Caltech Home > PMA Home > News > Breaking Ground on the Quantum World
open search form

Breaking Ground on the Quantum World

This summer, Caltech will break ground on the Dr. Allen and Charlotte Ginsburg Center for Quantum Precision Measurement, the first center to unite researchers in precision measurement, quantum information, and the detection of gravitational waves, or ripples in space-time.

These areas each involve incredibly precise measurement aimed at advancing fundamental physics research.

Construction is slated to begin this winter, after the site along California Boulevard is prepared and the design is finalized. The building will open in the fall of 2025.

"The Ginsburg Center for Quantum Precision Measurement will bring together researchers from across the Caltech campus—astronomers, biologists, chemists, computer scientists, engineers, physicists—united by their passion to understand the inner workings of Nature," says Caltech president Thomas F. Rosenbaum. "In state-of-the art laboratories and open, interactive spaces, they will develop powerful new quantum devices and educate the next generation of leaders in quantum science and technology."

"This building will facilitate discoveries that change our understanding of physics and the cosmos," says Fiona Harrison, Caltech's Harold A. Rosen Professor of Physics and the Kent and Joyce Kresa Leadership Chair of the Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy.

"The building will bring together talented people with diverse backgrounds: students and faculty, theorists and experimentalists, people with different life experiences and expertise," she adds. "With that same approach, Caltech researchers have co-developed instruments that detect wavelengths of light our eyes cannot see, gravitational waves, and the quantum interactions of subatomic particles. We anticipate similar advances from the new center."

What is quantum precision measurement?

From living cells to black holes, nature is built on quantum physics. At first, scientists observed quantum physics at atomic and subatomic scales; now they are beginning to study and harness quantum phenomena in assemblies of tens of thousands of atoms. Researchers in the Ginsburg Center will explore quantum phenomena across all scales and invent measurement instruments with unprecedented sensitivity. The resulting discoveries are expected to yield insights into natural processes and lead to new technologies.

Building basics

This hub for quantum research will neighbor physics, mathematics, astronomy, and engineering buildings. It will stand on the north side of California Boulevard between the Ronald and Maxine Linde Hall of Mathematics and Physics and the George W. Downs Laboratory of Physics and Charles C. Lauritsen Laboratory of High Energy Physics, on the site of a physics building that was demolished in 2016.

The building's four stories of research offices, meeting rooms, and collaboration zones, and a basement level of laboratories will bring together at least a dozen faculty members, 50 postdoctoral scholars, 40 graduate students, and several senior and junior scientists and engineers.

The building was made possible by a lead gift from Dr. Allen and Charlotte Ginsburg of Rancho Palos Verdes, California, by an anonymous gift, and by a grant from the Sherman Fairchild Foundation.

Architectural innovation

Caltech selected HOK, which designed the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., and other notable buildings worldwide, as the new facility's architect. The choice supports Caltech's emphasis on sustainable design, an HOK specialty. The Ginsburg Center project goal is Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold certification.

HOK's preliminary concept features a transparent facade inflected inward on its south and west sides to suggest a prism or the bending of spacetime, an allusion to research that will take place in the building.

In the HOK concept, behind that evocative facade, the building's street-facing south side will feature collaboration areas, while offices will line the quiet interior sides. Parts of the ground floor will be recessed to give space to lush plantings and outdoor mingling areas. Glass panel doors and a breezeway, perhaps connecting to an adjacent seminar room, will enable indoor-outdoor flow.

Basement laboratories to explore space, time, and gravity

While much of the new building is conceptualized as a nearly rectangular column proportionate to other campus buildings and made of similar materials, the basement will be expansive, stretching west under the historic campus entrance on the north side of California Boulevard.

With amenities such as a shared space for laser experiments, this scientific playground will include the Kip Thorne Laboratories, which the Sherman Fairchild Foundation named in honor of Nobel laureate Kip Thorne (BS '62), Caltech's Richard P. Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics, Emeritus. Thorne co-founded LIGO and developed ideas central to the use of quantum precision measurement to study space, time, and gravity.

Researchers in the Thorne Laboratories will develop advanced instruments to probe the nature of space and time, will research how to make the most precise measurements of time, and will conduct basic experiments to understand the behavior of controlled quantum systems. The Thorne Laboratories will provide state-of-the-art space for several future hires.

"The best physics happens in basements. Things are quiet, which we like," says physics professor Rana Adhikari. "Even better, the new building has the promise of putting people together in one place. We realized over the past few years that science progresses best when we're together in person. We rely on chitchat. A lot of our good ideas come from this kind of casual, informal interaction."

Adhikari says the building will help researchers gain insight into space and time. "We think it's possible that there's a microscopic description of spacetime that comes from quantum entanglement or some kind of mysterious thing that we don't understand yet," he says. "Why is the speed of light what it is? What happens at the edge of the black hole? Why does empty space behave the way it does? The fact that you can curve space and that it has energy when you curve it means it's not really empty. All these things are wrapped up in the microphysics of space and time."

"To push forward that idea," he adds, "you need to have people who are working on the theory and thinking about experiments. But we have been on opposite sides of the campus. I can't predict what will come out of it, and that's a good thing. Putting people together, who are passionate about fundamental physics; I'm sure that, whatever happens, it will be wondrous."

Next steps

Pasadena's Charles Pankow Builders will serve as general contractor for the project's pre-construction phase. Trusted with the construction of such treasured properties as Grand Park in Los Angeles, Pankow stood out from the field for another project: the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Bowes Center, an acoustically impeccable space. Pankow's experience with that project will help ensure the Ginsburg Center's facilities will have the silence and stability needed in the world's most advanced quantum measurement laboratories.

This year, Caltech will prepare the building site, hold a groundbreaking celebration, conduct informational and listening sessions with the campus community and Pasadena neighbors, and finalize the building design.

Caltech sought the City of Pasadena Design Commission's comments on the center's proposed design at a preliminary consultation meeting on Tuesday, July 11.

As site preparation and construction progress, further updates will be shared here.

Written by Ann Motrunich