Published June 1, 2020

Photo courtesy of Media Services of University of Arkansas

Quantum Leap

Chair holder and his lab are creating nanostructures for the next generation of computing.

Jak Chakhalian, an authority in the field of condensed matter physics, holds the inaugural Professor Claud Lovelace Endowed Chair in Experimental Physics in the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University–New Brunswick. His lab works with quantum materials to create new quantum nanostructures for use in the next generation of ultrafast communication and computational devices.

Before joining Rutgers’ Department of Physics and Astronomy, Chakhalian was a physics professor at the Institute for Nanoscience at the University of Arkansas. “When I learned about this position, I was truly excited about the opportunity to join colleagues, some of whom I have known for years,” he says. “One of the decisive factors was Rutgers’ unique combination of talented researchers spanning quantum materials synthesis, state-of-the-art experimental facilities, and outstanding theory. It’s hard to think of any other university in the country where such synergy would be present.”

Chakhalian earned his doctorate at the University of British Columbia and was a Max Planck Society Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Solid State Research in Stuttgart, Germany.

The Professor Claud Lovelace Endowed Chair in Experimental Physics was established through a bequest from Lovelace, an esteemed professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy who was renowned for his expertise in string theory. Matching funding for the chair was provided by an anonymous donor.

In the Professor’s Own Words 

How do you explain quantum physics to non-scientists?

There is no simple way to explain quantum physics in a way that is precise yet accessible, largely because scientists themselves cannot understand it completely.

Here are some quotes I use in my quantum mechanics class to illustrate this:

  • If [quantum theory] is correct, it signifies the end of physics as a science. — Albert Einstein
  • Everything we call real is made of things that cannot be regarded as real. — Niels Bohr
  • Those who are not shocked when they first come across quantum theory cannot possibly have understood it. — Niels Bohr
  • If you are not completely confused by quantum mechanics, you do not understand it. — John Wheeler
  • I do not like [quantum mechanics], and I am sorry I ever had anything to do with it. — Erwin Schrödinger
  • Quantum mechanics makes absolutely no sense. — Roger Penrose
  • It is safe to say that nobody understands quantum mechanics. — Richard Feynman
  • I am going to tell you what nature behaves like. If you will simply admit that maybe she does behave like this, you will find her a delightful, entrancing thing. Do not keep saying to yourself, if you can possibly avoid it, ‘But how can it be like that?’ because you will get ‘down the drain,’ into a blind alley from which nobody has yet escaped. Nobody knows how it can be like that. — Richard Feynman, from his lecture “The Character of Physical Law”

Perhaps the best way to appreciate the weirdness of the quantum world is to say 1) that quantum objects behave like waves of matter when we do not look at them and more like a particle (or classic solid objects) when we interact with the quantum objects. And 2) even in principle, we cannot predict what happens to a quantum object definitively. Instead we can only give a certain probability number of something to happen in the future. Why? We do not know but this is the best theory we have so far.

What inspired your interest in this field?

My interest is to create new artificial materials where the quantum behavior of electrons defines their exotic properties, such as superconductivity or topological properties of quantum matter on the macroscopic (or accessible to humans) scale.

What has been the most exciting development in your lab so far?

The most exciting recent development is that we were able to create novel structures that allow us to control magnetic properties of electrons (spin) by an applied electric field (through electronic charge) almost at room temperature. Also, we have tailor made novel quantum materials where magnetic moments inside a crystal behave like liquid, giving rise to an exotic state called quantum spin liquid.

What is most rewarding about working with your Rutgers colleagues?

The most rewarding is the variety of talent in many fields, including state-of-the art theory and inorganic chemistry.


This story is part of Rutgers University Foundation’s Endowed Chairs Impact series. Supporting professorships and research helps spark innovation and creativity here in New Jersey and beyond. 

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