Deep Tech

EXCLUSIVE: The Quiet Contributors To Quantum Theory

Scientists are people. We tend to believe that these geniuses are gifted enough to breeze through life. Surprisingly not!

If you want to know the stories of people who were powered with super-brains, look no further.

I had the privilege to interview Brian Lenahan and Kenna Hughes-Castleberry, authors of a brand new book – ‘On The Shoulders Of Giants – 10 Quantum Pioneers Of The Past’.

The fascinating feature of this book is that it not only details the contributions of lesser-known names in the quantum field but also narrates their struggles and triumphs.

If I have to summarize the book,

The book focuses on ten individuals throughout history whose work on quantum physics, mathematics, computer science, and engineering has advanced research to its current point. Besides discussing their scientific challenges and accomplishments, this book shows the human story of each individual, from adulthood to parenthood to old age. 

It shares exciting stories like Satyendra Nath Bose never had a Ph.D. and yet inspired researchers to get their degrees from scraps of notes in his rubbish bin; Betty Holberton programmed the first modern computer with nothing but blueprints. As most of the individuals in this book were married and had children, the importance of family within the scientific community is discussed; and how racism, colonialism, and sexism affected some of these giants. 

The book explains some key theories of quantum physics throughout history while highlighting the individuals who made these theories possible.” 

Here are the excerpts from the interview. 

Give us some insight into your new book.

Brian: Though quantum is a niche technology today, it has a long history dating back to the last century. Our book is on people who have directly or indirectly influenced the development of quantum theory, dating back to the last twelve centuries.

We already know about the biggest names in quantum research like Einstein and Feynman. We wanted to acknowledge some lesser-known names whose contribution has also been noteworthy.

What inspired you to write on this topic?

Brian: I actively write on LinkedIn and Substack. When researching for my articles, I came across a few interesting individuals who were linked to the research on quantum theory. I wrote a small account on them and received a positive response from my readers.  

It encouraged me to devote an entire book to these phenomenal people. I usually write on practical aspects of quantum technology, bridging the gap between business and technological developments. The book presented me with an opportunity to write about the personal stories of individuals. However, I did not have the skill set to pull this off myself. 

I realized Kenna will be the right ‘partner in crime’ to materialize this book. 

Kenna: I feel fortunate to contribute to this book. It was an interesting concept because we read a lot about familiar names on social media and pop media but never hear about these amazing people and their work. The book is important to bring new role models and inspiring stories for quantum enthusiasts of today.

How did you approach your research for this book?

Kenna: The research process was quite tactical. I would take a chapter at a time–one giant at a time. I would research their family, their backgrounds, the people who worked with them, and people who could share their stories and accomplishments. I would find old newspaper clippings, letters, articles, and any written material from their time. I enjoyed digging into the back corners of the internet to see what information is available on these individuals. 

Brian: Kenna prepared the first draft of the book based on my initial research findings and hers to maintain a single voice throughout the book. I added and modified some information but we ensured that the tone of communication remains consistent.

If you have to pick four names from the book, which would they be and why?

Brian: Tough question. They are all interesting and distinct personalities with fascinating stories. If I have to pick four, I will start with Muhammad ibn al-Khwarizmi. He worked in Persia (Middle East). It was when Baghdad was the epicenter of prosperity. Trade, science, and academia flourished. Khwarizmi represented the scientific community of that time. His work in mathematics led to the origin of algorithms–a foundation of quantum theory.  

The other favorite is Gottfried Leibniz from Germany. He belongs to the era of Issac Newton. I would term him a ‘renaissance person’. He had varied interests from computation to philosophy to cosmology. He developed computation devices based on 1s and 0s that we use widely today as bits. 

The next one of my favorites is Pantur Silaban from Indonesia. He is a 20th-century scientist with a broad range of interests. Though enough information is not available on him or his work, his interpretation of the theory of relativity for quantum mechanics is noteworthy. 

The final one on my list of favorites is Frances Betty Holberton. She is one of the first six computer programmers in the world. She worked during the Second World War on computer programs that would determine the missile trajectory. It was a difficult time for women and yet she outshone her peers and developed one of the first coding languages. 

Kenna: I pick four giants from the book for the kind of people they were rather than scientists. As a primary researcher of the book, I found a lot of information about their personal lives, their struggles, and their triumphs. Besides their contribution to the quantum landscape, their strong characters make their stories fascinating.

The first of my favorites is Elmer Imes. He is the second African-American to earn a Ph.D. in America. He was an upcoming scientist during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. He was deeply focused on science and physics amidst a cultural and artistic movement. He helped to develop the Physics department at Fisk University, one of the historically black-dominant universities in the United States. He left a larger impact beyond his work on spectroscopy and quantum energy. 

My second favorite is Sin-Itiro Tomonaga from Japan. He was a theoretical physicist who worked on quantum electrodynamics. He taught during the Second World War. The fate of Japan changed after the atomic bombings on the country. His story gives a fascinating insight into how the world changed for Japanese scientists. It was this event that brought ethics and morals into mainstream science.  

My third favorite is Claude Elwood Shannon. He is one of the rare scientists who had photoshoots with Vogue, Time, and Life magazines. He was a multi-faceted individual with several hobbies and interests. He helped the scientific community understand information theory and how information is processed–prerequisites for quantum theory. 

The next of my favorites is Debbie Jin. She studied Bose-Einstein condensates and similar gasses like fermions. She was a mother and would boycott conferences that were not child-friendly. She made family her equal priority and ensured that family lifestyle was a part of science–a first in the scientific community. Her work is used by researchers today in quantum computing and quantum information science.

How did Satyendra Nath Bose, one of the giants in your book, contribute to quantum theory?

Brian: Bose is indeed a significant contributor to quantum developments. The fundamental particle, Boson, in quantum physics is named after him. The Bose-Einstein condensate is another significant contribution by him. He also progressed work done by Max Planck. Einstein helped him publish the work in Germany. He also invited Bose to Europe to discuss his work. 

I particularly appreciate that Bose was a puzzle-solver. He used to approach complex problems like a puzzle but did not always document his solutions. It is unfortunate because we do not completely know his breadth of contributions.

Kenna: As Brian mentioned, we do not have access to a lot of his records. However, he was fortunate to witness the physics renaissance when scientists like Einstein, Marie Curie, Bohr, Heisenberg, and Dirac worked on similar studies and he could be a part of that cohort.

The fact that he contributed with the big names of that period despite being from a colonized country demonstrates his power and grit. He was a genius because there has been indirect evidence of the depth of his work. It is difficult to attribute all that to him because of a lack of records.

Why did Bose not get enough recognition for his contributions?

Kenna: Bose came from pre-independent India. He lived through some of the horrific massacres, protests, political instability, and violence. He made science his avenue to protest against Indian colonization. He and a few other researchers powerfully voiced out that India has geniuses that need to be heard and recognized. 

As I mentioned, since he came from a colonized country, a lot of records were either lost or not kept. History usually glorifies the victors and the tragedy with Bose is that his work is undocumented. 

Brian: The peers of Bose were constantly publishing their work. They were constantly in the media and science discussions. We did not see the required publication activity from Bose either due to family responsibilities or factors that Kenna mentioned.

Tell us about his friendship and collaboration with Einstein. 

Brian: Bose faced challenges in publishing his work and getting recognition for his research. He did not receive favorable responses from many publishers. He approached Einstein directly for his work on Max Planck’s equations. Einstein published his work and invited him to Europe. With the help of Einstein, he could be a part of scientific groups that met frequently for scientific debates. The bonding with Einstein grew with time and he worked with him on Bose-Einstein condensate. 

Kenna: The interesting fact is that Bose never had his Ph.D. His ability to walk in the same circles as Einstein demonstrates his courage. He also became a Professor later in his career.

Significant quantum research is still underway. Do you think research today is as profound as a century ago?

Brian: It is the nature of science to take an original idea and develop it further. The concept of quantum entanglement was first proposed by Neils Bohr in the early 1900s. However, it was a theory. An Irish scientist, much later, experimented to prove quantum entanglement. Most recently, in 2018, a team of scientists proved quantum entanglement using light from eight billion years old quasars. 

It is phenomenal to see how science develops as layers over time.

Kenna: We witnessed a physics renaissance a century ago. However, with the pace and the quality of ongoing research, I feel we are about to enter another renaissance. The advancements in the quantum computing industry, the popularity of academic programs in quantum information theory, and larger public interest in quantum technologies are positive signs. The 2022 Nobel Prize in Physics was the cherry on the cake.

What were your learnings while writing this book?

Kenna: I have learned a lot from writing this book. I understood the personal stories of the giants and learned about the logistics of putting the book together. However, my key learning was acknowledging that scientists are people. They face struggles, deal with conflicts and contradictions, and have flaws and vulnerabilities like everyone else.  

Our giants were parents and dealt with family and domestic dynamics. Unfortunately, this side of a scientist’s life is less understood. They are under pressure to publish and research. 

One of the objectives of our book is to bring out these personal stories for young researchers today. They can draw inspiration from the victories over challenges and probably use these life stories to overcome their difficulties. 

I learned that the human story is powerful and relatable across generations.

Brian: I have many young scientists as part of my network. While writing the book, I realized that we covered many aspects of quantum theory in the book. A young researcher can use this book as a reference point to determine his or her potential area of research.

Do you have a message for our quantum researchers?

Brian: My message to them is – “Don’t let your passion fade away”. 

As a researcher, one has to devote many hours of study and work on a single topic. Sometimes the work deviates from the planned trajectory and leads one on a different path. It is crucial to stay on course and persist through the process. 

Kenna: My message is two-fold. 

For the masses, quantum physics is difficult to visualize and relate to. As a researcher, it is vital to communicate the research work as a human endeavor. Let people know science as a story.  

The second and most important aspect is that science is a community collaboration. Researchers have to work together as a community. In our book, we show the importance of science communities. Our giants collaborated too. Partnerships and collaborations have played out throughout history and that should continue going forward.


It was a delight to interview Brian and Kenna.

The book will be launched on World Quantum Day, April 14th.  

You can pre-order your copy here.