Tsar Nikita and His Scientists

Once upon a time, a Russian tsar named Nikita had forty daughters:

                Every one from top to toe
                Was a captivating creature,
                Perfect—but for one lost feature.

So wrote Alexander Pushkin, the 19th-century Shakespeare who revolutionized Russian literature. In a rhyme, Pushkin imagined forty princesses born without “that bit” “[b]etween their legs.” A courier scours the countryside for a witch who can help. By summoning the devil in the woods, she conjures what the princesses lack into a casket. The tsar parcels out the casket’s contents, and everyone rejoices.

“[N]onsense,” Pushkin calls the tale in its penultimate line. A “joke.”

The joke has, nearly two centuries later, become reality. Researchers have grown vaginas in a lab and implanted them into teenage girls. Thanks to a genetic defect, the girls suffered from Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser (MRKH) syndrome: Their vaginas and uteruses had failed to grow to maturity or at all. A team at Wake Forest and in Mexico City took samples of the girls’ cells, grew more cells, and combined their harvest with vagina-shaped scaffolds. Early in the 2000s, surgeons implanted the artificial organs into the girls. The patients, the researchers reported in the journal The Lancet last week, function normally.

I don’t usually write about reproductive machinery. But the implants’ resonance with “Tsar Nikita” floored me. Scientists have implanted much of Pushkin’s plot into labs. The sexually deficient girls, the craftsperson, the replacement organs—all appear in “Tsar Nikita” as in The Lancet. In poetry as in science fiction, we read the future.

Though threads of Pushkin’s plot survive, society’s view of the specialist has progressed. “Deep [in] the dark woods” lives Pushkin’s witch. Upon summoning the devil, she locks her cure in a casket. Today’s vagina-implanters star in headlines. The Wall Street Journal highlighted the implants in its front section. Unless the patients’ health degrades, the researchers will likely list last week’s paper high on their CVs and websites.

http://news.wfu.edu/2011/05/31/research-park-updates-to-be-presented/, http://www.orderwhitemoon.org/goddess/babayaga/BabaYaga.html

Much as Dr. Atlántida Raya-Rivera, the paper’s lead author, differs from Pushkin’s witch, the visage of Pushkin’s magic wears the nose and eyebrows of science. When tsars or millenials need medical help, they seek knowledge-keepers: specialists, a fringe of society. Before summoning the devil, the witch “[l]ocked her door . . . Three days passed.” I hide away to calculate and study (though days alone might render me more like the protagonist in another Russian story, Chekhov’s “The Bet”). Just as the witch “stocked up coal,” some students stockpile Red Bull before hitting the library. Some habits, like the archetype of the wise woman, refuse to die.

From a Russian rhyme, the bones of “Tsar Nikita” have evolved into cutting-edge science. Pushkin and the implants highlight how attitudes toward knowledge have changed, offering a lens onto science in culture and onto science culture. No wonder readers call Pushkin “timeless.”

But what would he have rhymed with “Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser”?




“Tsar Nikita” has many nuances—messages about censorship, for example—that I didn’t discuss. To the intrigued, I recommend The Queen of Spades: And selected works, translated by Anthony Briggs and published by Pushkin Press.


Summer of Science: Caltech InnoWorks 2013

The following post is a collaboration between visiting undergraduates Evan Giarta from Stanford University and Joy Hui from Harvard University. As mentors for the 2013 Caltech InnoWorks Academy, Evan and Joy agreed to share their experience with the audience of this blog.

Innoworks-68All throughout modern history, science and mathematics have been the foundation for engineering new, world-advancing technologies. From the wheel and sailboat to the automobile and jumbo jet, the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) have helped our world and its people move faster, farther, and forward. Now, more than ever, products that were unimaginable a century ago are used every day in households and businesses all over the earth, products made possible by generations of scientists, mathematicians, engineers and technologists.

There is, however, some troublesome news regarding the state of our nation’s math and science education. For the past few years, education and news reports have ranked the United States behind other developed countries in science and mathematics. In fact, the proportion of students that score in the most advanced levels of math and science in the United States is significantly lower than that of several other nations. This reality brings to light a stark concern: If proficiency in science and math is necessary for the engineering of novel technologies and breakthrough discoveries, but is something the next generation will lack, what will become of the production industry, our economy, and global security? While the answer to this question might range from complete and utter chaos to little or no effect, it seems reasonable to try and avoid finding out. Rather, we–the community of collective scientists, technologists, engineers, mathematicians–should seek to solve this problem: What can we do to restore the integrity and substance of the educational system, especially in science and math?

Innoworks-36Although there is no easy answer to this question, there are ongoing efforts to address this important issue, one of which is the InnoWorks Academy. Founded in 2003 by a group of Duke undergraduates, the United InnoWorks Academy has developed summer programs that encourage underprivileged middle school students to explore the fields of science, technology, engineering, math, and medicine, (STEM^2) free of charge. The academy is sponsored by a variety of businesses and organizations, including GlaxoSmithKline, Cisco, Project Performance Corporation, Do Something, St. Andrew’s School, University of Pennsylvania, University of California, Los Angeles, and many others. InnoWorks Academy was a winner of the 2007 BRICK Awards and received both the MIT Global Community Choice Award and the MIT IDEAS Challenge Grand Prize in 2011. In ten short years, the United InnoWorks Academy has successfully conducted over 50 summer programs for more than 2,000 students through the contributions of over 1,000 volunteers. Currently, InnoWorks has chapters at about a dozen universities and is scheduled to add three more chapters this coming summer.

Innoworks-34In early August of 2013, the Caltech InnoWorks chapter hosted its second annual summer camp, and Joy and I (Evan) were privileged to be invited as program mentors. As people on the inside, we got a first hand look at how the organization prepares and runs the week-long event and what the students themselves experience in the hands-on, interactive and collaborative one-of-a-kind opportunity that is InnoWorks.

Since Joy and I kept a diary of each day’s activities, we thought you may like to see what our middle-schoolers experienced during that week. Here is a play-by-play of the first few days from Joy’s perspective.

Monday, August 5, 2013 was the first day of our camp! Before I go on with talking about the cool things we did that day, I’d like to introduce my team. The self-titled YOLOSWAG consisted of Michael, Chase, Evan, Phaelan and myself. Michael was the oldest, and a little shy at first, but he definitely started talking when he got comfortable. Chase was respectful and polite, and we hit it off immediately. Evan loved science and had lots of questions and knew a TON. Phaelan was the only other girl on the team, but she was very nice and friendly to the other students, and eager to help with anything she could. We all seem different, right? But wait, here’s the best part: we were all die-hard Percy Jackson (property of Rick Riordan) fans! We were definitely the best team.


Anyway, back to the actual stuff we did. One of the first things we saw was a cloud demo, essentially the creation of a cloud in a fish tank, with lots of dry ice and water. The demonstrator, Rob Usiskin, stuck a lot of dry ice in the (empty) fish tank, and poured some water into the tank, which caused the water to turn into a fog, which turns out to be the exact form of a cloud! Add a bubble maker, a question of whether bubbles will float or sink on the cloud, and a room full of InnoWorks campers (about 40 of them), and you will get an hour of general excitement. See the pictures for yourself! (The bubbles, float, by the way, even when the cloud is invisible!)


Following the demonstration, we made Soap Boats. We were apparently supposed to cut index cards into the shape of boats, and dab a little bit of soap on the bottom of the boat, and set the boat in the water. These “Soap Boats” were supposed to be propelled forward by the soap’s ability to decrease the surface tension of the water it touched. Ours, appropriately named “Titanic,” however, simply sat in the water until the water soaked through, and the Titanic sank for the second time in history. Many other teams’ boats fared about the same, but we certainly had a blast designing and naming our Soap Boat!

The last activity of the day was a secret message decoded with bio-luminescence. Each team was given a vial of dried up ostracods, which are sea creatures found glowing in the darkness of the deep sea. Then, each team crushed the ostracods and mixed the resulting powder with water to catalyze the bio-luminescence. Every mentor had written a secret message on a slip of paper, folded it, and handed it to their teams to decipher in the dark (Mine said: YOLOSWAG for the win). The convenient cleaning closet provided said darkness–Spiros, our faculty mentor, suggested that it might also provide passage to Narnia. I don’t think we lost any of our students that day, so no Narnia-traveling was done; by students. Nevertheless, it was a fun-filled and action-packed day, and a great start to an eventful week.

Tuesday was full of fun, hands-on activities. After a short lesson on the effects of air resistance and gravity on free-falling objects, we demonstrated the concept with a thin sheet of paper and a large textbook. As expected, when placed side by side and dropped, air resistance caused the sheet of paper to hit the ground much later than the textbook. But when the sheet of paper was placed directly above the textbook, to the shock of students, both items fell at the exact same rate. Though thorough in their knowledge of physical laws, the connection between their conceptual understanding and real life application had yet to be established. And as a result, when asked to explain what happened and why, the best answer one could muster was simply, “SCIENCE!”.

Following an exercise consisting of blow dryers and floating ping pong balls, the kids received a brief tutorial on how tornadoes are formed by air moving through high and low pressure regions and gusts of vertically rising winds. Due to the forces it is producing and acting upon, the tornado would then be able to more or less sustain itself. To explore this concept further, students constructed water tornado machines by taping two soda bottles together at their openings. Laughter and wetness ensued. Some groups added small trinkets in their tornado machine to observed the water tornado’s effect on “debris”. One team in particular inserted duct tape sharks, and aptly renamed themselves as Sharknado.


In the afternoon, the campers were presented a lesson on the transportation of sailboats and aircraft. Contrary to what most people intuit, the fastest way to control a boat is not to flow in the direction of the wind, but to place the sail at the heading which produces a net force, which can be explained by Bernoulli’s Principle. It states that faster moving fluid has less pressure than slower moving fluid, therefore producing a force from the slower moving side to the faster moving side. Though in sailing this force is initially barely noticeable, over time it creates a large impulse to move the craft at considerable speeds. The same principle can also explain the way a plane takes flight.

With the importance of good design in mind, students were tasked with prototyping the fastest water-bottle boat. Given a solar panel, electric motor, various propellers, empty bottle, tape, and other construction essentials, kids started with basic designs, then diversified in order to gain an edge against other teams. Some teams boasted two-bottle designs, and others used one, each type having trade-offs in speed and stability. Few implemented style upgrades with graphics and colors, and even fewer leveraged performance modifications with ballast and crude control systems. But with a tough deadline to meet, not all boats met their intended specifications. Nonetheless, the races commenced and each team’s innovation was tested in the torrents of Caltech’s Beckman Fountain. Some failed, but those that survived were rewarded accordingly.


By the end of the second day, many of the campers’ initial shyness had been replaced with conversation and budding new friendships. Lunch hour and break times allowed time for kids and mentors alike to hang out and enjoy themselves in California’s summer sun in-between discovering the applications of science and math to engineering, medicine, and technology. These moments of discovery, no matter how rare, are the reasons why we do what we do as we continue our research, studies, and work to improve the world we live in.

Guns versus butter in quantum information

From my college’s computer-science club, I received a T-shirt that reads:






/*There’s a reason we can’t hang out with you…*/

The message is written in Java, a programming language. Even if you’ve never programmed, you likely catch the drift: CS majors are the bees’ knees because, at the expense of sleep and social lives, they code. I disagree with part of said drift: CS majors hung out with me despite being awesome.

photo-3 copy

The rest of the drift—you have to give some to get some—synopsizes the physics I encountered this fall. To understand tradeoffs, you needn’t study QI. But what trades off with what, according to QI, can surprise us.

The T-shirt haunted me at the University of Nottingham, where researchers are blending QI with Einstein’s theory of relativity. Relativity describes accelerations, gravity, and space-time’s curvature. In other sources, you can read about physicists’ attempts to unify relativity and quantum mechanics, the Romeo and Tybalt of modern physics, into a theory of quantum gravity. In this article, relativity tangos with quantum mechanics in relativistic quantum information (RQI). If I move my quantum computer, RQIers ask, how do I change its information processing? How does space-time’s curvature affect computation? How can motion affect measurements?

Answers to these questions involve tradeoffs.


Nottingham researchers kindly tolerating a seminar by me

For example, acceleration entangles particles. Decades ago, physicists learned that acceleration creates particles. Say you’re gazing into a vacuum—not empty space, but nearly empty space, the lowest-energy system that can exist. Zooming away on a rocket, I accelerate relative to you. From my perspective, more particles than you think—and higher-energy particles—surround us.

Have I created matter? Have I violated the Principle of Conservation of Energy (and Mass)? I created particles in a sense, but at the expense of rocket fuel. You have to give some to get some:


The math that describes my particles relates to the math that describes entanglement.* Entanglement is a relationship between quantum systems. Say you entangle two particles, then separate them. If you measure one, you instantaneously affect the other, even if the other occupies another city.

Say we encode information in quantum particles stored in a box.** Just as you encode messages by writing letters, we write messages in the ink of quantum particles. Say the box zooms off on a rocket. Just as acceleration led me to see particles in a vacuum, acceleration entangles the particles in our box. Since entanglement facilitates computation, you can process information by shaking a box. And performing another few steps.

When an RQIer told me so, she might as well have added that space-time has 106 dimensions and the US would win the World Cup. Then my T-shirt came to mind. To get some, you have to give some. When you give something, you might get something. Giving fuel gets you entanglement. To prove that statement, I need to do and interpret math. Till I have time to,


offers intuition.

After cropping up in Nottingham, my T-shirt reared its head (collar?) in physics problem after physics problem. By “consuming entanglement”—forfeiting that ability to affect the particle in another city—you can teleport quantum information.

Quantum teleportation++;

My research involves tradeoffs between information and energy. As the Hungarian physicist Leó Szilárd showed, you can exchange information for work. Say you learn which half of a box*** a particle occupies, and you trap the particle in that half. Upon freeing the particle—forfeiting your knowledge about its location—you can lift a weight, charge a battery, or otherwise store energy.


If you expend energy, Rolf Landauer showed, you can gain knowledge.


No wonder my computer-science friends joked about sleep deprivation. But information can energize. For fuel, I forage in the blending of fields like QI and relativity, and in physical intuitions like those encapsulated in the pseudo-Java above. Much as Szilard’s physics enchants me, I’m glad that the pursuit of physics contradicts his conclusion:





The code includes awesome++ implicitly.

*Bogoliubov transformations, to readers familiar with the term.

**In the fields in a cavity, to readers familiar with the terms.

***Physicists adore boxes, you might have noticed.

With thanks to Ivette Fuentes and the University of Nottingham for their hospitality and for their introduction to RQI.

Of sensors and science students

Click click.

Once the clasps unfastened, the tubular black case opened like a yard-long mussel. It might have held a bazooka, a collapsible pole tent, or enough shellfish for three plates of paella.

“This,” said Rob Young, for certain types of light, “is the most efficient detector in the world.”
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The Navajo connection

A few months ago, Prof. Keith Schwab brought visiting students and teachers from Navajo Preparatory School to tour some of the IQIM labs, listen to some quick lectures on optics, and talk to scientists. Since this opportunity was only allowed to the one carload that made the 11.5 hour drive from Farmington, NM, everyone involved agreed that we could reach far more students if the IQIM sent Caltech students there. Ana Brown and I both enjoyed speaking with the visiting students and teachers, and responded enthusiastically when Prof. Schwab offered to send us.  My enthusiasm momentarily dimmed when I realized our trip would be occurring in the dead of winter and it was projected to snow while we were there (having only lived in northern and southern California, let’s say I have a heightened sensitivity to weather), but I excitedly spent thanksgiving putting together demonstrations with supplies I found in my closet and garage. I’ve always enjoyed talking about applied math, science, and engineering to anyone, especially anyone young enough to have only heard “math is boring” or “science is too hard” few enough times I can convince them otherwise.  Navajo Prep seemed ideal for this, since the school prepares the students well and sends over 95% of the students to college, and is working to increase student interest in math, science, and engineering.

it's colder than it looks, I swear

Panorama from the center of Navajo Prep

With a suitcase half full of clothes and half full of tools and hacked-together electronics, I was picked up from the airport, and arrived at the school in the afternoon the Monday after Thanksgiving weekend. While Monday was spent arranging which classes I would attend, and what topics I would discuss, my second day involved a trip with the school’s outreach coordinator and Cody, one of the two students who visited Caltech, taking a tour of some of the local highlights, including a traditional Navajo lunch (steam corn stew, roast mutton, and I even tried ach’ii”) and toured the remnants of the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde, about half an hour from the school. Exploring a region with such a rich history and discussing it with my hosts, who are descendants in part from that history was an incredible experience.

yup, some 70 rooms built in a recess carved into the canyon wall almost a thousand years ago.

Rooms at the Oak Tree House at Mesa Verde

On Wednesday, I began talking to the freshman physics classes about optics, intending to discuss the properties of light, like frequency, speed, wavelength, velocity, energy, and momentum, but to give some context I began with a historical summary of discoveries in optics. I know I was surprised when I was preparing, so you might enjoy answering the same questions that I asked the class. Take a second, and guess when you think the first lenses were made and when wearable glasses were first used. (After you think you have a guess, scroll to the bottom to see how you did.)  When I realized that the class was more interested in seeing rather than hearing about optics, I skimmed over what I’d prepared in order to spend more time on the demonstrations where I showed refraction in glass and explained how that can be derived from assuming a different speed of light in the material. We found lenses for the students to manipulate/play with, and even though historically there were about 300 years between invention of glasses (and the proliferation of lens-making) and the invention of the telescope, some of the students unintentionally built telescopes after taking a second lens from their friends and were shocked to hear that what they had just made was better than the one Galileo used to first discover the four largest moons of Jupiter.

I promise this shot is not advertising for Under Armour.

Measuring focal lengths and observing lensing with a drop of water on a glass slide

We also demonstrated double slit diffraction and calculated light’s wavelength for three different laser pointers to within 5% accuracy using only a tape measure, a post-it, and a knife. I decided not to bring a demonstration to measure the speed of light with a laser, a few mirrors, a computer fan, and a reverse-biased photodiode hooked up to an old speaker, because I couldn’t get the fan to spin fast enough to get a reasonably short delay length. (From that can you guess what my set-up was?) On Thursday, Ana and I gave a similar lecture to a different pair of 90 minute freshman physics classes, and spent the other periods talking with math classes. In calculus, I described the different kinds of math classes offered in college, their applications, and their connections to each other in an attempt to give more meaning to the course titles they would no doubt be reading next fall. In geometry and trigonometry I answered the perennial high school math question: “when will we ever use this?” by talking about some applications in geometric optics.

Since I figure you readers like thinking about this sort of thing, I’ll elaborate: I started with the fact that a light beam’s incident angle (measured from the perpendicular of a surface) is equal to its reflected angle. This means that light propagation, like much of (but not all of) physics, is reversible in all but a few specific cases. As a result, light generated at or passing through the center of a circle is reflected off the circle back to the center. An ellipse has a similar property where light through one focus is all reflected to the other. Try deriving that from the fact that an ellipse is defined to be the set of all points where the sum of the distances to the two foci equals some fixed constant. In the lecture, I then used the fact that a parabola is the set of all points equidistant from a point (the focus) and a line (the directrix) to show that light from the focus is reflected off the parabola and collimated (focused at infinity).

Ana brought some IQIM hats and shirts, which the freshman physics classes seemed to definitely enjoy when we met with each class for 40 minutes on Friday.

We probably tripled the number of high school varsity football players who've worn IQIM gear in that one picture

One of the four freshman physics classes we got to spend time with

I tried to give them an impression of what we do in the IQIM, but I had a hard time giving a satisfactory explanation of the significance of quantum information, and Ana easily convinced me that it would be more engaging to use the 90 minute introduction I had already given them on optics to explain and describe solar energy, since many buildings deep in the Navajo reservation are off the power grid.  There are also plans to construct a large solar power plant on the reservation that will be much cleaner than the three local coal power plants in the region.

I think I made a joke and Ana might have been the only one to laugh.  Still, it's proof I can be funny.

Action shot during the lecture on solar

Ana and I also spoke to the senior seminar, which contained the entire graduating class, where she talked about the difficulties transitioning to college experienced by some of her friends in college who were from the Navajo reservation. She gave such great advice on applying to schools, applying for fellowships, and developing a healthy work/life balance, that the only thing I felt like I could contribute was some advice on picking a major (since I’ve picked about 4 different majors), where I described the difference between science and engineering, and talked about different fields within each. I loved how truly helpful I felt when so many of the students told us that they either found certain pieces of advice to be useful, thanked us for introducing them to an idea they hadn’t heard of, or asked us to come back soon.

Occasionally a student asked what I personally do, and their curiosity was rewarded with an explanation that lasted as long as they were interested.  The shortest lasted two sentences and the longest explanation (given to a calculus class of 5 people) involved 30 minutes with my laptop out showing all the steps I take to fabricate nanoscale devices to trap light in almost a cubic-wavelength volume in proximity to an “optically interesting” rare earth ion which my advisor and I hope will provide a viable quantum optical memory.  (Here‘s a little more about our work.)

In the evenings we cheered for the school’s basketball team, had dinner with some of the students and teachers, and discussed the school’s science curriculum and science fair projects. Ana and I consulted on a solar water heating project some of the students were working on, and, after the students all went home for the weekend, I even spent 2 hours in 17ºF weather the last night calibrating an 8″ diameter Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope that had been donated to the school. Compared to Pasadena the viewing was spectacular, and I could easily spot galaxies, nebulae, and discern stripes on Jupiter and the four Galilean moons. I can only expect that some of the students I met will be as excited as I was.

From wikipedia: “The earliest known lenses were made from polished crystal, often quartz, and have been dated as early as 700 BC for Assyrian lenses” and “Around 1284 in Italy, Salvino D’Armate is credited with inventing the first wearable eye glasses.” For anyone who’s interested in the history of science, I’d suggest you check it out.

Jostling the unreal in Oxford

Oxford, where the real and the unreal jostle in the streets, where windows open into other worlds…

So wrote Philip Pullman, author of The Golden Compass and its sequels. In the series, a girl wanders from the Oxford in another world to the Oxford in ours.

I’ve been honored to wander Oxford this fall. Visiting Oscar Dahlsten and Jon Barrett, I’ve been moonlighting in Vlatko Vedral’s QI group. We’re interweaving 21st-century knowledge about electrons and information with a Victorian fixation on energy and engines. This research program, quantum thermodynamics, should open a window onto our world.

Radcliffe camera

A new world. At least, a world new to the author.

To study our world from another angle, Oxford researchers are jostling the unreal. Oscar, Jon, Andrew Garner, and others are studying generalized probabilistic theories, or GPTs.

What’s a specific probabilistic theory, let alone a generalized one? In everyday, classical contexts, probabilities combine according to rules you know. Suppose you have a 90% chance of arriving in London-Heathrow Airport at 7:30 AM next Sunday. Suppose that, if you arrive in Heathrow at 7:30 AM, you’ll have a 70% chance of catching the 8:05 AM bus to Oxford. You have a probability 0.9 * 0.7 = 0.63 of arriving in Heathrow at 7:30 and catching the 8:05 bus. Why 0.9 * 0.7? Why not 0.90.7, or 0.9/(2 * 0.7)? How might probabilities combine, GPT researchers ask, and why do they combine as they do?

Not that, in GPTs, probabilities combine as in 0.9/(2 * 0.7). Consider the 0.9/(2 * 0.7) plucked from a daydream inspired by this City of Dreaming Spires. But probabilities do combine in ways we wouldn’t expect. By entangling two particles, separating them, and measuring one, you immediately change the probability that a measurement of Particle 2 yields some outcome. John Bell explored, and experimentalists have checked, statistics generated by entanglement. These statistics disobey rules that govern Heathrow-and-bus statistics. As do entanglement statistics, so do effects of quantum phenomena like discord, negative Wigner functions, and weak measurements. Quantum theory and its contrast with classicality force us to reconsider probability.
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Polarizer: Rise of the Efficiency

How should a visitor to Zürich spend her weekend?

Launch this question at a Swiss lunchtable, and you split diners into two camps. To take advantage of Zürich, some say, visit Geneva, Lucerne, or another spot outside Zürich. Other locals suggest museums, the lake, and the 19th-century ETH building.


The 19th-century ETH building

ETH, short for a German name I’ve never pronounced, is the polytechnic from which Einstein graduated. The polytechnic houses a quantum-information (QI) theory group that’s pioneering ideas I’ve blogged about: single-shot information, epsilonification, and small-scale thermodynamics. While visiting the group this August, I triggered an avalanche of tourism advice. Caught between two camps, I chose Option Three: Contemplate polar codes.

Polar codes compress information into the smallest space possible. Imagine you write a message (say, a Zürich travel guide) and want to encode it in the fewest possible symbols (so it fits in my camera bag). The longer the message, the fewer encoding symbols you need per encoded symbol: The more punch each code letter can pack. As the message grows, the encoding-to-encoded ratio decreases. The lowest possible ratio is a number, represented by H, called the Shannon entropy.

So established Claude E. Shannon in 1948. But Shannon didn’t know how to code at efficiency H. Not for 51 years did we know.

I learned how, just before that weekend. ETH student David Sutter walked me through polar codes as though down Zürich’s Banhofstrasse.


The Banhofstrasse, one of Zürich’s trendiest streets, early on a Sunday.

Say you’re encoding n copies of a random variable. When I say, “random variable,” think, “character in the travel guide.” Just as each character is one of 26 letters, each variable has one of many possible values.

Suppose the variables are independent and identically distributed. Even if you know some variables’ values, you can’t guess others’. Cryptoquote players might object that we can infer unknown from known letters. For example, a three-letter word that begins with “th” likely ends with “e.” But our message lacks patterns.

Think of the variables as diners at my lunchtable. Asking how to fill a weekend in Zürich—splitting the diners—I resembled the polarizer.

The polarizer is a mathematical object that sounds like an Arnold Schwarzenegger film and acts on the variables. Just as some diners pointed me outside Zürich, the polarizer gives some variables one property. Just some diners pointed me to within Zürich, the polarizer gives some variables another property. Just as I pointed myself at polar codes, the polarizer gives some variables a third property.

These properties involve entropy. Entropy quantifies uncertainty about a variable’s value—about which of the 26 letters a character represents. Even if you know the early variables’ values, you can’t guess the later variables’. But we can guess some polarized variables’ values. Call the first polarized variable u1, the second u2, etc. If we can guess the value of some ui, that ui has low entropy. If we can’t guess the value, ui has high entropy. The Nicole-esque variables have entropies like the earnings of Terminator Salvation: noteworthy but not chart-topping.

To recap: We want to squeeze a message into the tiniest space possible. Even if we know early variables’ values, we can’t infer later variables’. Applying the polarizer, we split the variables into low-, high-, and middling-entropy flocks. We can guess the value of each low-entropy ui, if we know the foregoing uh’s.

Almost finished!

In your camera-size travel guide, transcribe the high-entropy ui’s. These ui’s suggest the values of the low-entropy ui’s. When you want to decode the guide, guess the low-entropy ui’s. Then reverse the polarizer to reconstruct much of the original text.

The longer the original travel guide, the fewer errors you make while decoding, and the smaller the ratio of the encoded guide’s length to the original guide’s length. That ratio shrinks–as the guide’s length grows–to H. You’ve compressed a message maximally efficiently. As the Swiss say: Glückwünsche.

How does compression relate to QI? Quantum states form messages. Polar codes, ETH scientists have shown, compress quantum messages maximally efficiently. Researchers are exploring decoding strategies and relationships among (quantum) polar codes. With their help, Shannon-coded travel guides might fit not only in my camera bag, but also on the tip of my water bottle.

Should you need a Zürich travel guide, I recommend Grossmünster Church. Not only does the name fulfill your daily dose of umlauts. Not only did Ulrich Zwingli channel the Protestant Reformation into Switzerland there. Climbing a church tower affords a panorama of Zürich. After oohing over the hills and ahhing over the lake, you can shift your gaze toward ETH. The worldview being built there bewitches as much as the vista from any tower.


A tower with a view.

With gratitude to ETH’s QI-theory group (particularly to Renato Renner) for its hospitality. And for its travel advice. With gratitude to David Sutter for his explanations and patience.


The author and her neue Freunde.

Graphene gets serious

Imagine one marshmallow, 100 pieces of dried spaghetti, and a roll of masking tape lying on a large table. Next to the supplies are directions that read: “Elevate the marshmallow as high as possible using only the spaghetti and masking tape.” What was the first question that popped into your head? My assumption is your response had a disposition towards either “how can I do this?” or “why should I do this?” More precisely, your response probably could be whittled down to either a “how” or a “why.” If your first instinct was to ask yourself “how”, maybe an argument could be made that you are a natural problem solver, and that you welcome and genuinely are intrigued by challenges. If you asked “why”, then maybe you are someone who needs some good ‘ole fashioned incentive or a good extrinsic motive to perform well. Now imagine you were competing against three other people and the prize for the highest marshmallow was $100,000. Would the money motivate you to create a better structure, or would your relentless ambition towards excellence have been enough incentive for you to have placed your best foot forward from the outset? Undoubtedly, the money will make you think twice about your initial design ensuring your best effort, but my wish is to see more people performing at higher levels, not only due to monetary incentive, but also out of the sake of doing your best.

Chen-Chih Hsu & Benjamin Fackrell

Chen-Chih Hsu & Benjamin Fackrell

As humans, we are all naturally great problem solvers when compared, to say, any other known form of life on our planet. That is not to say, however, all humans choose to exercise those talents. Nonetheless, people do possess the ability to solve extremely complex problems, and I often wonder what makes some individuals face challenges head on with great heroism, while others whimper away with not as much as a grain of genuine interest or desire. I believe the reasons for different responses are connected with the way we individually have been taught to approach problems, and the amount of respect we have learned to award such methods. The attitude individuals possess when faced with a challenge can be shaped with encouragement from teachers and parents alike. When given an opportunity to educate students (of any age) regarding their attitude when faced with a problem, in that moment, we must teach absolute fearlessness. Attack the problem and take no prisoners, metaphorically speaking. Unfortunately, the prevailing attitude from the many students I work with daily is one of apathy and a play-it-safe approach with very little risk of making mistakes. For many students, forfeiting has greater power in protecting one’s reputation with peers and themselves than a courageous attempt that could end, in what they believe to be, an embarrassing mistake. I am always looking to instill a sense of honor, embracing a philosophy that a whole-hearted attempt merits infinitely more respect than a forfeit, and not to plan to fail, but prepare to stay the course in the case of an unfortunate event. My advice? Treat a failure like a fart; understand it’s sure to happen, try to find the humor in it, and keep moving forward. Mistakes can often indicate progress because if you are not making mistakes, per Albert Einstein, you must not be trying something new, consequently, you are not learning.
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The Most Awesome Animation About Quantum Computers You Will Ever See

by Jorge Cham

You might think the title is a little exaggerated, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned from Theoretical Physicists so far, it’s to be bold with my conjectures about reality.

Welcome to the second installment of our series of animations about Quantum Information! After an auspicious start describing doing the impossible, this week we take a step back to talk in general terms about what makes the Quantum World different and how these differences can be used to build Quantum Computers.

In this video, I interviewed John Preskill and Spiros Michalakis. John is the co-Director of the Institute for Quantum Information and Matter. He’s known for many things, including making (and winning) bets with Stephen Hawking. Spiros hails from Greece, and probably never thought he’d see himself drawn in a Faustian devil outfit in the name of science (although, he’s so motivated about outreach, he’d probably do it).


In preparation to make this video, I thought I’d do what any serious writer would do to exhaustively research a complex topic like this: read the Wikipedia page and call it a day. But then, while visiting the local library with my son, I stumbled upon a small section of books about Quantum Physics aimed at a general audience.

I thought, “Great! I’ll read these books and learn that way!” When I opened the books, though, they were mostly all text. I’m not against text, but when you’re a busy* cartoonist on a deadline trying to learn one of the most complex topics humans have ever devised, a few figures would help. On the other hand, fewer graphics mean more job security for busy cartoonists, so I can’t really complain. (*=Not really).


In particular, I started to read “The Quantum Story: A History in 40 Moments” by Jim Baggott. First, telling a story in 40 moments sounds a lot like telling a story with comics, and second, I thought it would be great to learn about these concepts from the point of view of how they came up with them. So, I eagerly opened the book and here is what it says in the Preface:

“Nobody really understands how Quantum Theory actually works.”

“Niels Bohr claimed that anybody who is not shocked by the theory has not understood it… Richard Feynman went further: he claimed that nobody understands it.”

One page in, and it’s already telling me to give up.

It’s a fascinating read, I highly recommend the book. Baggott makes the claim that,

“The reality of Scientific Endeavor is profoundly messy, often illogical, deeply emotional, and driven by the individual personalities involved as they sleepwalk their way to a temporary scientific truth.”

I’m glad this history was recorded. I hope in a way that these videos help record a quantum of the developing story, as we humans try to create pockets of quantum weirdness that can scale up. As John says in the video, it is very exciting.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to sleepwalk back to bed.


Watch the second installment of this series:

Jorge Cham is the creator of Piled Higher and Deeper (www.phdcomics.com).


Featuring: John Preskill and Spiros Michalakis

Produced in Partnership with the Institute for Quantum Information and Matter (http://iqim.caltech.edu) at Caltech with funding provided by the National Science Foundation.

Animation Assistance: Meg Rosenburg
Transcription: Noel Dilworth

Frozen children

Kids_watching_GlenA few weeks ago, my friend Amanda, an elementary school teacher who runs a children’s camp during the summer break, suggested that it could be fun for me to come into the camp one day and do some science demonstrations for the kids. I jumped at the opportunity, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that I am a purely theoretical physicist and my day-to-day work only involves whiteboards and computers at Caltech. Most of the children attending the camp are relatively young (7-9 year-old kids) so, rather than setting out to give a science lesson, I viewed it as a chance to do some fun demonstrations and get these kids excited about science! Besides, I had an ulterior motive; it was a great excuse to acquire, and play with, liquid nitrogen (LN_2) from a Caltech lab (of which most of the IQIM labs have copious supplies). LN_2 is great for demonstrations; this stuff is awesome! At a temperature of -321^{\circ}\,F (for reference, the coldest temperature ever recorded on the surface of the Earth is -128.6^{\circ}\,F), it behaves in ways unlike anything that most people have ever seen. I convinced my friend Carmen, a postdoc in astronomy at Caltech, to come along and help out. Here, I thought I would share my experience, as well as some of the things I learned about handling LN_2.

Carmen watches on as I pour the liquid nitrogen into the beaker, which boils like crazy until the beaker is chilled. The white gas is actually water vapor condensing from the air; nitrogen gas is transparent (think of your ability to see through air). Note, also, my previous assistant in the background - science can be taxing to the body.

Carmen watches on as I pour the liquid nitrogen into the beaker, which boils like crazy until the beaker is chilled. The white gas is actually water vapor condensing from the air; nitrogen gas is transparent (think of your ability to see through air, which is mostly nitrogen gas).


Liquid nitrogen volcano! All it takes is a little water added to the liquid nitrogen dewar.

Crime and punishment: As anyone who has seen Terminator 2 knows, objects that are pliable at room temperature become brittle and can shatter when reduced to cryogenic temperatures (including robotic assassins from the future). Thus I devoted a significant amount of the demonstration time to freezing and breaking everyday objects, including flowers and rubber toys. The flowers were particularly spectacular, shattering like glass into a multitude of pieces when struck against the table, providing a good deal of entertainment for the audience as well as myself. Hasta la vista, baby. I also froze several pennies, which then became brittle enough such that Carmen was able to shatter them with a few taps from a hammer. Incidentally, destroying US currency is illegal (which is why I had Carmen do it instead of doing it myself). I informed the children of this fact and asked who among them thought that Carmen should go to prison for her crime. A quick vote revealed that the majority of the children thought that she should be behind bars. Sorry Carmen, maybe the next field trip for the camp can be to visit you in prison?


A flower, freshly pulled from the vat of liquid nitrogen, prepares to make the ultimate sacrifice in the name of science.

After having frozen a variety of objects, one of the children asked me whether you could freeze people with it. I told the kids that this is something that I always wanted to try, but that I had previously lacked a volunteer, to which an enthusiastic boy jumped up and responded, “freeze me, freeze me!” I asked whether he wanted to be frozen 5 years, 10 years, or longer? He said he would like to be frozen until the end of the world. One must admire his dedication! Before attempting to freeze him, I told him that it would be prudent for me to try it on something less likely to have litigious relatives. To this end a strawberry, a peach and a plum were submerged in LN_2, and then removed and allowed to slowly thaw. They ended up melting into gelatinous blobs; clearly some kinks in my cryogenic freezing and revival process need to be resolved before I graduate the approach to small children.
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