Project Description

Nicholas Laurita

Nicholas (Nick) Laurita

“I exploit the interaction of light with matter to uncover the properties of so-called “quantum materials” – materials which display quantum mechanical properties on the macroscopic scale. Currently I am studying a class of materials known as quantum spin liquids which have been theorized to host effective particles which are not conventionally found in nature. It’s as if each crystal of these materials is its own mini-universe where the laws of physics have been rewritten!”

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In my research, I exploit the interaction of light with matter to uncover the properties of so-called “quantum materials” – materials which display quantum mechanical properties on the macroscopic scale. Most of the time, the true quantum-ness of nature is hidden from our everyday lives because we experience the world on a very different scale than that of sub-atomic particles, where quantum mechanics truly thrives. However, certain materials can be driven into unusual quantum phases by particularly strong interactions between the electrons of the material.  The goal of my research, which takes place in the Hsieh lab, is to uncover these quantum phases by studying how the material interacts with intense laser pulses. Usually this requires extreme experimental conditions, often occurring at temperatures near absolute zero, and uses ultra-fast high-intensity lasers, which emit as many as one-hundred thousand laser pulses per second, each of which only lasts less than 1 billionth of a second.

Currently I am studying a class of materials known as quantum spin liquids.  These materials are, in a sense, a very disordered version of the magnets that many people may be more familiar with, like those we use to attach notes to our refrigerators. However, despite the electrons of these materials possessing strong magnetic interactions, these materials never become truly magnetic, even if the temperature is decreased to absolute zero.  Instead, the electrons of these materials form an exotic magnetic “liquid” that undulates in truly special ways thanks to the laws of quantum mechanics. The results can be extraordinary, with many theories predicting that these materials may host effective particles which are not conventionally found in nature. It’s as if each crystal is its own mini-universe where the laws of physics have been rewritten! While research in this field is still in its infancy, the hope is that these new particles may one day be used as the basis of quantum computation.

As an undergraduate, I was positive I wanted to study astrophysics. Like many people I was captivated by space. I wanted to look at stars, think about black holes, and study gravity. However, I was offered a research opportunity in a condensed matter laboratory early on as an undergraduate. I really didn’t know much about condensed matter at the time but I thought it at least would be a good opportunity to learn some new physics and gain experience in a lab. The lab I joined was working on magnetism at the time, and the more I learned about it, the more interested I became. Now I’ve been studying magnetism for over a decade, and in that time, research into quantum magnetism has really flourished. There are so many fantastic groups out there discovering new materials and characterizing them. It’s really a vibrant and active area of condensed matter research, and it is very fun to be a part of that research.

Outside of lab, I spend much of my time outdoors.  California is an amazing place where you’re somehow simultaneously a fairly short drive away from the beach, the desert, and skiing. Plus it’s sunny almost year round.  My wife and I go hiking in the mountains near our house with our dog quite often. I also enjoy organized sports and play softball a few times a week around LA. If I’m home then I’m probably reading or writing. Last year I helped co-author a book on paradoxes in math and physics tentatively called A Most Ingenious Paradox, which was recently picked up by MIT press and will appear on bookshelves next year.