Young Topological Pioneer Inspires Generations of Physicists

Alexey Soluyanov (20 October 1983 – 26 October 2019)

There are times in everyone’s life when a remarkable person comes around and touches their existence in profound ways. For the ones that have the privilege of knowing Alexey Soluyanov, he is that person.

 

Alexey starts studying physics in the great tradition of the Russian school, in his birth-town of St. Petersburg. Later, around 2012, he remarks that his initial scientific upbringing had kept him grounded to the reality of experiments, even though he already demonstrates remarkable theoretical and analytical prowess during his PhD with David Vanderbilt at Rutgers. It is the beginning of topological insulators, and Alexey’s doctorate produces one of the seminal papers in the field. A young topological pioneer, Alexey proves that the topological insulator, a new state of matter which had been recently theoretically predicted and experimentally observed, cannot be described in terms of local orbitals respecting a certain set of symmetries. This remarkable observation has now become the definition of all the topological insulator states discovered since 2006. It is the way topology in electronic crystalline materials is now understood.

 

There is a certain rugged melancholy intrinsic to the Russian soul, a certain acceptance of fate – interrupted by a steely resolve to conquer with grace the difficulties that come one’s way. Alexey always singled out David Vanderbilt’s quiet care and support in his first, successful, fight against skin cancer, during his doctorate. With a new lease on life, the time is ripe for a half-decade of breakthrough scientific discoveries, lasting contributions to science, almost paternal mentoring of students, intense friendships and experiences, shared stories, trips, rock-star-like parties, intense conference schedules, family and love. It is about living an intense, meaningful, rewarding life. He balances passion, commitment, and humor with an ease that inspires love and admiration.

 

Later, as a post-doctoral researcher at the prestigious ETH Zurich in Matthias Troyer’s group, Alexey embarks on discovering many of today’s topological phases of matter. Weyl fermions, nodal loops, non-symmorphic semimetals, and many others, bear his lasting watermark, and come in astonishing frequency in a limited time. He affectionately and successfully mentors many graduate students. He oversees the development of what are now widely-used codes (one example being Z2Pack) for identifying topological band structures in realistic crystals, based on Wannier states and Wilson loop methods that he designs. He contributes to Microsoft’s effort on building a quantum computer, by using the codes he developed to identify materials with large spin-orbit coupling, which form the basis of the qubits. He passionately thrives on connecting esoteric mathematical concepts describing the topology of manifolds with the reality of nature, embodied in quantum materials. He is a larger-than-life presence, soft-spoken but sparking brilliant verve in conversations with collaborators and friends that could last from morning conference talks up to the midnight hours of a dimly lit bar. He swiftly advances in his career and becomes an assistant professor at University of Zurich, builds a group, and designs and contributes to the fast ascent of a condensed matter powerhouse. He is a wonderful son to very proud parents. He marries the love of his life from college days in St Petersburg, is a fantastic father, and at the same time fights heroically cancer’s second pythonic grind for the past 3 years.

 

A Russian proverb says Каждый кузнец своего счастья: “Every person is the blacksmith of their own destiny”. For the fortunate to have known Alexey, he remains, a bit, also the blacksmith of their destiny. He will be sorely missed.

Aris Alexandradinata, B. Andrei Bernevig, Tomas Bzdusek, Giuseppe Carleo, Xi Dai, Gennady Gor, Dominik Gresch, Titus Neupert, Matthias Troyer, David Vanderbilt, Maia G. Vergniory, Georg W. Winkler, QuanSheng Wu, Oleg Yazyev