The Missing Chemical: Luck
If Alexander Fleming had been more sanitary, millions would have died. Quantum computing qubits are hoping to make the next big mistake.
From the start, science has always had a component of luck involved. A quick google search can give you a long list of accidental scientific discoveries and inventions that went on to change the world. For instance, penicillin, an antibiotic discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928, was the result of Fleming’s accidental contamination of his workspace. This discovery eventually saved millions of lives, but what if Fleming had managed to keep the area sterile?
Though penicillin is the poster child for accidental scientific discovery, it is hardly the only discovery that can be attributed to chance. Among the list of lucky occurrences are quinine (a major drug used to fight malaria), microwaves, and the discovery of radioactivity.
So much of our world is a product of accidental discoveries that one cannot help but wonder what life would be like if people like Fleming had kept a cleaner space. Or better yet, if there are other major discoveries we’ve missed because luck wasn’t on our side in some cases?
Throughout history, the human mind has been the driving force behind scientific discovery. But the truth of the matter is that our minds can only do so much at once. As such, science has historically had a close relationship with serendipity. However, that may be changing.
With the development of technology, we are entering a new era of scientific discovery. As science advances further, more of the heavy-lifting and number-crunching is being relegated to computers. But computers have their limit, and even the world’s greatest supercomputers can only process so much at once. As the limitations of classical computing are being recognized, experts are starting to push for the next step: quantum computing. With the growing complexity of scientific discoveries, researchers are looking to integrate quantum computing into experimental analysis for the next level of scientific research.
But before jumping into why quantum computing is so fascinating and well-suited for this job, let’s first tackle what it actually is. The classical computer, like your phone or your PC, uses binary—a sequence of 1’s and 0’s to represent information.
Quantum computers, on the other hand, can represent information in ones, zeros, or a third option called “superposition”, which allows the computer to represent data as a one and a zero simultaneously.
Though the specifics can get quite complicated, what this essentially means is that quantum computers can process information much more efficiently than classical computing. Because of this, experts are pushing for quantum computing to be used for complicated simulations that require multiple variables to be considered.
Specifically, many scientists have started to experiment with simulating chemical reactions with quantum computing. As Alán Aspuru-Guzik, professor of chemistry and computer science at the University of Toronto, explains, quantum computing and chemistry are perfectly matched, as chemistry is inherently quantum. For scientists in this field of quantum chemistry, linking quantum computing and chemistry is the next big step in scientific research. And last summer, this goal was met when Google successfully ran the first-ever quantum simulation of a chemical reaction.
“At its purest, quantum computing lets you model nature as it is; no approximations.” says Jeanette Garcia, Senior Manager for Quantum Applications, Algorithms and Theory team at IBM Research. With classical computing, approximations often had to be made in certain areas of a model in order to remain within the computer’s processing limitations. More approximations meant less applicable models, which ultimately meant more time spent conducting research at the lab bench. “In this dynamic, no amount of data fluency can obviate the need for serendipity: you will be working in a world where you need luck on your side to make important advances. The development of— and embrace of—quantum computers is therefore crucial to the future practice of chemists.”
But what implications does this have for those of us who aren’t chemists or quantum computing experts? Aspuru-Guzik is working to create more efficient batteries for solar panels and wind turbines, a field of research that could benefit immensely from quantum computing. This could put us one step closer to a future of green energy. Beyond this, however, this new method of quantum chemistry could bring fast advancements in a great variety of technologies, from fertilizer production, to reducing carbon emissions, to personalized medicine.
As we continue in this age of technology, we can expect an increasing reliance on computing power in research.
Google’s experiment could be the first glimpse of what science could eventually look like: a future in which research is dominated by qubits running through endless possibilities in the hopes that the next penicillin is hidden somewhere within.
Cassandra He is a freshman at MIT studying biomedical engineering. She writes about computing, biology, and innovation.
Cover: Stephen Shankland/CNET