Science can be a risky business. Just ask quantum physicist Alexander Ling. Last Wednesday, he watched as a rocket carrying 10 months of work went up in flames. The Antares rocket took off from a launch pad in Virginia in the US at 6.22am Singapore time, only to crash seconds later.
"I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach," said Dr Ling, who watched the events unfold live on Nasa TV.
The rocket was carrying a sandwich-sized science experiment he built with his team at the Centre for Quantum Technologies (CQT) at the National University of Singapore (NUS).
But Dr Ling, 38, is already preparing to rebuild the $12,000 experiment for a launch next year with an NUS satellite. "We were feeling a bit bummed for a few days, but the team is pulling together and looking already at the next steps," he said.
The experiment was to test if "entangled" light particles can be produced in space. This is the first step to quantum cryptography - a potentially safer way of transmitting encrypted data - over global distances.
Dr Ling and his team had reduced the standard 30kg quantum entanglement experiment to only 300g - lighter than a can of Coca-cola. The science community regarded this as quite a feat.
"Since the cost of sending cargo up to space is proportional to its weight, this would make it cheaper to launch," Dr Ling said.
For the launch, he worked with Danish commercial firm Gomspace, which specialises in getting science experiments on small satellites into space. He could not reveal the cost of the launch as he is in talks with partners on alternative plans. However, commercial estimates put it at tens of thousands of dollars.
Dr Ling's journey into this area began when he was just 10 years old. Inspired by the TV series MacGyver, he wanted to be like the secret agent who used science to get out of tricky situations.
"An older friend commented that if you want to develop your own MacGyver tricks, you needed to study an exotic topic called physics," said Dr Ling, who was born in Brunei.
The kampung boy, who grew up watching his welder father build things, conducted secret science experiments in his backyard.
"I'd study household cleaning products and see what type of effect they'd have when I mixed them and heated them," said the father of a 10-month-old. He never set eyes on a microscope till he was 18 - his school in Brunei was not well-equipped. "I had to make do with books and my imagination," Dr Ling recalled.
But the outstanding student - who thanks his "Asian Tiger" parents for teaching him the value of hard work - made up for it when he came to NUS to read physics in 1996 on a scholarship.
He later did his PhD in experimental quantum optics at NUS and then a stint at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in the United States, a top physics institute. He returned in 2010 to work at the CQT.
CQT colleague Christian Kurtsiefer said of Dr Ling: "He is an extremely disciplined researcher... who is careful and honest."
Dr Ling, who is also working on niche optical chips, said of his lost experiment: "By nature, scientists tend to be optimistic. We tend to believe that we can overcome challenges to uncover the fundamental workings of our environment."
This article was first published on Nov 3, 2014.
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