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Loudoun teen competes for Intel science prize

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Of the hundreds of scientists leading cutting-edge research at the sprawling, gated campus of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, only one is a high school student.

Ari Dyckovsky is 18 years old, with short brown hair, an intense gaze and a friendly smile. The Loudoun County teen likes socializing with his friends, practicing guitar and playing tennis. He could be any kid at any high school.

But he’s not. Since his sophomore year, Ari has been conducting research that made him the primary author of a study in quantum physics called “Analysis of Photon-Mediated Entanglement Between Distinguishable Matter Qubits.”

Roughly translated: This high school senior is dabbling in the science of quantum teleportation.

For more than two years, Ari has teamed with institute researcher Steven Olmschenk on the project. The work has won significant recognition.

In January, Ari was named one of 40 finalists in the 2012 Intel Science Talent Search, the country’s oldest and most elite pre-collegiate science competition. Contest alumni have won Nobel Prizes, Fields Medals, National Medals of Science, MacArthur Foundation Fellowships — and even an Academy Award. (Oscar-winning actress Natalie Portman was an Intel finalist in the late 1990s.) Ari is one of two finalists from the Washington area this year, along with senior Frederick Koehler from Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring.

On Thursday, Ari joined other finalists in Washington to compete for more than $600,000 in scholarship awards. Ten top winners will be chosen based on project presentations and interviews before a panel of judges. The first-place winner, who will receive a $100,000 scholarship from the Intel Foundation, will be announced Tuesday.

A poster displaying Ari’s research is mounted in a hallway at the Loudoun Academy of Science, where Ari has studied math and science since ninth grade. While leading a group of visiting educators on a tour last week, academy director George Wolfe pointed to Ari’s work — filled with dense terminology and technical illustrations — and joked: “No one understands this poster!”

It’s not much of an exaggeration. Ari is working with quantum physics at a level generally reserved for graduate students. It is beyond what his teachers can fully comprehend.

One recent afternoon in Olmschenk’s office, Ari opened a PowerPoint presentation of his project.

The moment Ari began to discuss his research, two things became clear: His sense of awe at the world of quantum physics is endearingly childlike — and his command of the incredibly advanced material is anything but.

Ari pointed at two shapes, representing distinct quantum “bits,” on the computer screen.

“It’s better to think of teleportation in terms of communication,” he said. Imagine these two atoms, separated by a great distance, he said. Particles of light emitted by the atoms can be made to interact, and — through a process called “entanglement” — used to link the atoms. Once linked, information from the first atom will appear in the second atom when the quantum state of the first atom is destroyed.

It is a literal quantum leap: The information doesn’t travel to the second atom — it would just be there, Ari said.

“Say the National Security Agency needed to send an encrypted message without running the risk of interception,” Ari said. “Using this method, a message would simply appear in another location.”

The process of teleportation between identical quantum atoms was the basis of Olmschenk’s doctoral thesis. Ari’s research takes the same concept into uncharted territory, exploring the possibility of teleportation between different types of quantum objects.

Listening to Ari describe his project raises a question that has little to do with atoms or photons: How does a child become a teenage quantum physics theorist?

* * *

Ari’s mother thinks her son inherited his gift for science from his father, Howard Dyckovsky, a Yale-educated market research executive in the high-tech field.

Amy Dyckovsky, a photographer, said Ari and his dad bonded over their shared love of math. Howard played math games with 3-year-old Ari on long car rides and created math worksheets to keep him engaged when he grew bored with school in second grade.

When his father died of a heart attack in 2003, 9-year-old Ari, the oldest of three children, was left reeling.

“Ari and I shared the worst day of our lives,” Amy said. “The hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life is to tell Ari that his dad died.”

For years afterward, Ari lost enthusiasm for learning. His excitement wasn’t rekindled until he was admitted to the Academy of Science, a competitive public program based at Dominion High School in Sterling. Wolfe and teacher Duke Writer offered guidance and encouragement as Ari pursued his research.

“Mr. Wolfe and Mr. Writer definitely are the type of educators who are willing to break boundaries to help someone who really is motivated,” Ari said.

Writer helped Ari search for a research mentor. Of more than 60 letters they sent to scientists, Olmschenk was the only one to respond.

Wolfe and Writer were thrilled to see Olmschenk teach Ari about quantum mechanics and allow him to lead the project. Ari was thriving, even if it was sometimes a challenge for him to balance being a teenager and a serious researcher.

“It’s just difficult for me to go to a basketball game and really enjoy it in the same way that the other kids can,” Ari said. “I definitely try, but it’s also not as much of an interest of mine.”

Ari said he has been accepted at Stanford University and is waiting to hear from Harvard and Yale.

As the Intel competition approached, Ari said he was most excited to get to know the other finalists, who have already formed a Facebook group.

“We talk about our projects, and about science in general,” Ari said. “It’s cool to find peers who are coming up with things that are completely non-trivial. You can see their passion and hard work.”

Wolfe said he once reminded Ari about the importance of modesty.

“There was a time when I told him, ‘Ari, you’re just going to have to watch that you don’t come off as arrogant,’ ” Wolfe said.

He recalled Ari’s self-effacing reply.

“Mr. Wolfe, I’m just a kid.”

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