Of all the subjects Scott Aaronson studied at Abrams Hebrew Academy in Yardley, he considered Hebrew “the biggest waste of time imaginable.”
Little did he know that he’d end up in quantum computing, where many of his peers, including his wife, are Israeli.
Not knowing Hebrew ended up being “kind of a liability,” said the now 30-year-old Aaronson, so much so that he later decided to study the language “for real.”
Considering Aaronson’s successes so far as a professor at MIT in Cambridge, Mass., his foreign language shortcomings seem a minor blip. Earlier this month, the National Science Foundation recognized him and Harvard professor Robert Wood with a prestigious annual award given to outstanding researchers under the age of 35. The Alan T. Waterman Award comes with a $1 million grant to support further research over a five-year period.
Pretty good for a guy who never got a high school diploma. After graduating from Abrams and Newtown Junior High, Aaronson went on to Council Rock High School, but ran out of math courses to take. Plus, he said, he just didn’t fit in. High school “had a lot of aspects that were similar to a prison I think.”
He transferred to a program at Clarkson University in upstate New York, figuring it couldn’t be worse. But his credits there weren’t enough to collect a diploma from Council Rock because he finished short on physical education courses. The state of New York granted his request for a G.E.D. even though he was technically too young, he said, maybe because he’d already been accepted to Cornell University.
He entered college at age 16, intending to learn how to create video games because that required really understanding a simulated universe — and “maybe this was a key to understanding how our universe works.” Engineering, however, wasn’t his forte and he found himself drawn to the theoretical side of computing.
From Cornell, he completed his doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley. Later, he began a science blog called “Shtetl-Optimized,” sort of as a way to procrastinate, he said. Today, the site gets 3,000 to 5,000 visitors daily, he said. Despite his day school background, Aaronson said he’s more culturally Jewish than religious. At the same time, the man who became a Bar Mitzvah at Ohev Shalom of Bucks County in Richboro traveled to Tel Aviv for his wedding last March.
At MIT, Aaronson works as an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science, researching, among other topics, the physical resources needed to surpass classical computers. “By illuminating the fundamental limits on what can be computed in the physical world, and the potential implications of those limits,” his research has staked out important new ground in computational theory, MIT’s president, Susan Hockfield, said in a news release.
“The holy grail is to build a scalable quantum computer,” Aaronson said, a new, super-powerful machine that could be used to solve unsolvable math problems, crack codes, or simulate nature at an atomic scale to develop new drugs or virtually anything else that employs quantum mechanics.
It wouldn’t likely turn into something for use by average consumers, he said, because “it’s hard to imagine why anyone would need a quantum computer for checking their email or playing ‘Angry Birds.’ ”
On the other hand, he said, engineers in the 1940s thought there’d never be a need for more than a few computers in the world and, “of course, those people were completely wrong.”