Growing up in the 1950s, Lee was captivated by popular science which sparked his lifelong interest in mathematics and physics. “I was also greatly inspired when the first two Chinese, YANG Chen-Ning and LEE Tsung-Dao were jointly awarded the 1957 Nobel Prize in Physics,” he said. This Hong Kong-born American scholar, who perhaps at the young age had never thought that he would devote himself to the research of condensed matter theory and high temperature superconductivity, received the Oliver E. Buckley Condensed Matter Physics Prize in 1991 for “his innovative contribution to the theory of electronic properties of solids, especially for strongly interacting and disordered materials.”3
“Nature is a miracle, and there are lots of things to be discovered,” Lee commented. He took the discovery of the Quantum Hall Effect (QHE) in the 1980s as an example showing how new phenomena lead to new research directions and possibilities. He remarked, “in the past, people had to go to a special lab to study QHE. In recent years, people discovered that even in the absence of an external magnetic field, the experiment can be carried out. This is a great benefit.” As a theoretical physicist, Lee enjoys working with colleagues who are in the field of experimental physics and proposing new experiments. “I like my field, as theories and experiments are closely related and can be developed at the same time. It is the intellectual curiosity that steers us to search for new findings.”
Along with a team of experimentalists at MIT and at the University of California, Riverside, Lee published a paper titled “Superconductivity in the Surface State of Noble Metal Gold and its Fermi Level Tuning by EuS Dielectric” in Physical Review Letters this year.4 Back in 2012, Lee had already predicted that a topological superconductor that hosts Majorana fermions could be formed by the heterostructures of gold. Several years later, he and his team used gold to develop a new heterostructural material system composed of “layers of drastically dissimilar materials” to demonstrate the existence of Majorana fermions. Prof. Peng WEI, Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of California, Riverside, who collaborated with Lee and other scientists in this study, stated that the research was “important for future manipulation of Majorana fermions, required for better quantum computing.”5
Lee recently visited the IAS to participate in this summer’s Gordon Research Conference on “Topological and Correlated Matter: New Materials and Structures in Topological and Correlated Systems” and deliver a talk reporting the new experimental findings, with the title “Finding Majorana on an Island in a Sea of Gold”. He commented that gathering so many experts from around the world to share the latest development in the field was a wonderful experience, and that “this is my third time coming to the GRC held at the IAS. Everyone was very excited about this field, a hot topic which has been developed so rapidly. Collaborations often happen after people return to their home institutions and continue the discussion and exchange of ideas.”
Surrounding Prof. Lee at the conference were many familiar faces, and one of which was the conference co-chair—Prof. Vic LAW Kam-Tuen, Dr. Tai-chin Lo Associate Professor of Science at HKUST. Law was one of Lee’s postdoctoral students at MIT, and his own research also focuses on the creation and detection of Majorana fermions in topological superconductors. As the Founding President of the Hong Kong Young Academy of Sciences, he is deeply indebted to Lee for being one of his life mentors.
“Patrick is one of my most respected teachers who introduced to me the field of topological superconductors. We are still collaborating closely and even my students at HKUST have the precious opportunities to learn from him,” said Law.
While the quest for quantum computers will continue, Lee is certainly passing on the scientific baton to the next generation in the chase.