on and see if I can achieve it,” she said.
Only 5 to 7 per cent of her field is female and she knows there’d be benefits to boosting that number.
“I love having females in my group so I’ve been trying to figure out how to get more in the group,” she said.
“There’s all kinds of different schemes you can come up with but I think it’s almost a cultural step change in just accepting that you’ve got to take on the hard challenges.
“Recognise that females, just as males, can do the hard challenges equally as well. And encouraging them not to lack confidence in what they can do, just get out there and do it.”