Student’s holiday project uses advanced physics to detect alien life

A Hull University student spent the holidays applying quantum computing to detect molecules in outer space to try to uncover extra-terrestrial life.

Quantum computing is the study of how to use phenomena in quantum physics to create new ways of computing. Quantum physics is the study of matter and energy at the most fundamental level. It aims to uncover the properties and behaviours of the very building blocks of nature.

Dr David Benoit, a senior lecturer in Molecular Physics and Astrochemistry at the University of Hull, said: “What made this research really unique was the marrying of two contrasting branches of physics. Astrophysics mostly uses the physics of large objects; such as planets and stars, whilst quantum mechanics focusses on phenomena at the nanoscale; such as electrons and photons.

“To detect possible signs of life, you need to be able to predict how molecules are likely to behave on other worlds – this is where we need lots of computing power. Quantum computing seemed a natural solution for us and a new way of approaching the problem.”

Ryan Ward
Dr David Benoit with MPhys student Ryan Ward.

Dr Benoit and Ryan then continued their collaborative work over the summer and their research was soon sponsored by software company Zapata Computing which was able to provide the two researchers with access to the advanced quantum computing platform they needed.

Ryan said: “I'm proud of the method that we developed. It was based on previous work and some new ideas – but putting it together the way that we did, how we improved current processes, is what I'm most proud of. That feeling of creating something new.

“I'm really glad that our project is starting to take off. Quantum Computing is still in its junior years, and has plenty of avenues to explore. Quantum Astrochemistry is just one of those avenues but I hope that it'll one day widen into a full boulevard.”

“I'm currently taking a year out from research, but I really enjoyed our working environment and the people in the Physics Department are fantastic.”

The research comes not long after the University of Hull Physics course is ranked in the top 10 nationally according to the 2022 Guardian University Rankings: an achievement which is based on course satisfaction and teaching satisfaction.

Ryan’s research has achieved wide spread national and international media coverage, with the story reaching both India and Brazil.

Dr Benoit said: “Quantum computing is still very much a new technology and a curiosity that has limited specific applications and very few, if any, in astrophysics so far.

‘We’re planning to extend the technique we developed to more molecules and see how far we can push this.”

While the potential of this technique is yet to be further explored, the mysteries around alien life remain.

“The best we can say is that the Universe would be pretty dull if there wasn’t something else out there – the probability can’t just be zero. We are going to continue working on our models so that if there is something to find, we’ll be ready and waiting!” said Dr Benoit.

On being asked what next steps Ryan will take on his future career path he said he would enjoy being a lecturer and teaching others about advanced science, however his collaboration with Zapata has opened his eyes to the possibility of working in the industry.

For details of Physics courses at the University of Hull, please visit our website.

Physics and Astrophysics at Hull is ranked 7th in the UK and 3rd in the UK for satisfaction in teaching.*

* The Guardian University Guide 2022

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