Imperial College London

Quantum physics expert receives highest honour from the Institute of Physics

by

Professor Sir Peter Knight

Quantum physics expert Professor Sir Peter Knight has become an Honorary Fellow of the Institute of Physics, its highest honour.

Sir Peter, an Emeritus Professor at Imperial College London and its former Deputy Rector for Research, has been recognised for his major contributions to physics, as well as his influential leadership roles and his service to the Institute of Physics (IoP)

It’s great to be recognised by your peers from your own subject and by the people who have worked for the same purposes as you. Getting that peer recognition has been really pleasing.

– Professor Sir Peter Knight

Department of Physics

Sir Peter said: “I am incredibly pleased to be honoured by the Institute of Physics, which has been my academic home, and learned society, for all my working life. When I received the email from them a couple of weeks ago it was truly unexpected and I am hugely pleased.

“It’s great to be recognised by your peers from your own subject and by the people who have worked for the same purposes as you. Getting that peer recognition has been really pleasing. So to receive this fellowship is delightful,” he added.

Sir Peter is one of the UK’s leading academics in quantum optics and quantum information science. Over the course of his career, he has published more than 400 articles in international journals and has become one of the most highly cited quantum opticians in the world. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1999, and in 2005 he received a knighthood in recognition of his distinguished research into optical physics. He is passionate about his research and is particularly proud of how his work has been applied to everyday life.

“What I’ve been curious about for most of working life is the ways in which you can use laws of the microscopic in interesting and subtle ways. Most things that we work with and surround us every day depend on the classical laws of physics, but underneath all of it is a peculiar quantum theory. And I’ve been trying to reveal this peculiarity for most of my working life,” he said.

“I get really excited about taking quantum physics theory from the abstract world to the real world and figuring out how to use it to help people. Did you know that the GPS navigation in your smart phone and car all depend on quantum physics? I love seeing this abstract theory coming to life.”

Sir Peter joined the Department of Physics at Imperial in 1979 following periods at universities including Stanford, John Hopkins, Royal Holloway and Sussex. During his 35 year career at Imperial he set up the College’s theoretical quantum optics group and has played a leading role in training and mentoring generations of quantum physicists. Working with young and creative minds has been a long-lasting inspiration throughout his career.

Think of the smartest person you would ever want to work with. Those are the types of young minds that walk through the doors of Imperial College London every single day. It is a joy to work with such bright and talented young minds

– Professor Sir Peter Knight

Department of Physics

“I’ve stayed at Imperial so long simply because I get to interact with young and incredibly clever people. Think of the smartest person you would ever want to work with. Those are the types of young minds that walk through the doors of Imperial College London every single day. It is a joy to work with such bright and talented young minds, and it’s wonderful to encourage their ideas and help them progress. I am proud to be part of a university where young people can be imaginative and creative,” he said.

The IoP Honorary Fellowship also celebrates his influential leadership. At Imperial he has been Head of the Department of Physics, Principal of the Faculty of Natural Sciences, and Deputy Rector. He spearheaded the creation of many of the College’s research centres, including the Grantham Institute for Climate Change, the Institute for Shock Physics and the Centre for Security Science and Technology, and believes the cross disciplinary nature of these centres has been crucial to their success.

Sir Peter said: “Imperial has great strength in bringing together expertise from many different disciplines to address concerns that affect the world. I believe that we have to be more than just excellent in teaching and research; we have to be useful at the same time. These centres are all about making a difference in the world and there is a strong sense of willingness to roll up the shirt sleeves and work together in groups. Scientists in these centres bring their own expertise from their unique disciplines to address problems that need multi-disciplinary solutions. We need insights from different disciplines and Imperial has lots of strength and depth here.”

Although Sir Peter has been successful in his academic career, his activities outside of academia are equally important to him. He has advised the UK government on scientific matters, been a Council member of the Science and Technology Facilities Council and from 2011-2013 he was the President of the IoP. The new Honorary Fellowship recognises the crucial role he continues to play in the physics community.

“As a scientist I have a vision, but I think it is incredibly important to get that vision out to the wider world,” he said. “It is so important that scientists don’t just sit in their silos. We have a duty to the tax payer and if we want them to continue to fund our research, and vision, then we need to get out there and explain it to them. That is why I spend a lot of time talking to people, policymakers and the government.

“My academic career has been a 45 year journey. At times it has been a rollercoaster, but it has been great.”

Becky Parker, Head of Physics at Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys and Director of the Langton Star Centre, and Professor Robin Williams, who headed the department of physics and astronomy at Cardiff University for ten years, have also been appointed Honorary Fellowships.

Previous Honorary Fellows include Professor Stephen Hawking and Professor Peter Higgs.

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Gail Wilson

Gail Wilson
Communications and Public Affairs

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