The day that Uruguayan Eugenia Benech almost burned down her house, because of the curiosity that the manufacture of a homemade electromagnet gave her, she did not imagine that almost two decades later, that same curiosity would lead her to working together with the new Nobel laureate in Physics, the Austrian Anton Zeilinger.
It was little of curiosity and as much of oversight the one that led her there. That same dispersion that allows him to abstract himself into physical problems that are imperceptible to the eye, when humanity needs to see to understand: an apple that falls from a tree on Newton’s head, a pot of water that begins to bubble when the temperature exceeds 100 degrees, a lamp that lights up. And it was that dispersion that accompanied her when the Nobel Prize was announced.
At 11:45 a.m. local time this Tuesday (06:45 a.m. in Uruguay), at the precise moment that the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences named three physicists Nobel laureates among whom was Benech’s doctoral thesis tutor, the young Uruguayan “hadn’t the faintest idea” that the highest prizes in her discipline were being announced that day. She was locked up in the laboratory at the University of Vienna, rehearsing some accounts on a blackboard for a problem that had kept her awake since the day before. Suddenly a fellow researcher, who is also directed by the physicist Zeilinger, burst into the room and an exchange took place that could have gone something like this:
—I think I found the solution to the problem, Benech told his colleague with the illusion of someone who shouts “Eureka”.
—Leave that right now, we have to go to the press conference!, his partner replied.
“Conference of what?”
“Didn’t you hear?” Anton (Zeilinger) has just been recognized with the Nobel. Hurry up!
Eugenia Benech — 28 years old, speaking slowly and precisely, a physicist by profession, and who has been studying her doctorate with the Zeilinger team in Austria for two years with her musician wife — feels the adrenaline in these hours when the flashes rest on her and the scientists. But she knows that, much to her chagrin, they are fleeting glances. Because less than two years ago, when science monopolized the sugar-coated speeches of several politicians, she he earned less than 1,000 dollars a month for working more than eight hours a day trying to do science and teaching at the Faculty of Engineering at Udelar.
“Several” of his classmates, “of those who were excellent in their disciplines,” were relegated due to the lack of funds to finance their postgraduate scholarships. So much so that Adriana Auyuanet, from the Institute of Physics of the Faculty of Engineering and former head of Benech, says that “this year, of the 376 postgraduate scholarships awarded, 166 scholarships remained unfunded.” And in a message that went viral on social networks, she wonders: “How many ‘Eugenias’ were left without the possibility of developing?”
Benech, who at Udelar had been awarded as the best thesis of her generation, was one of the privileged to obtain a scholarship from the Postgraduate Academic Commission (CAP) to study her master’s degree. “In Uruguay doing a master’s degree is a job: you are teaching while studying and researching. It is full time and even more. It is impossible to do a postgraduate degree without scholarships, unless you have very rich parents”. She then applied to universities abroad and, thanks to her credentials, she caught the attention of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. She thus she went to stop at the institute of Vienna and rub shoulders with the new Nobel.
The world, your world
Eugenia Benech-Charbonier was born, raised and almost burned down the house he lived in Colonia Cosmopolita, a Colonial town of about 400 inhabitants that, in the words of the scientist, “the only thing that is cosmopolitan is the name because they are all cousins.”
But they say that names mark us and are our first sign of identity. After the attacks of September 11, for example, different sociological studies showed that those whose names sounded like Arabic had less chance of getting a job interview. And perhaps because of that burden that names have, Eugenia Benech made Cosmopolitan a lifestyle… not only because she lives in the laboratory with scientists from “all” the world.
“I was always curious about how things work, about how the world is in essence,” says the scientist who, with the mentorship of the Nobel Prize, is investigating entanglement (how two subatomic particles are intertwined that, although it seems paradoxical, are separated ). And that is why her world, the academic world, takes place in studies of fundamental, abstract science whose application is still uncertain.
Physics, the one studied in high school, has laws that seem immovable. When two things are separated, according to those basic principles of the discipline, they are separated. “When there is no electric field joining the parts, or a magnetic field, or a signal, or any of the options that were studied, we say that they are separated and can no longer interact,” explains Benech. But it’s not always like this.
For more than the physical Albert Einstein Infuriated him, because he could not find a theoretical way around it, the new advances in quantum physics for which the recent Nobel Prize winners were awarded proved, even with experiments, that for subatomic objects the classical definition of Physics lacks logic: it is possible to generate objects made up of two completely separate parts that are nevertheless still connected. What happens in one part affects the other.
Zeilinger and his team, for example, managed to show how two separate particles on different islands in the Canary Islands were connected without being connected. And these advances could be key in “understanding the processes of Quantum Information, Quantum Computing and even teleportation”.
If classical computation can be summed up as a combination of zeros and ones (binary) in which whenever a number is assigned a position it cannot fit another, in quantum computing both can occur at the same time. The Chinese said they had built a team of this type that solved in one hour what would take the most powerful classic processors eight years. And in that race are also the giants like Google and IBM.
Members of the Swedish committee that awarded the Nobel noted that laureates, like Benech’s tutor, have carried out “pioneering experiments with entangled quantum states, in which two particles behave as a single unit even when separated.”
The Physics Institute where Benech worked, in Udelar, specializes in these studies. Also one of the institutes of the ORT Uruguay University. The young scientist concludes: “Quality Physics is done in the country, what is missing is the support, the effort we make as a society, so that this science develops even when its application is not seen immediately.”
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From almost burning down her house to working with the new Nobel Prize in Physics: who is the Uruguayan Eugenia Benech?