Western’s Seth Rittenhouse Helps Create New Molecule

John Thompson
Office of Communications and Marketing

Working together on a team led by the University of Oklahoma’s James Shaffer, Western Washington University assistant professor of Physics and Astronomy Seth Rittenhouse has helped create a new type of molecule that may pave the way to the first generation of scalable quantum computers.

Their research was just published in the research journal “Science,” and is available online at news.sciencemag.org.

The molecule is unique because it has the largest electric dipole moment – a property that determines how the molecule reacts to electric fields– ever recorded. This molecule was first theorized in 2000, but not proven in lab until recently. Rittenhouse’s job, as a theoretical physicist, was to take the results being found in the lab by Shaffer and his team in Oklahoma and then build a new hypothesis around those results, which would then be tested. The back-and-forth between the experimentalists in the lab and the theorists crunching endless strings of formulae on their white boards continued until the molecule was successfully built and tested. Working along with Rittenhouse as a theory collaborator on the project was Hossein Sadeghpour from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

“That’s really part of what my role as a theoretical physicist is: to take pre-existing knowledge and use it to propose new phenomena, and then to continue to refine it as more and more information becomes available,” Rittenhouse said.

Among other effects, these molecules interact strongly at large distances, which makes them potential candidates for the development of quantum computers – devices which can perform many types of computations at rates far faster than the fastest current transistor-based computers. Where traditional digital computers store information in bytes of data in one of two states – either a zero or a 1 – quantum computing uses qubits of data that allows that information to exist simultaneously as both a zero and a 1, or portions thereof.

Rittenhouse’s work with Shaffer’s team began after meeting him at a conference and hearing an explanation of their work to date.

“While it seemed like they were on the right track, some of their work using Cesium in the molecule was work I had already done, so I offered to lend a hand with tweaking it, and we went from there,” he said.

Rittenhouse completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Western and received his doctorate from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2009. He then completed a three-year postdoc at the Institute for Theoretical Atomic, Molecular and Optical Physics (ITAMP) at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and Harvard University Department of Physics; he has taught at Western since 2012.

For more information on Rittenhouse’s work, contact him at (360) 650-3823 or seth.rittenhouse@wwu.edu.

Seth Rittenhouse, Western Washington University assistant professor of Physics and Astronomy, at (360) 650-3823 or seth.rittenhouse@wwu.edu

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Thursday, April 23, 2015 - 4:19pm