Paul Dirac and poetry

In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in the case of poetry, it’s the exact opposite!

      – Paul Dirac

Paul Dirac

I tacked Dirac’s quote onto the bulletin board above my desk, the summer before senior year of high school. I’d picked quotes by T.S. Elliot and Einstein, Catullus and Hatshepsut.* In a closet, I’d found amber-, peach-, and scarlet-colored paper. I’d printed the quotes and arranged them, starting senior year with inspiration that looked like a sunrise.

Not that I knew who Paul Dirac was. Nor did I evaluate his opinion. But I’d enrolled in Advanced Placement Physics C and taken the helm of my school’s literary magazine. The confluence of two passions of mine—science and literature—in Dirac’s quote tickled me.

A fiery lecturer began to alleviate my ignorance in college. Dirac, I learned, had co-invented quantum theory. The “Dee-rac Equa-shun,” my lecturer trilled in her Italian accent, describes relativistic quantum systems—tiny particles associated with high speeds. I developed a taste for spin, a quantum phenomenon encoded in Dirac’s equation. Spin serves quantum-information scientists as two-by-fours serve carpenters: Experimentalists have tried to build quantum computers from particles that have spins. Theorists keep the idea of electron spins in a mental car trunk, to tote out when illustrating abstract ideas with examples.

The next year, I learned that Dirac had predicted the existence of antimatter. Three years later, I learned to represent antimatter mathematically. I memorized the Dirac Equation, forgot it, and re-learned it.

One summer in grad school, visiting my parents, I glanced at my bulletin board.

The sun rises beyond a window across the room from the board. Had the light faded the papers’ colors? If so, I couldn’t tell.

In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in the case of poetry, it’s the exact opposite!

Do poets try to obscure ideas everyone understands? Some poets express ideas that people intuit but feel unable, lack the attention, or don’t realize one should, articulate. Reading and hearing poetry helps me grasp the ideas. Some poets express ideas in forms that others haven’t imagined.

Did Dirac not represent physics in a form that others hadn’t imagined?

Dirac Eqn

The Dirac Equation

Would you have imagined that form? I didn’t imagine it until learning it. Do scientists not express ideas—about gravity, time, energy, and matter—that people feel unable, lack the attention, or don’t realize we should, articulate?

The U.S. and Canada have designated April as National Poetry Month. A hub for cousins of poets, Quantum Frontiers salutes. Carry a poem in your pocket this month. Or carry a copy of the Dirac Equation. Or tack either on a bulletin board; I doubt whether their colors will fade.

*“Now my heart turns this way and that, as I think what the people will say. Those who see my monuments in years to come, and who shall speak of what I have done.” I expect to build no such monuments. But here’s to trying.

Quantum gravity from quantum error-correcting codes?

The lessons we learned from the Ryu-Takayanagi formula, the firewall paradox and the ER=EPR conjecture have convinced us that quantum information theory can become a powerful tool to sharpen our understanding of various problems in high-energy physics. But, many of the concepts utilized so far rely on entanglement entropy and its generalizations, quantities developed by Von Neumann more than 60 years ago. We live in the 21st century. Why don’t we use more modern concepts, such as the theory of quantum error-correcting codes?

In a recent paper with Daniel Harlow, Fernando Pastawski and John Preskill, we have proposed a toy model of the AdS/CFT correspondence based on quantum error-correcting codes. Fernando has already written how this research project started after a fateful visit by Daniel to Caltech and John’s remarkable prediction in 1999. In this post, I hope to write an introduction which may serve as a reader’s guide to our paper, explaining why I’m so fascinated by the beauty of the toy model.

This is certainly a challenging task because I need to make it accessible to everyone while explaining real physics behind the paper. My personal philosophy is that a toy model must be as simple as possible while capturing key properties of the system of interest. In this post, I will try to extract some key features of the AdS/CFT correspondence and construct a toy model which captures these features. This post may be a bit technical compared to other recent posts, but anyway, let me give it a try…

Bulk locality paradox and quantum error-correction

The AdS/CFT correspondence says that there is some kind of correspondence between quantum gravity on (d+1)-dimensional asymptotically-AdS space and d-dimensional conformal field theory on its boundary. But how are they related?

The AdS-Rindler reconstruction tells us how to “reconstruct” a bulk operator from boundary operators. Consider a bulk operator \phi and a boundary region A on a hyperbolic space (in other words, a negatively-curved plane). On a fixed time-slice, the causal wedge of A is a bulk region enclosed by the geodesic line of A (a curve with a minimal length). The AdS-Rindler reconstruction says that \phi can be represented by some integral of local boundary operators supported on A if and only if \phi is contained inside the causal wedge of A. Of course, there are multiple regions A,B,C,… whose causal wedges contain \phi, and the reconstruction should work for any such region.


The Rindler-wedge reconstruction

That a bulk operator in the causal wedge can be reconstructed by local boundary operators, however, leads to a rather perplexing paradox in the AdS/CFT correspondence. Consider a bulk operator \phi at the center of a hyperbolic space, and split the boundary into three pieces, A, B, C. Then the geodesic line for the union of BC encloses the bulk operator, that is, \phi is contained inside the causal wedge of BC. So, \phi can be represented by local boundary operators supported on BC. But the same argument applies to AB and CA, implying that the bulk operator \phi corresponds to local boundary operators which are supported inside AB, BC and CA simultaneously. It would seem then that the bulk operator \phi must correspond to an identity operator times a complex phase. In fact, similar arguments apply to any bulk operators, and thus, all the bulk operators must correspond to identity operators on the boundary. Then, the AdS/CFT correspondence seems so boring…


The bulk operator at the center is contained inside causal wedges of BC, AB, AC. Does this mean that the bulk operator corresponds to an identity operator on the boundary?

Almheiri, Dong and Harlow have recently proposed an intriguing way of reconciling this paradox with the AdS/CFT correspondence. They proposed that the AdS/CFT correspondence can be viewed as a quantum error-correcting code. Their idea is as follows. Instead of \phi corresponding to a single boundary operator, \phi may correspond to different operators in different regions, say O_{AB}, O_{BC}, O_{CA} living in AB, BC, CA respectively. Even though O_{AB}, O_{BC}, O_{CA} are different boundary operators, they may be equivalent inside a certain low energy subspace on the boundary.

This situation resembles the so-called quantum secret-sharing code. The quantum information at the center of the bulk cannot be accessed from any single party A, B or C because \phi does not have representation on A, B, or C. It can be accessed only if multiple parties cooperate and perform joint measurements. It seems that a quantum secret is shared among three parties, and the AdS/CFT correspondence somehow realizes the three-party quantum secret-sharing code!

Entanglement wedge reconstruction?

Recently, causal wedge reconstruction has been further generalized to the notion of entanglement wedge reconstruction. Imagine we split the boundary into four pieces A,B,C,D such that A,C are larger than B,D. Then the geodesic lines for A and C do not form the geodesic line for the union of A and C because we can draw shorter arcs by connecting endpoints of A and C, which form the global geodesic line. The entanglement wedge of AC is a bulk region enclosed by this global geodesic line of AC. And the entanglement wedge reconstruction predicts that \phi can be represented as an integral of local boundary operators on AC if and only if \phi is inside the entanglement wedge of AC [1].


Causal wedge vs entanglement wedge.

Building a minimal toy model; the five-qubit code

Okay, now let’s try to construct a toy model which admits causal and entanglement wedge reconstructions of bulk operators. Because I want a simple toy model, I take a rather bold assumption that the bulk consists of a single qubit while the boundary consists of five qubits, denoted by A, B, C, D, E.


Reconstruction of a bulk operator in the “minimal” model.

What does causal wedge reconstruction teach us in this minimal setup of five and one qubits? First, we split the boundary system into two pieces, ABC and DE and observe that the bulk operator \phi is contained inside the causal wedge of ABC. From the rotational symmetries, we know that the bulk operator \phi must have representations on ABC, BCD, CDE, DEA, EAB. Next, we split the boundary system into four pieces, AB, C, D and E, and observe that the bulk operator \phi is contained inside the entanglement wedge of AB and D. So, the bulk operator \phi must have representations on ABD, BCE, CDA, DEB, EAC. In summary, we have the following:

  • The bulk operator must have representations on R if and only if R contains three or more qubits.

This is the property I want my toy model to possess.

What kinds of physical systems have such a property? Luckily, we quantum information theorists know the answer; the five-qubit code. The five-qubit code, proposed here and here, has an ability to encode one logical qubit into five-qubit entangled states and corrects any single qubit error. We can view the five-qubit code as a quantum encoding isometry from one-qubit states to five-qubit states:

\alpha | 0 \rangle + \beta | 1 \rangle \rightarrow \alpha | \tilde{0} \rangle + \beta | \tilde{1} \rangle

where | \tilde{0} \rangle and | \tilde{1} \rangle are the basis for a logical qubit. In quantum coding theory, logical Pauli operators \bar{X} and \bar{Z} are Pauli operators which act like Pauli X (bit flip) and Z (phase flip) on a logical qubit spanned by | \tilde{0} \rangle and | \tilde{1} \rangle. In the five-qubit code, for any set of qubits R with volume 3, some representations of logical Pauli X and Z operators, \bar{X}_{R} and \bar{Z}_{R}, can be found on R. While \bar{X}_{R} and \bar{X}_{R'} are different operators for R \not= R', they act exactly in the same manner on the codeword subspace spanned by | \tilde{0} \rangle and | \tilde{1} \rangle. This is exactly the property I was looking for.

Holographic quantum error-correcting codes

We just found possibly the smallest toy model of the AdS/CFT correspondence, the five-qubit code! The remaining task is to construct a larger model. For this goal, we view the encoding isometry of the five-qubit code as a six-leg tensor. The holographic quantum code is a network of such six-leg tensors covering a hyperbolic space where each tensor has one open leg. These open legs on the bulk are interpreted as logical input legs of a quantum error-correcting code while open legs on the boundary are identified as outputs where quantum information is encoded. Then the entire tensor network can be viewed as an encoding isometry.

The six-leg tensor has some nice properties. Imagine we inject some Pauli operator into one of six legs in the tensor. Then, for any given choice of three legs, there always exists a Pauli operator acting on them which counteracts the effect of the injection. An example is shown below:


In other words, if an operator is injected from one tensor leg, one can “push” it into other three tensor legs.

Finally, let’s demonstrate causal wedge reconstruction of bulk logical operators. Pick an arbitrary open tensor leg in the bulk and inject some Pauli operator into it. We can “push” it into three tensor legs, which are then injected into neighboring tensors. By repeatedly pushing operators to the boundary in the network, we eventually have some representation of the operator living on a piece of boundary region A. And the bulk operator is contained inside the causal wedge of A. (Here, the length of the curve can be defined as the number of tensor legs cut by the curve). You can also push operators into the boundary by choosing different tensor legs which lead to different representations of a logical operator. You can even have a rather exotic representation which is supported non-locally over two disjoint pieces of the boundary, realizing entanglement wedge reconstruction.


Causal wedge and entanglement wedge reconstruction.

What’s next?

This post is already pretty long and I need to wrap it up…

Shor’s quantum factoring algorithm is a revolutionary invention which opened a whole new research avenue of quantum information science. It is often forgotten, but the first quantum error-correcting code is another important invention by Peter Shor (and independently by Andrew Steane) which enabled a proof that the quantum computation can be performed fault-tolerantly. The theory of quantum error-correcting codes has found interesting applications in studies of condensed matter physics, such as topological phases of matter. Perhaps then, quantum coding theory will also find applications in high energy physics.

Indeed, many interesting open problems are awaiting us. Is entanglement wedge reconstruction a generic feature of tensor networks? How do we describe black holes by quantum error-correcting codes? Can we build a fast scrambler by tensor networks? Is entanglement a wormhole (or maybe a perfect tensor)? Can we resolve the firewall paradox by holographic quantum codes? Can the physics of quantum gravity be described by tensor networks? Or can the theory of quantum gravity provide us with novel constructions of quantum codes?

I feel that now is the time for quantum information scientists to jump into the research of black holes. We don’t know if we will be burned by a firewall or not … , but it is worth trying.

1. Whether entanglement wedge reconstruction is possible in the AdS/CFT correspondence or not still remains controversial. In the spirit of the Ryu-Takayanagi formula which relates entanglement entropy to the length of a global geodesic line, entanglement wedge reconstruction seems natural. But that a bulk operator can be reconstructed from boundary operators on two separate pieces A and C non-locally sounds rather exotic. In our paper, we constructed a toy model of tensor networks which allows both causal and entanglement wedge reconstruction in many cases. For details, see our paper. 

Putting back the pieces of a broken hologram

It is Monday afternoon and the day seems to be a productive one, if not yet quite memorable. As I revise some notes on my desk, Beni Yoshida walks into my office to remind me that the high-energy physics seminar is about to start. I hesitate, somewhat apprehensive of the near-certain frustration of being lost during the first few minutes of a talk in an unfamiliar field. I normally avoid such a situation, but in my email I find John’s forecast for an accessible talk by Daniel Harlow and a title with three words I can cling onto. “Quantum error correction” has driven my curiosity for the last seven years. The remaining acronyms in the title will become much more familiar in the four months to come.

Most of you are probably familiar with holograms, these shiny flat films representing a 3D object from essentially any desired angle. I find it quite remarkable how all the information of a 3D object can be printed on an essentially 2D film. True, the colors are not represented as faithfully as in a traditional photograph, but it looks as though we have taken a photograph from every possible angle! The speaker’s main message that day seemed even more provocative than the idea of holography itself. Even if the hologram is broken into pieces, and some of these are lost, we may still use the remaining pieces to recover parts of the 3D image or even the full thing given a sufficiently large portion of the hologram. The 3D object is not only recorded in 2D, it is recorded redundantly!

Left to right: Beni Yoshida, Aleksander Kubica, Aidan Chatwin-Davies and Fernando Pastawski discussing holographic codes.

Left to right: Beni Yoshida, Aleksander Kubica, Aidan Chatwin-Davies and Fernando Pastawski discussing holographic codes.

Half way through Daniel’s exposition, Beni and I exchange a knowing glance. We recognize a familiar pattern from our latest project. A pattern which has gained the moniker of “cleaning lemma” within the quantum information community which can be thought of as a quantitative analog of reconstructing the 3D image from pieces of the hologram. Daniel makes connections using a language that we are familiar with. Beni and I discuss what we have understood and how to make it more concrete as we stride back through campus. We scribble diagrams on the whiteboard and string words such as tensor, encoder, MERA and negative curvature into our discussion. An image from the web gives us some intuition on the latter. We are onto something. We have a model. It is simple. It is new. It is exciting.

Poincare projection of a regular pentagon tiling of negatively curved space.

Poincare projection of a regular pentagon tiling of negatively curved space.

Food has not come our way so we head to my apartment as we enthusiastically continue our discussion. I can only provide two avocados and some leftover pasta but that is not important, we are sharing the joy of insight. We arrange a meeting with Daniel to present our progress. By Wednesday Beni and I introduce the holographic pentagon code at the group meeting. A core for a new project is already there, but we need some help to navigate the high-energy waters. Who better to guide us in such an endeavor than our mentor, John Preskill, who recognized the importance of quantum information in Holography as early as 1999 and has repeatedly proven himself a master of both trades.

“I feel that the idea of holography has a strong whiff of entanglement—for we have seen that in a profoundly entangled state the amount of information stored locally in the microscopic degrees of freedom can be far less than we would naively expect. For example, in the case of the quantum error-correcting codes, the encoded information may occupy a small ‘global’ subspace of a much larger Hilbert space. Similarly, the distinct topological phases of a fractional quantum Hall system look alike locally in the bulk, but have distinguishable edge states at the boundary.”
-J. Preskill, 1999

As Beni puts it, the time for using modern quantum information tools in high-energy physics has come. By this he means quantum error correction and maybe tensor networks. First privately, then more openly, we continue to sharpen and shape our project. Through conferences, Skype calls and emails, we further our discussion and progressively shape ideas. Many speculations mature to conjectures and fall victim to counterexamples. Some stand the test of simulations or are even promoted to theorems by virtue of mathematical proofs.

Beni Yoshida presenting our work at a quantum entanglement conference in Puerto Rico.

Beni Yoshida presenting our work at a quantum entanglement conference in Puerto Rico.

I publicly present the project for the first time at a select quantum information conference in Australia. Two months later, after a particularly intense writing, revising and editing process, the article is almost complete. As we finalize the text and relabel the figures, Daniel and Beni unveil our work to quantum entanglement experts in Puerto Rico. The talks are a hit and it is time to let all our peers read about it.

You are invited to do so and Beni will even be serving a reader’s guide in an upcoming post.

Quantum Frontiers salutes Terry Pratchett.

I blame British novels for my love of physics. Philip Pullman introduced me to elementary particles; Jasper Fforde, to the possibility that multiple worlds exist; Diana Wynne Jones, to questions about space and time.

So began the personal statement in my application to Caltech’s PhD program. I didn’t mention Sir Terry Pratchett, but he belongs in the list. Pratchett wrote over 70 books, blending science fiction with fantasy, humor, and truths about humankind. Pratchett passed away last week, having completed several novels after doctors diagnosed him with early-onset Alzheimer’s. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Pratchett “parodie[d] everything in sight.” Everything in sight included physics.

Terry Pratchett continues to influence my trajectory through physics: This cover has a cameo in a seminar I’m presenting in Maryland this March.

Pratchett set many novels on the Discworld, a pancake of a land perched atop four elephants, which balance on the shell of a turtle that swims through space. Discworld wizards quantify magic in units called thaums. Units impressed their importance upon me in week one of my first high-school physics class. We define one meter as “the length of the path travelled by light in vacuum during a time interval of 1/299 792 458 of a second.” Wizards define one thaum as “the amount of magic needed to create one small white pigeon or three normal-sized billiard balls.”

Wizards study the thaum in a High-Energy Magic Building reminiscent of Caltech’s Lauritsen-Downs Building. To split the thaum, the wizards built a Thaumatic Resonator. Particle physicists in our world have split atoms into constituent particles called mesons and baryons. Discworld wizards discovered that the thaum consists of resons. Mesons and baryons consist of quarks, seemingly elementary particles that we believe cannot be split. Quarks fall into six types, called flavors: up, down, charmed, strange, top (or truth), and bottom (or beauty). Resons, too, consist of quarks. The Discworld’s quarks have the flavors up, down, sideways, sex appeal, and peppermint.

Reading about the Discworld since high school, I’ve wanted to grasp Pratchett’s allusions. I’ve wanted to do more than laugh at them. In Pyramids, Pratchett describes “ideas that would make even a quantum mechanic give in and hand back his toolbox.” Pratchett’s ideas have given me a hankering for that toolbox. Pratchett nudged me toward training as a quantum mechanic.

Pratchett hasn’t only piqued my curiosity about his allusions. He’s piqued my desire to create as he did, to do physics as he wrote. While reading or writing, we build worlds in our imaginations. We visualize settings; we grow acquainted with characters; we sense a plot’s consistency or the consistency of a system of magic. We build worlds in our imaginations also when doing and studying physics and math. The Standard Model is a system that encapsulates the consistency of our knowledge about particles. We tell stories about electrons’ behaviors in magnetic fields. Theorems’ proofs have logical structures like plots’. Pratchett and other authors trained me to build worlds in my imagination. Little wonder I’m training to build worlds as a physicist.

Around the time I graduated from college, Diana Wynne Jones passed away. So did Brian Jacques (another British novelist) and Madeleine L’Engle. L’Engle wasn’t British, but I forgave her because her Time Quartet introduced me to dimensions beyond three. As I completed one stage of intellectual growth, creators who’d led me there left.

Terry Pratchett has joined Jones, Jacques, and L’Engle. I will probably create nothing as valuable as his Discworld, let alone a character in the Standard Model toward which the Discworld steered me.

But, because of Terry Pratchett, I have to try.

A detective with a quantum helper

Have you ever wanted to be incredibly perceptive and make far-reaching deductions about people? I have always been fascinated by spy stories, and how the main character in them notices tiny details of his surroundings to navigate life-or-death situations. This skill seems out of reach for us normal people; you have to be “a high-functioning sociopath” to memorize all existing data on behavior, clothes choices and forensic science. Of course I’m referring to:
Small details help Sherlock figure out what did the woman do to meet such a sad end
Yet in the not too distant future, a computer may help you become a brilliant detective (or a scheming villain) yourself! The first step is noticing the details, which is known in machine learning as the classification task. Here is a pioneering work that somewhat resembles the above picture, only it’s done by a computer:
A computer spits out a sentence (read down) describing what's in the picture. Work by Stanford group.

The task for the computer here was to produce a verbal description of the image. There are thousands of words in the vocabulary, and a computer has to try them in different combinations to make a sensible sentence. There is no way a computer can be given an exhaustive list of correct sentences with examples of images for each. That kind of list would be a database bigger than the earth (as one can see just by counting the number of combinations). So to train the computer to use language like in a picture above, one only possesses a limited set of examples – maybe a few thousand pictures with descriptions. Yet we as humans are capable of learning from just seeing a few examples, by noticing the repeating patterns. So the computer can do the same! The score next to each word above is an estimate based on those few thousand examples of how relevant is the word “tennis” or “woman” to what’s in the box on the image. The algorithm produces possible sentences, scores them, and then selects the sentence with the highest total score.

Once the classification task is done, one needs to use all the collected information to make a prediction – as Sherlock is able to point out the most probable motive in the first picture, we also want to predict a piece of very personal information: we’d like to know how to start up a conversation with that tennis player.

Humans are actually good at classification tasks: with luck, we can notice and type in our cellphone all the details the predictor will need, like brand of clothing, hair color, height… though computers recently became better than humans at facial expression recognition, so we don’t have to trust ourselves on that anymore. Finally, when all the data is collected, most humans will still say only generic advice to you on conversation starters. Which means we are very bad at prediction tasks. We don’t notice the hidden dependencies between brand of clothes and sense of humor. But such information may not hide from the all-seeing eye of the machine learning algorithm! So expect your cellphones to give you dating advice within 10 years… 

Now how do quantum computers come into play? Well if you look at your search results, they are still pretty irrelevant most of the time. Imagine you used them as conversation starters – you’ll embarrass yourself 9 out of 10 times! To make this better, a certain company needs more memory and processing power. Yet most advanced deep learning routines remain out of reach, just because there are exponentially many hidden dependencies one would need to try and reject before the algorithm finds the right predictor. So a certain company turns to us, quantum computing people, as we deal with exponentially hard problems notoriously well! And indeed, quantum algorithms make some of the machine learning routines exponentially faster – see this Quantum Machine Learning article, as well as a talk by Seth Lloyd for technical details. Some anonymous stock trader is already trying to intimidate their fellow quants (quantitative analysts) by calling the top trading system “Quantum machine learning”. I think we should appreciate his sense of humor and invest into his algorithm as soon as opens such functionality. Or we could invest in Teagan from Caltech – her code recently won the futures contest on the same website.

Always look on the bright side…of CPTP maps.

Once upon a time, I worked with a postdoc who shaped my views of mathematical physics, research, and life. Each week, I’d email him a PDF of the calculations and insights I’d accrued. He’d respond along the lines of, “Thanks so much for your notes. They look great! I think they’re mostly correct; there are just a few details that might need fixing.” My postdoc would point out the “details” over espresso, at a café table by a window. “Are you familiar with…?” he’d begin, and pull out of his back pocket some bit of math I’d never heard of. My calculations appeared to crumble like biscotti.

Some of the math involved CPTP maps. “CPTP” stands for a phrase little more enlightening than the acronym: “completely positive trace-preserving”. CPTP maps represent processes undergone by quantum systems. Imagine preparing some system—an electron, a photon, a superconductor, etc.—in a state I’ll call “\rho“. Imagine turning on a magnetic field, or coupling one electron to another, or letting the superconductor sit untouched. A CPTP map, labeled as \mathcal{E}, represents every such evolution.

“Trace-preserving” means the following: Imagine that, instead of switching on the magnetic field, you measured some property of \rho. If your measurement device (your photodetector, spectrometer, etc.) worked perfectly, you’d read out one of several possible numbers. Let p_i denote the probability that you read out the i^{\rm{th}} possible number. Because your device outputs some number, the probabilities sum to one: \sum_i p_i = 1.  We say that \rho “has trace one.” But you don’t measure \rho; you switch on the magnetic field. \rho undergoes the process \mathcal{E}, becoming a quantum state \mathcal{E(\rho)}. Imagine that, after the process ended, you measured a property of \mathcal{E(\rho)}. If your measurement device worked perfectly, you’d read out one of several possible numbers. Let q_a denote the probability that you read out the a^{\rm{th}} possible number. The probabilities sum to one: \sum_a q_a =1. \mathcal{E(\rho)} “has trace one”, so the map \mathcal{E} is “trace preserving”.

Now that we understand trace preservation, we can understand positivity. The probabilities p_i are positive (actually, nonnegative) because they lie between zero and one. Since the p_i characterize a crucial aspect of \rho, we call \rho “positive” (though we should call \rho “nonnegative”). \mathcal{E} turns the positive \rho into the positive \mathcal{E(\rho)}. Since \mathcal{E} maps positive objects to positive objects, we call \mathcal{E} “positive”. \mathcal{E} also satisfies a stronger condition, so we call such maps “completely positive.”**

So I called my postdoc. “It’s almost right,” he’d repeat, nudging aside his espresso and pulling out a pencil. We’d patch the holes in my calculations. We might rewrite my conclusions, strengthen my assumptions, or prove another lemma. Always, we salvaged cargo. Always, I learned.

I no longer email weekly updates to a postdoc. But I apply what I learned at that café table, about entanglement and monotones and complete positivity. “It’s almost right,” I tell myself when a hole yawns in my calculations and a week’s work appears to fly out the window. “I have to fix a few details.”

Am I certain? No. But I remain positive.

*Experts: “Trace-preserving” means \rm{Tr}(\rho) =1 \Rightarrow \rm{Tr}(\mathcal{E}(\rho)) = 1.

**Experts: Suppose that ρ is defined on a Hilbert space H and that E of rho is defined on H'. “Channel is positive” means Positive

To understand what “completely positive” means, imagine that our quantum system interacts with an environment. For example, suppose the system consists of photons in a box. If the box leaks, the photons interact with the electromagnetic field outside the box. Suppose the system-and-environment composite begins in a state SigmaAB defined on a Hilbert space HAB. Channel acts on the system’s part of state. Let I denote the identity operation that maps every possible environment state to itself. Suppose that Channel changes the system’s state while I preserves the environment’s state. The system-and-environment composite ends up in the state Channel SigmaAB. This state is positive, so we call Channel “completely positive”:Completely pos

Celebrating Theoretical Physics at Caltech’s Burke Institute

Editor’s Note: Yesterday and today, Caltech is celebrating the inauguration of the Walter Burke Institute for Theoretical Physics. John Preskill made the following remarks at a dinner last night honoring the board of the Sherman Fairchild Foundation.

This is an exciting night for me and all of us at Caltech. Tonight we celebrate physics. Especially theoretical physics. And in particular the Walter Burke Institute for Theoretical Physics.

Some of our dinner guests are theoretical physicists. Why do we do what we do?

I don’t have to convince this crowd that physics has a profound impact on society. You all know that. We’re celebrating this year the 100th anniversary of general relativity, which transformed how we think about space and time. It may be less well known that two years later Einstein laid the foundations of laser science. Einstein was a genius for sure, but I don’t think he envisioned in 1917 that we would use his discoveries to play movies in our houses, or print documents, or repair our vision. Or see an awesome light show at Disneyland.

And where did this phone in my pocket come from? Well, the story of the integrated circuit is fascinating, prominently involving Sherman Fairchild, and other good friends of Caltech like Arnold Beckman and Gordon Moore. But when you dig a little deeper, at the heart of the story are two theorists, Bill Shockley and John Bardeen, with an exceptionally clear understanding of how electrons move through semiconductors. Which led to transistors, and integrated circuits, and this phone. And we all know it doesn’t stop here. When the computers take over the world, you’ll know who to blame.

Incidentally, while Shockley was a Caltech grad (BS class of 1932), John Bardeen, one of the great theoretical physicists of the 20th century, grew up in Wisconsin and studied physics and electrical engineering at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. I suppose that in the 1920s Wisconsin had no pressing need for physicists, but think of the return on the investment the state of Wisconsin made in the education of John Bardeen.1

So, physics is a great investment, of incalculable value to society. But … that’s not why I do it. I suppose few physicists choose to do physics for that reason. So why do we do it? Yes, we like it, we’re good at it, but there is a stronger pull than just that. We honestly think there is no more engaging intellectual adventure than struggling to understand Nature at the deepest level. This requires attitude. Maybe you’ve heard that theoretical physicists have a reputation for arrogance. Okay, it’s true, we are arrogant, we have to be. But it is not that we overestimate our own prowess, our ability to understand the world. In fact, the opposite is often true. Physics works, it’s successful, and this often surprises us; we wind up being shocked again and again by “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences.” It’s hard to believe that the equations you write down on a piece of paper can really describe the world. But they do.

And to display my own arrogance, I’ll tell you more about myself. This occasion has given me cause to reflect on my own 30+ years on the Caltech faculty, and what I’ve learned about doing theoretical physics successfully. And I’ll tell you just three principles, which have been important for me, and may be relevant to the future of the Burke Institute. I’m not saying these are universal principles – we’re all different and we all contribute in different ways, but these are principles that have been important for me.

My first principle is: We learn by teaching.

Why do physics at universities, at institutions of higher learning? Well, not all great physics is done at universities. Excellent physics is done at industrial laboratories and at our national laboratories. But the great engine of discovery in the physical sciences is still our universities, and US universities like Caltech in particular. Granted, US preeminence in science is not what it once was — it is a great national asset to be cherished and protected — but world changing discoveries are still flowing from Caltech and other great universities.

Why? Well, when I contemplate my own career, I realize I could never have accomplished what I have as a research scientist if I were not also a teacher. And it’s not just because the students and postdocs have all the great ideas. No, it’s more interesting than that. Most of what I know about physics, most of what I really understand, I learned by teaching it to others. When I first came to Caltech 30 years ago I taught advanced elementary particle physics, and I’m still reaping the return from what I learned those first few years. Later I got interested in black holes, and most of what I know about that I learned by teaching general relativity at Caltech. And when I became interested in quantum computing, a really new subject for me, I learned all about it by teaching it.2

Part of what makes teaching so valuable for the teacher is that we’re forced to simplify, to strip down a field of knowledge to what is really indispensable, a tremendously useful exercise. Feynman liked to say that if you really understand something you should be able to explain it in a lecture for the freshman. Okay, he meant the Caltech freshman. They’re smart, but they don’t know all the sophisticated tools we use in our everyday work. Whether you can explain the core idea without all the peripheral technical machinery is a great test of understanding.

And of course it’s not just the teachers, but also the students and the postdocs who benefit from the teaching. They learn things faster than we do and often we’re just providing some gentle steering; the effect is to amplify greatly what we could do on our own. All the more so when they leave Caltech and go elsewhere to change the world, as they so often do, like those who are returning tonight for this Symposium. We’re proud of you!

My second principle is: The two-trick pony has a leg up.

I’m a firm believer that advances are often made when different ideas collide and a synthesis occurs. I learned this early, when as a student I was fascinated by two topics in physics, elementary particles and cosmology. Nowadays everyone recognizes that particle physics and cosmology are closely related, because when the universe was very young it was also very hot, and particles were colliding at very high energies. But back in the 1970s, the connection was less widely appreciated. By knowing something about cosmology and about particle physics, by being a two-trick pony, I was able to think through what happens as the universe cools, which turned out to be my ticket to becoming a Caltech professor.

It takes a community to produce two-trick ponies. I learned cosmology from one set of colleagues and particle physics from another set of colleagues. I didn’t know either subject as well as the real experts. But I was a two-trick pony, so I had a leg up. I’ve tried to be a two-trick pony ever since.

Another great example of a two-trick pony is my Caltech colleague Alexei Kitaev. Alexei studied condensed matter physics, but he also became intensely interested in computer science, and learned all about that. Back in the 1990s, perhaps no one else in the world combined so deep an understanding of both condensed matter physics and computer science, and that led Alexei to many novel insights. Perhaps most remarkably, he connected ideas about error-correcting code, which protect information from damage, with ideas about novel quantum phases of matter, leading to radical new suggestions about how to operate a quantum computer using exotic particles we call anyons. These ideas had an invigorating impact on experimental physics and may someday have a transformative effect on technology. (We don’t know that yet; it’s still way too early to tell.) Alexei could produce an idea like that because he was a two-trick pony.3

Which brings me to my third principle: Nature is subtle.

Yes, mathematics is unreasonably effective. Yes, we can succeed at formulating laws of Nature with amazing explanatory power. But it’s a struggle. Nature does not give up her secrets so readily. Things are often different than they seem on the surface, and we’re easily fooled. Nature is subtle.4

Perhaps there is no greater illustration of Nature’s subtlety than what we call the holographic principle. This principle says that, in a sense, all the information that is stored in this room, or any room, is really encoded entirely and with perfect accuracy on the boundary of the room, on its walls, ceiling and floor. Things just don’t seem that way, and if we underestimate the subtlety of Nature we’ll conclude that it can’t possibly be true. But unless our current ideas about the quantum theory of gravity are on the wrong track, it really is true. It’s just that the holographic encoding of information on the boundary of the room is extremely complex and we don’t really understand in detail how to decode it. At least not yet.

This holographic principle, arguably the deepest idea about physics to emerge in my lifetime, is still mysterious. How can we make progress toward understanding it well enough to explain it to freshmen? Well, I think we need more two-trick ponies. Except maybe in this case we’ll need ponies who can do three tricks or even more. Explaining how spacetime might emerge from some more fundamental notion is one of the hardest problems we face in physics, and it’s not going to yield easily. We’ll need to combine ideas from gravitational physics, information science, and condensed matter physics to make real progress, and maybe completely new ideas as well. Some of our former Sherman Fairchild Prize Fellows are leading the way at bringing these ideas together, people like Guifre Vidal, who is here tonight, and Patrick Hayden, who very much wanted to be here.5 We’re very proud of what they and others have accomplished.

Bringing ideas together is what the Walter Burke Institute for Theoretical Physics is all about. I’m not talking about only the holographic principle, which is just one example, but all the great challenges of theoretical physics, which will require ingenuity and synthesis of great ideas if we hope to make real progress. We need a community of people coming from different backgrounds, with enough intellectual common ground to produce a new generation of two-trick ponies.

Finally, it seems to me that an occasion as important as the inauguration of the Burke Institute should be celebrated in verse. And so …

Who studies spacetime stress and strain
And excitations on a brane,
Where particles go back in time,
And physicists engage in rhyme?

Whose speedy code blows up a star
(Though it won’t quite blow up so far),
Where anyons, which braid and roam
Annihilate when they get home?

Who makes math and physics blend
Inside black holes where time may end?
Where do they do all this work?
The Institute of Walter Burke!

We’re very grateful to the Burke family and to the Sherman Fairchild Foundation. And we’re confident that your generosity will make great things happen!


  1. I was reminded of this when I read about a recent proposal by the current governor of Wisconsin. 
  2. And by the way, I put my lecture notes online, and thousands of people still download them and read them. So even before MOOCs – massive open online courses – the Internet was greatly expanding the impact of our teaching. Handwritten versions of my old particle theory and relativity notes are also online here
  3. Okay, I admit it’s not quite that simple. At that same time I was also very interested in both error correction and in anyons, without imagining any connection between the two. It helps to be a genius. But a genius who is also a two-trick pony can be especially awesome. 
  4. We made that the tagline of IQIM. 
  5. Patrick can’t be here for a happy reason, because today he and his wife Mary Race welcomed a new baby girl, Caroline Eleanor Hayden, their first child. The Burke Institute is not the only good thing being inaugurated today.