Quantum physics has followed Göran Johansson like a golden thread throughout his academic career. He is Professor of Applied Quantum Physics and Head of the Applied Quantum Physics Laboratory (AQP) at the Department of Microtechnology and Nanoscience, MC2, at Chalmers.
“Traditional mechanics felt comprehensible, but I didn’t feel the same about quantum physics. I thought it was strange. Which is why I have spent much of my life thinking about quantum physics in various contexts,” he says.
Göran divides his time between a number of activities. As well as being Head of AQP, he is Deputy Head of the Excellence Initiative Nano (EI Nano), and one of the principal researchers in the billion SEK project the Wallenberg Centre for Quantum Technology (WACQT), the aim of which is to build a functioning quantum computer within twelve years.
“We want to find the real problems that are best suited to a quantum computer. It would be fascinating to be able to use quantum physics to solve difficult problems like flying more efficiently, perhaps with fewer planes and fewer flights. We want to see whether a quantum computer can do the job better and we’ve carried out an initial theoretical calculation that shows that it works,” says Göran.
WACQT has initiated partnerships with a number of companies such as Jeppesen and Volvo. Göran Wendin is the driving force behind a partnership with Astra Zeneca which may eventually lead to new medicines. Another project is in progress with researchers at Sahlgrenska University Hospital and concerns calculations for DNA sequencing.
“These are all extremely difficult calculation problems with which a quantum computer could help,” explains Göran Johansson.
At WACQT he also manages a graduate school with around thirty doctoral students.
How do you manage everything?
“Well, I don’t really. WACQT is a huge project in which I coordinate the theoretical work. And the core of operations is now up and running with a number of excellent corporate partnerships,” says Göran.
What do you enjoy most?
“Thinking about problems, discussing physics and supervising doctoral students. But just sitting on my own doing calculations can be a bit boring.”
We meet at the cosy Kafé Zenith in the Majorna district of Gothenburg. This is Göran’s home turf. He has spent a lot of time here. He knows the district like the back of his hand.
“I thought it would be fun to meet in Majorna. My parents grew up in Majorna and we used to visit my grandparents here when I was small. When I left home, I moved to Klarebergsgatan street and lived there until we moved to Kommendörsgatan street, which is just 100 metres from here.”
Part of what he loves about the area is its rich and varied cultural life.
“Yes, there is much to enjoy here. I used to listen to new music and buy LPs at Bengans a stone’s throw from here.”
Göran Johansson grew up in Påvelund, where his parents moved from the Frölunda Torg area. His mother was a domestic science teacher and his father a mechanical engineer who studied at Chalmers. Göran also has a sister who is four years older. He now lives with his wife Annika and their two children Adam, who is studying engineering physics at Chalmers, and Ellen, who is in the first year of upper secondary school, in a terraced house in Hagen, very close to Påvelund.
“As you can see, I haven’t moved very far,” he says with a smile.
Göran developed an interest in technology at a young age. There is still something of the technical dreamer from his childhood in Påvelund in the 70s and 80s about Göran Johansson. He lights up when he talks about exploring science as a child, often with his father.
“He has always been interested in technology. I used to get up early and go with him to his shed. He would bring home old electronic gadgets, and he let me cut off all the resistors and sort them. We watched popular science TV shows. I really liked Carl Sagan’s TV series ‘Cosmos’ and learned a lot from it. Above all, I was extremely interested in physics and wanted to understand how the world works. I have always wanted to find new things,” says Göran.
He was also a member of the ‘Teknoteket’ technology club started by Staffan Ling and Bengt Andersson, the duo behind the children’s TV programme ‘Sant & Sånt’.
“You got a box of puzzles and books with a technology theme through the post every month. There were boxes on nuclear power, on genetic engineering and much more besides,” says Göran.
He decided to take one of the first classic home computers along to the photo session at Henrik Sandsjö’s studio in Röda Sten, a Sinclair ZX81. It turns out to be the very machine that Göran bought aged eleven in London in 1981 on a trip with his family.
“It was my first computer, and I’ve kept it all these years. It was on sale for half price in London! The next day I wanted to buy a game. At that time, you bought games on cassette tapes and I remember getting to the shop at closing time, putting my foot in the door and saying in my broken English “I want to buy a computer game”. They let me in to buy one,” he says.
Göran gets enthusiastic:
“Back then, you could buy magazines with program code for games that you could program yourself. When I connected the computer up at home, I suddenly realised that you could write on TV! It was a great feeling.”
As a childhood memory, there is still a big sticker from ‘Teknoteket’ on the computer, a collage of stars, planets and Albert Einstein.
After taking the natural sciences course at school at Sigrid Rudebecks Gymnasium, Göran began studying engineering physics at Chalmers.
“I knew that I wanted to do that at a very early stage. I think it’s because my dad studied mechanical engineering at Chalmers. He was the first in his family to go to university. I remember him saying that “the engineering physics students really seem to know what they are talking about...”.”
His studies at Chalmers were interrupted after six months by 15 months’ military service in Sollefteå, but in February 1995 Göran graduated as an engineer. He was 23 years old and he wanted more.
“I did some extra work on theoretical physics with Professor Bengt Lundqvist while I was studying and spent some time with the doctoral students. I didn’t really think that I learned all that much as an undergraduate and wanted to learn more. So it was quite natural to continue,” says Göran.
This involved postgraduate studies with professors Göran Wendin and Vitaly Shumeiko as supervisors. They are now colleagues at MC2. Göran Johansson wrote his doctoral thesis in 1998: ‘Multiple Andreev Reflection – a Microscopic Theory of ac Josephson Effect in Mesoscopic Junctions’.
“In the thesis, we gave a theoretical description of how current flows in a small superconductor. I thought we had discovered something new and was slightly disappointed when our theory was subsequently not used in experiments by other researchers. We had worked hard but no one really cared.”
His doctoral studies went fast and Göran then spent a few years in the late 90s as a research project manager at Ericsson Mobile Data Design.
“I managed a research project on computer communication. It was about digital radio, and we were looking at how you could download data extremely fast on your mobile using the digital radio network,” he explains.
However, his longing to do proper research again grew, and when Göran Wendin offered him the opportunity to be part of an EU project, he returned to Chalmers.
“At Ericsson, I realised that I like solving mathematical problems. I now had the chance to be involved in a project with the aim of building a superconducting quantum computer that was actually based on the technology in my thesis. Now it was OK to do calculations with our small superconductors.”
Göran then became a postdoc at the illustrious Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany, where his family lived in 2002–2004. This was because the Institute was involved in the EU project. Göran thinks with hindsight that the working climate in Germany was quite tough.
“It was also extremely exciting to carry on working with superconducting quantum computers, and my wife really liked it there. But when I was offered a position as Assistant Professor at Chalmers in 2004, we returned to Gothenburg.”
One aim of Göran Johansson’s research is to understand more about how quantum physics works and how its effects can be used in technological applications. He sees great value in presenting research to the general public, and appears as often as he can in various popular science contexts. He has given two TedX talks, in Gothenburg in 2017 and in Lund in 2018.
“It is a challenge to explain something so difficult as easily as possible, and it was extremely useful to try and say something interesting in eight minutes... Great fun and slightly nerve-wracking,” he says.
At Senioruniversitetet i Stockholm, which offers courses for pensioners aged 55 and over, he lectured about quantum computers to 300 people in a full cinema. And this year, he talked about the future on an expert panel at a science fiction festival.
He knows that his research field is one of the most difficult and most challenging to explain. This is one of the things he has noticed in social situations:
“People understand what I am talking about when it’s about computer communication and mobile surfing. As soon as I mention quantum physics, which I think is fun and in which I have a PhD, people stop listening,” he laughs.
2020 saw the publication of the book ‘Kvantfysiken och livet’ (Quantum Physics and Life) (Volante Förlag), which Göran wrote with Göran Wendin, Joar Svanvik, Ingemar Ernberg and the science journalist Tomas Lindblad. This interdisciplinary book shows how a combination of quantum physics and medical research may form the basis of the next scientific revolution. It took several years to write.
“First, we read papers and discussed among ourselves for a number of years. Then we each wrote a few chapters, which we then read and commented on. When Tomas entered the picture, he looked through all the chapters and made the style a little more consistent. It was a lot of work, but so great when it was finished. We are also talking about an English version,” says Göran.
Most of the marketing activities have been postponed on account of the coronavirus pandemic. However, there is a piece on UR Play in which co-author Ingemar Ernberg is interviewed about the book by Tomas Lindblad. There are also plans to take part in the Aha festival at Chalmers in May 2021. Göran is on the festival organising committee.
In 2012, Göran Johansson was involved in a major innovation. Researchers at Chalmers had succeeded in creating light from a vacuum, a milestone in quantum mechanics that physicists had been anticipating for over 40 years. With the experimentalists Per Delsing and Christopher Wilson, Göran was able to demonstrate the dynamic Casimir effect.
“It is an example of an interesting fundamental effect of quantum mechanics which describes how photons are generated from a vacuum when a mirror accelerates and moves at speeds close to the speed of light,” he explains.
The researchers’ article was published in the journal Nature and attracted huge attention from Swedish and international media. The experiment was based on Göran’s theories, and they were able to capture photons that constantly emerge and disappear in a vacuum. The media described the discovery as ‘creating light from a vacuum’.
“It was the most enjoyable project I have worked on and I got a real kick out of it. It was the first time I was involved in such a high-profile project. If you are published in Nature, doors open and you have the chance to be interviewed on Vetenskapsradion (a science programme on Swedish radio) and in other media. It means a lot and is a career boost,” says Göran.
Not long afterwards, he was awarded two prestigious prizes: the Albert Wallin Science Prize by the Royal Society of Arts and Sciences in Gothenburg, and the Edlund Prize by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
“I was really happy. The Albert Wallin prize was my first prize, so of course it means a little more.”
I assume that you sometimes have some free time. What do you like doing?
“I am trying to be better at taking time off and switching off properly. I like family dinners and being out in nature,” he says.
Running is another interest, and Göran has run the Göteborgsvarvet half marathon many times.
“The first time I was still at school and I was unable to finish. That taught me that you have to have good shoes.”
The Lidingöloppet cross country race, the Kiel Marathon and the Skogsmaran run between Skatås and Hindås along the Vildmarksleden trail are other competitions he has taken part in.
“I like running a long way but not very fast,” he says with a smile.
Science fiction is one of Göran’s major interests, both literature and films.
“This is one of my favourite film and literary genres. When I was small, I read every single science fiction book I could find in the library.”
His favourites include Jules Verne and Isaac Asimov, in particular the latter’s Foundation trilogy and ‘I, Robot’.
“Jules Verne was extremely prescient. And I’ve read all of Haruki Murakami! ‘The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle’ was the first of his I read. There is another that is a mixture of a hard-boiled detective novel and fantasy – ‘Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World’.”
He also recommends films such as ‘The Fifth Element’, ‘The Matrix’, ‘Interstellar’, ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Star Trek’.
“The first Matrix film is still good. I watched it in the cinema with my daughter on its 20th anniversary. She liked it as well.”
Göran has also been a guest reviewer of the TV series ‘Devs’ on the website of publisher Volante. A quantum computer plays an important role in the series.
“It’s a nice thriller with good music that deals with quantum physics in a relevant, well-informed and appealing manner,” he says.
Given that he used to hang out at Bengans record shop, it is hardly surprising that Göran also loves music. When he was younger, he listened to a lot of synth. Depeche Mode, Lustans Lakejer and Ultravox were some of his idols. Later, his taste broadened to include Talking Heads, Kent and Olle Ljungström.
“I saw an early recording with Broder Daniel of the Swedish TV show Valvet as a friend’s brother was in the band. ‘Shoreline’ is one of my favourite songs, by both Broder Daniel and Anna Ternheim.”
Håkan Hellström is a big favourite with the entire family.
“We listen to him all the time and had tickets for concerts in both June and August, but unfortunately they were postponed to 2021.”
At the end of the year, Göran Johansson will leave his position at EI Nano, which will then come under new leadership. The plan is to take his family to MIT in Boston towards summer 2021 and live there as a guest researcher for a year.
Text: Michael Nystås
Photo: Henrik Sandsjö
Photo of Göran drinking coffee: Michael Nystås
Read more about the high-profile Nature article >>>
Born: Yes, 7 December 1971 in Påvelund.
Lives: Terraced house in Hagen, Gothenburg.
Family: Wife and two children.
Job: Professor of Applied Quantum Physics at Chalmers.
Career in brief: Has been trying to build a quantum computer since 2000.
Leisure interests: Running and forest walks. Family, music, film and books.
Favourite place for inspiration: Out in the forest. I switch off and am happy.
Most proud of: My children. I am pleased that they seem to enjoy life. In terms of research, the experiment on the dynamic Casimir effect.
Best thing about being a researcher: Being curious, exploring new things, thinking about how the world works and finding new solutions. I think that is really exciting.
Challenges of the job: Being innovative and asking the right questions that can be answered. I now have a role in which I also have to inspire others and get them to work well with each other. This is always a challenge. Everyone is motivated by different things. As with all jobs, it is easier if you like what you do. I try to help people feel that way.
Dream for the future: One dream is to find a problem that a quantum computer can solve. That would be fantastic. I look forward to spending a year at MIT. Otherwise I am very happy with my lot and think that I have found the right balance between administration and research. No radical changes are needed in my life. Maybe just to find a new dream in the future.