Paul Benioff, emeritus scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, helped pave the way for the field of quantum computing that is now being intensely pursued throughout the world. The renowned scientist passed away on March 29, leaving a legacy of intellectual courage and collaboration.
Benioff was born on May 1, 1930, in Pasadena, California. He attended the University of California, Berkeley where he earned an undergraduate degree in botany in 1951. After a two-year stint working in nuclear chemistry, he returned to Berkeley. In 1959, he obtained his Ph.D. in nuclear chemistry.
Benioff spent almost his entire career at Argonne, beginning in 1961 working in chemistry and environmental sciences. He remained at Argonne until he retired in 1995, continuing his research at the laboratory as an emeritus scientist for the Physics division until his death.
Benioff made seminal contributions to the foundations of quantum computing with four papers published in the early 1980s. He demonstrated for the first time that a quantum computer was theoretically possible, helping to catalyze an entire field that is now focused on building quantum systems to relay information and perform dauntingly complex calculations.
These papers are regarded as the first recognizable theoretical framework for a quantum computer. Benioff continued to develop these theoretical concepts in subsequent papers.
His quantum explorations weren’t part of his job — he did the research in his spare time. “Paul was a very original thinker and not necessarily wed to exploring what was ‘hot’ at the time. This is perhaps a lesson for us all,” said Stephen Gray, a senior chemist in Argonne’s Nanoscience and Technology division who conducts research in quantum information and sensing. “In the 1990s, for example, when I first met him, he was exploring the notion of ‘quantum robots’ for carrying out experiments. This was not particularly popular then, but it was perhaps a precursor to the field of quantum sensing.”
Today, scientists at Argonne and around the world are developing quantum technologies and working on multiple efforts in quantum computing to solve problems that current supercomputers cannot. The field is now a fast-growing area of research that could have applications in cybersecurity, cryptography, medicine and more. But in the 1970s, quantum computers were still only an idea — one that many scientists considered impossible.
“Paul’s work was foundational. He explored the idea that our most basic physical description of nature — quantum mechanics — should also allow us to compute,” said Salman Habib, director of Argonne’s Computational Science division. “This idea was in the wind in the 1970s, but it required sharp insight and intellectual courage to proceed the way Benioff did.”
In 2000, Benioff received the Quantum Communication Award of the International Organization for Quantum Communication, Computing and Measurement, as well as the Quantum Computing and Communication Prize from Tamagawa University in Japan. He became a fellow of the American Physical Society in 2001. The following year, he was awarded the Special University of Chicago Medal for Distinguished Performance at Argonne. In 2016, Argonne held a conference in honor of his quantum computing work.
While an emeritus scientist in the theory group of Argonne’s Physics division, he continued to publish research on quantum theory well into the last decade. His work encompassed quantum computers, quantum robots and the relationship between foundations in logic, math and physics.
“Benioff’s work, and that of several others, brought physicists and computer scientists much closer together, and I think a lot of what has happened since has stemmed from this fruitful collaboration and exchange of ideas,” said Habib. “He taught us that there is never a bad time to think about fundamental questions, and if you take a step in the right direction, you will find many people willing to join you in the journey.”
Benioff is survived by his wife, Hanna, their three children, and seven grandchildren.
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