Get to Know a Grantee - Professor Mark A. Novotny, PhD

By Maureen Heydt 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Mark A. Novotny
Distinguished Professor and Head of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Mississippi State University Mark A. Novotny, PhD, is serving this year as a Fulbright Scholar and Distinguished Chair in the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics at Charles University in Prague. Professor Novotny has cultivated a prominent career in physics that has seen him earn his PhD from Stanford University, teach and conduct research in four different U.S. universities, and work for two years at the IBM Scientific Center in Bergen, Norway as well. His contributions to the field of physics are great, including his discovery of a new nano-device that he has named quantum dragons. Here, Professor Novotny discusses his current research, the differences between his home and host institutions, and the importance of international education exchanges in today’s world.

-------------------------------------- Fast Facts ----------------------------------------

  • U.S. Position: Giles Distinguished Professor and Head of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, Mississippi State University, MS
  • Czech Affiliation: Distinguished Chair, Faculty of Mathematics and Physics, Charles University, Prague
  • Project: Studies in Quantum Systems, Including Quantum Materials and Quantum ComputingDiscipline/Specialization: Physics
  • Academic Background: Ph.D., Physics, Stanford University, CA, 1978
  • Favorite Quote: “The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible.”- Albert Einstein
  • Favorite Czech Food: Potato dumplings

Hello! Can you please give a brief introduction of yourself?

I’m originally from Minnesota, and grew up on a farm in the northern part of the state. I was one of eight children, and I went to a small school, about 22 kids in the graduating class. Very rural. From there, I went to North Dakota State University as an undergraduate, majored in Physics, and have enjoyed doing that ever since. I spent four years there, and then went to graduate school at Stanford University in the Physics department, and worked mainly at the interface between mathematical physics and experimental physics. After finishing my PhD, I got a postdoc position at the University of Georgia in Athens, and was there for three years. There I moved to what is now called computational physics, but back then was frowned upon as not really a way of doing physics, because it wasn’t experiment and it wasn’t theory, and computers were so small, that you know, what can you do on them? So, after three years there, I moved to Northeastern University in Boston, was there for five years and again doing computational physics and teaching, and then I went to work for IBM up in the scientific center in Bergen, Norway, and enjoyed working for them for two years. I then moved to Florida State University, and was there for a dozen years as a research scientist doing computational physics, and then in 2001 moved to Mississippi State University as the department head, where I’m still the department head. I’ve tried to do research there, as well as administration, and the research is still on computational physics. I’m getting more and more into working on the quantum aspects of things, both in the computing side, and what I’m actually computing for, so both the machine that I’m using, and the atomic, materials, and engineering systems studied.

And what courses are you teaching this semester?

I’m teaching one course in quantum mechanics, but it’s a non-traditional quantum mechanics. It’s a graduate course, but there are some undergraduates and some postdocs that are sitting in as well, so it kind of spans the gamut.

What does your research focus on?
Right now, focusing on two different things, one is quantum computing. In particular, focusing on adiabatic quantum computing. There’s one company in the world that makes a quantum computer; if you write a check to them, they will sell you one, and they just announced one that has 2000 qbits, so in theory, these computers can do calculations that no classical computer can do, but theory and practice are still flirting with each other, shall we say. That’s one thing I’m working on, and the other thing I’m working on is I’m trying to find dragons. I’ve discovered this type of nanomaterials that I call quantum dragons. After all, if you discover them, you get to name them, and I thought it was a cool name. So, I spend a lot of my time looking for quantum dragons. I discovered some before I came here, and now I’ve learned a different mathematical path to find the same ones, and looking for more.

What are the quantum dragons you have discovered? What do they do, or what is their function?
A quantum dragon is a type of nano-device I discovered. The nano-device is composed of atoms (in the picture below the spheres), and the hopping of an electron between two atoms (the cylinders in the picture below). The nano-device can be of many different forms, or in the lingo of the field, can have a lot of disorder. When properly connected to input and output leads, the quantum dragon has complete transmission of incoming electrons for all energies of the incoming electron. In other words, every electron in the input lead goes to the output lead, none are reflected back into the input lead. This property makes quantum dragons have zero electrical resistance (in four-probe measurements). Electrical resistance is the reason your smartphone gets warm when you use it. Quantum dragons can be made in many different styles, some interesting in engineering, and others just fun to look at.

And what do you wish everyone understood about physics?
That it’s really the basis for all of our modern technology. If you talk about your cell phones and your computers and electronics, it’s all based on quantum mechanics. But it’s based on quantum mechanics at the classical level, and the new computers, the quantum computers, are going to be quantum mechanics at the quantum level, bringing even more power, and probably changing the society we live in some more.

I also read online that the time spanned by algorithms you have made for nanoparticle dynamics “is as many decades in time as the number of decades between the volume of a raindrop and all the water on Earth.”
Yes. So, you really have to come up with advanced mathematical methods to be able to calculate things in a way other than a brute force method. A brute force method only allows you to look at things in certain time ranges, very short time scales, but if you use advanced mathematical methods and embed those in your algorithms, then you can come up with things that are exact mathematically, that get you the same calculations, but you’re essentially doing it in a much smarter way.

How long does it take you generally to create one of these algorithms?

Usually, it’s a couple of years to get there ultimately. Often, you don’t really know what you’re setting out to accomplish, you’re just setting out to accomplish something, and then you find something. That’s how I found the quantum dragons. I wasn’t looking for them, because I didn’t think that they could exist when I looked for them, because it goes against some of the ideas of disorder in physics, and those kinds of things. And it was also that you put together three different, very hard things and together each of them is hard, but you put them together, and it makes something that is easy, which is very unusual in physics and mathematics.

So sometimes you just go off, and explore in the woods, and you find something. You’re just heading in a general direction, and when you get there, you say, wow, if I knew I was heading in this direction, I would have planned. But that’s the way research is. Actually, one of my favorite quotes by Albert Einstein is, and I’m probably paraphrasing, but it’s, “If we knew what we were doing, they wouldn’t call it research.”

That’s very interesting! And how is your host institution, Charles University, different from your home institution, Mississippi State University?
Mississippi State University is a land grant university. About a 150 years ago, the U.S. Senate passed a bill that allowed states to create one university which was supposed to be an agricultural and mechanical university, so in every state you will find at least one land grant university. The land grant university is really charged to be responsible for the engineering aspects, which means the sciences, and also the agricultural aspects. The emphasis is really on the education of the engineering and the agricultural sides, as well as on the science and social sciences, and so on. And even though there are some small branch campuses, there’s one main campus. Which means that if I’m sitting in the Physics building at Mississippi State, I can walk across the street, and I’m in the Political Science building. Whereas here at Charles University, to go to a different faculty, a different department, it’s a half hour ride away; so that’s one of the big differences. The building I’m in here really holds the Faculty of Physics, which includes material science in particular, and quantum systems and theory related to those, but there are other aspects of this science that overlaps that’s done in completely different parts of Prague, even though they’re at the same university.

And how is living in Prague different from living in Mississippi?
Mississippi State University is in a little town called Starkville, so living in a little town is different from living in a big city. I’m really enjoying my time here, and being able to attend concerts and events. Just walking and seeing the architecture is amazing here as well, it’s one of my favorite things to do.

What are some differences you have perceived between Czech and American university students, if any?
I think it’s much more dependent on the particular student. I’ve certainly met some students here that are extremely bright, extremely motivated, and hardworking, and they’re definitely going to succeed, and those students in the U.S. succeed as well. It takes U.S. students some time to find themselves, but since I’m teaching at the upper level here, I’d say the students at the upper level here are comparable to the students at the upper level in the U.S., because by that time they have already found themselves, and if they’re in a rigorous course of study like physics, then they are definitely motivated.

And do you think your semester here in Prague will effect or influence your teaching back at MSU? How so?
I think so, because here I prepared a brand new course in quantum mechanics. Typically, when people teach quantum mechanics, they start with the wave function, which is a mysterious thing that I would venture to guess that no physicist understands, but yet we use it all the time whenever we’re talking about atoms, or we’re talking about materials. I decided I was going to take a different tact, and try not to mention wave functions when I teach quantum mechanics. I didn’t know where this would end, because I lectured it every week, and every week I pushed it a little further. So, it will definitely influence the way that I teach quantum mechanics, and topics related to quantum mechanics when I return to the U.S.

Why did you choose to do a Fulbright to the Czech Republic?

Well, first of all, you’ve seen my last name.

Yes, Novotny!
Yes, so about 150 years ago, my great-grandfather came from Mala Strana in Prague, and went to the U.S., so the genes have come back! And it’s a great university and I knew it was a beautiful city, and so as soon as I saw they were looking for a Distinguished Chair in Physics or Mathematics, I said, it sounds like me! It was a perfect fit.

That’s wonderful! And what is the biggest benefit of international education in your opinion?
In my opinion, science is really an international endeavor. Everyone comes at it from their own perspective, because of their own background, but ultimately there’s a set of facts called nature that we’re all trying to understand, and to be able to meet with other people that are trying to understand nature, from different backgrounds, really allows you to get a better handle on what we are trying to understand in the sciences.

And relatedly, what does the Fulbright mission mean to you?
To me, the Fulbright mission is really meant to encourage interaction between countries. Certainly, hearing the stories of people here talking about what happened when the Iron Curtain was still up, and having visited both Hungary and East Berlin when the Curtain, the Wall, was still up, and just seeing how everything has changed and progressed, to me it really means that you want to have this connection between people from different countries to be able to lay a foundation to essentially advance humanity, as opposed to erecting Iron Curtains.

What is your overall impression of life in the Czech Republic?

First of all, my overall impression of life in the Czech Republic is it’s an extremely nice culture. The mass transit is extremely functional, and something that I wish the U.S. would do more of. I think people have a nice balance between work and what that entails, and shall we say, living, enjoying life, family, those kinds of things. I very much appreciate seeing that. You see kids out with their parents all the time, in all weathers, which is very nice, being pulled on and off the trams. I think it’s a nice family atmosphere.

What has been the most rewarding for you so far during your Fulbright year?
I would say interacting with the faculty and students at Charles University, and discussing things with them. Mainly science, because we are scientists after all, but other things as well, and just getting to know new people, and seeing the culture as well.

Have you given talks at any other universities in Czech Republic, or in Europe?
I gave a talk at University of Lisbon; I was on my way to visit my son, so I stopped in. I’m scheduled to give a talk in Poland, and also a talk on mathematics of quantum computing at Charles University, but in a very different part of Prague. And at the beginning of the next semester, there’s a named lectureship I’ve been asked to give, so I’ll be giving that to essentially kick off the semester for the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics. It’s to me, a real honor to be asked to do that.

That’s so exciting! And right now, you are halfway through your grant.
Hard to believe!

Yes, it goes so fast!

It does!

So what is something you are looking forward to that is still to come?

I would say it really took one semester to get to know people, talk with people, find common ground and common ideas, so I’m looking forward to bringing those to fruition, and hopefully submitting a paper, or two or three, with people here.

Have you been able to travel much in Czech Republic? Or, is there somewhere you would like to visit here?
There’s a lot of places I want to visit! I’ve visited some places; we met Steve and Ellen [Fellow Fulbright Scholar Steve Doig and his wife] in Brno, explored with them some, and saw some of the small villages. But we haven’t really gone towards the German border from Prague, and that’s a part of the Czech Republic I want to see.

And do you have any advice for people who might be considering applying for a Fulbright?
Just to apply! Because it’s extremely rewarding. Yes, there are hoops to jump through, and you may or may not be selected, but if you are selected, then it’s a great honor, and a great chance to give something back to your discipline, and really the two countries you’re in.

And is there anything else you’d like to add?

I just feel fortunate for this opportunity, because I think it’s been fulfilling to me, and at the same time, I feel like I’m contributing to a better dialogue between the U.S. and the Czech Republic. To me, that’s really a large part of what the Fulbright grants are for, is to get people in sort of similar areas, but from different countries, different cultures, to talk to each other.

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