Interview with Juan Ignacio Cirac

© Institut Max Planck

The following text is a summary of the full text available in Spanish and Catalan

Juan Ignacio Cirac (Manresa, 1965) graduated in Theoretical Physics from the Complutense University of Madrid and has taught at the University of Castilla-La Mancha as well as in Leopold Franzens University (Innsbruck). In 2001, Cirac was appointed director of the Theoretical Division of the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics located in Garching, Germany. Juan Ignacio Cirac has been granted two honorary degrees (by the Polytechnic University of Catalonia and the University of Castilla-La Mancha) as well as many other awards, including the Prince of Asturias Award for Technical and Scientific Research, the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Physics and the Wolf Prize in Physics. 

If quantum physics studies the smallest elements in nature (atoms, electrons, photons…), why do we need such large and sophisticated devices?

Basically because we need a large amount of energy to study very small particles. We need a microscope to observe very small objects, but the amount of energy used increases as the size of the object decreases. To obtain this energy we need large and very accurate equipments.

You work within the area of quantum computing. I suppose you have to explain what quantum computing is whenever you meet someone new. How do you do it?

Well… It is a science that has been developed in the last twenty years and which uses the laws of quantum physics in order to process and transmit data differently. This entails a more efficient computing and data transmission, as well as a safer way to do so.

Should current scientific research be more practical and focus on what is more economically profitable, especially in technological research?

No, it should not. It is not its duty. Actually, there are two different types of research —one that should seek to be economically profitable, and one that should not. For example, if you wish to produce a pen that lasts longer, you need to carry out a particular type of research that should result in a pen competing with other brands in the market. That is short-term research. However, there is another type of research that is carried out on the long-term. This type of research does not seek to develop any particular product, but intends to achieve bigger goals that can transform the world of technology. This is what many physicists and scientists do and what research in quantum computing is about. Quantum computing does not intend to build a quantum computer but to develop a kind of technology that affects not only computers, but also communication systems and other things we can’t even start to imagine.

Is Europe competitive regarding scientific and technological knowledge?

It depends on the field you are referring to. In my field it definitely is. Some years ago the UE promoted research programmes that enabled cooperation between countries which resulted in a fast development of quantum computing in Europe. Europe is way ahead of the USA or Japan in this area.
How are budget cuts affecting the future of scientific research?
The situation is very serious. You may think that if your funding is reduced for a year you won’t be able to compete for that year and that’s it. However, this is not the case— you need a lot of time to recover from a couple of years of low funding. You have to catch up with the other groups. It is like a cycling race: if you fall and stop for five minutes, it is much more difficult to catch up with the others afterwards.


© Institut Max Planck


© Institut Max Planck


«Quantum computing does not intend to build a quantum computer but to develop a kind of technology that affects not only computers, but also communication systems and other things we can’t even start to imagine»

We have to admit that your area of expertise —physics— remains a mystery for most people. Can we, and should we, make an effort to change the way people perceive science or must we accept that we just need to make an extra effort to understand some areas of knowledge?
I always use one example: if you want to read Chinese literature, you can always go for translations, but you won’t get feel the same if you are able to understand and read Chinese. A very similar thing happens with theoretical physics. You don’t need to know everything there is to it in order to understand what it does, the goals it pursues, etc. This is what the general public can understand and accept, end even enjoy. But if you want to understand theoretical physics and enjoy it in full, you need to learn its language —maths—, which is just as difficult as learning Chinese. You have to devote a lot of time and effort to it.

Physics has a lot to do with calculus, logic, maths and philosophy. Are physicists aware of this relationship between the two cultures in their own field?
Yes, of course, there is a very close relationship between these areas. There are mathematicians who later became logicians or philosophers, so we are aware of this fact. In fact, sometimes logic is more important than calculations in maths or physics. Computers can work out calculations, but they cannot do research. We have to handle problems in the more appropriate way. Once you know how they can be solved, then you can make all necessary calculations… But the most important part is the deepest one, the one that concerns logic.





«You need a lot of time to recover from a couple of years of low funding»

Books to bridge the gap

What book would you recommend to stimulate our interest in science?
(Even though Cirac explains that what he usually reads is «a little bit advanced», finally makes a recommendation). Vlakto Vedral’s Decoding Reality. The Universe as Quantum Information.

What about a novel? Do you have any time left to read novels or poetry?  Yes, I try to read at least for one hour everyday. I recommend Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Bad Girl.


Lucía Sapiña. The Two Cultures Observatory.
© Mètode 2013.



© Mètode 2013

Two Cultures Observatory, Mètode.

Journalism graduate by the Autonomous University of Barcelona and Masters Degree in History of Science and Science Communication by the University of Valencia. She is a member of the Two Cultures Observatory, a multidisciplinary research group of the University of Valencia that focuses on the links between journalism and science. Now her research is focused on the communication of cancer, both in press and social networks.