The experimentalist next door

At 9:10 AM, the lab next door was blasting “Born to Be Wild.”

I was at Oxford, moonlighting as a visiting researcher during fall 2013. My hosts included quantum theorists in Townsend Laboratory, a craggy great-uncle of a building. Poke your head out of the theory office, and Experiment would flood your vision. Our neighbors included laser wielders, ion trappers, atom freezers, and yellow signs that warned, “DANGER OF DEATH.”


Down the corridor in Townsend Laboratory.

Hardly the neighborhood Mr. Rogers had in mind.

The lab that shared a wall with our office blasted music. To clear my head of calculations and of Steppenwolf, I would roam the halls. Some of the halls, that is. Other halls had hazmat warnings instead of welcome mats. I ran into “RADIATION,” “FIRE HAZARD,” “STRONG MAGNETIC FIELDS,” “HIGH VOLTAGE,” and “KEEP THIS TOILET NEAT AND TIDY.” Repelled from half a dozen doors, I would retreat to the office. Kelly Clarkson would be cooing through the wall.

“We can hear them,” a theorist observed about the experimentalists, “but they can’t hear us.”


Dangers lurked even in the bathroom.

Experiment should test, disprove, and motivate theories; and theory should galvanize and (according to some thinkers) explain experiments. But some theorists stray from experiment like North America from Pangaea.

The theoretical physics I’ve enjoyed is abstract. I rarely address platforms, particular physical systems in which theory might incarnate. Quantum-information platforms include electrons in magnetic fields, photons (particles of light), ion trapsquantum dots, and nuclei such as the ones that image internal organs in MRI machines.

Instead of addressing electrons and photons, I address mathematics and abstract physical concepts. Each of these concepts can incarnate in different forms in different platforms. Examples of such concepts include preparation procedures, evolutions, measurements, and memories. One preparation procedure defined by one piece of math can result from a constant magnetic field in one platform and from a laser in another. Abstractness has power, enabling one idea to describe diverse systems.

I’ve enjoyed wandering the hills and sampling the vistas of Theory Land. Yet the experimentalist next door cranked up the radio of reality in my mind. “We can hear them,” a theorist said. In Townsend Laboratory, I began listening.

My Oxford collaborators and I interwove two theoretical frameworks that describe heat transferred and work performed on small scales. One framework, one-shot statistical mechanics, has guest-starred on this blog. The other framework consists of fluctuation-dissipation relations. Fluctuation relations describe the loss of information stored in a system tarnished by its environment. Imagine storing information in a particle’s spin (basically, the particle’s orientation). If the spin points in one direction, it encodes one number; if the spin points in another direction, it encodes another number. If air molecules jostle your particle, or if a shot of energy causes your particle to bounce around, the memory’s reliability degrades. Fluctuation relations quantify the degradation.

My colleagues and I addressed “information,” “systems,” and “interactions.” We deployed abstract ideas, referencing platforms only when motivating our work. Then a collaborator challenged me to listen through the wall.

Experimentalists have tested fluctuation relations. Why not check whether their data supports our theory? At my friend’s urging, I contacted experimentalists who’d shown that DNA obeys a fluctuation relation. The experimentalists had unzipped and re-zipped single DNA molecules using optical tweezers, which resemble ordinary tweezers but involve lasers. Whenever the experimentalists pulled the DNA, they measured the force they applied. They concluded that their platform obeyed an abstract fluctuation theorem. The experimentalists generously shared their data, which supported our results.

Experimentalists unzipped and rezipped DNA, using the set-up depicted here, to test fluctuation relations.

My colleagues and I didn’t propose experiments. We didn’t explain why platforms had behaved in unexpected ways. We checked calculations with recycled data. But we ventured outside Theory Land. We learned that one-shot theory models systems modeled also by fluctuation relations, which govern experiments. This link from one-shot theory to experiment, like the forbidden corridors in Townsend Laboratory, invite exploration.

In Townsend, I didn’t suffer the electric shocks or the explosions advertised on the doors (though the hot water in the bathroom nearly burned me). I turned out not to need those shocks. Blasting rock music at 9:10 AM can wake even a theorist up to reality.

Where are you, Dr. Frank Baxter?

This year marks the 50th anniversary of my first publication. In 1964, when we were eleven-year-old fifth graders, my best friend Mace Rosenstein and I launched The Pres-stein Gazette, a not-for-profit monthly. Though the first issue sold well, the second issue never appeared.

Front page of the inaugural issue of the Pres-stein Gazette

Front page of the inaugural issue of the Pres-stein Gazette. Faded but still legible, it was produced using a mimeograph machine, a low-cost printing press which was popular in the pre-Xerox era.

One of my contributions to the inaugural  issue was a feature article on solar energy, which concluded that fossil fuel “isn’t of such terrific abundance and it cannot support the world for very long. We must come up with some other source of energy. Solar energy is that source …  when developed solar energy will be a cheap powerful “fuel” serving the entire world generously forever.”

This statement holds up reasonably well 50 years later. You might wonder how an eleven-year-old in 1964 would know something like that. I can explain …

In the 1950s and early 1960s, AT&T and the Bell Telephone System produced nine films about science, which were broadcast on prime-time network television and attracted a substantial audience. After broadcast, the films were distributed to schools as 16 mm prints and frequently shown to students for many years afterward. I don’t remember seeing any of the films on TV, but I eventually saw all nine in school. It was always a treat to watch one of the “Bell Telephone Movies” instead of hearing another boring lecture.

For educational films, the production values were uncommonly high. Remarkably, the first four were all written and directed by the legendary Frank Capra (a Caltech alum), in consultation with a scientific advisory board provided by Bell Labs.  Those four (Our Mr. Sun, Hemo the Magnificent, The Strange Case of the Cosmic Rays, and Unchained Goddess, originally broadcast in 1956-58) are the ones I remember most vividly. DVDs of these films exist, but I have not watched any of them since I was a kid.

The star of the first eight films was Dr. Frank Baxter, who played Dr. Research, the science expert. Baxter was actually an English professor at USC who had previous television experience as the popular host of a show about Shakespeare, but he made a convincing and pleasingly avuncular scientist. (The ninth film, Restless Sea, was produced by Disney, and Walt Disney himself served as host.) The other lead role was Mr. Writer, a skeptical and likeable Everyman who learned from Dr. Research’s clear explanations and sometimes translated them into vernacular.

The first film, Our Mr. Sun, debuted in 1956 (broadcast in color, a rarity at that time) and was seen by 24 million prime-time viewers. Mr. Writer was Eddie Albert, a well-known screen actor who later achieved greater fame as the lead on the 1960s TV situation comedy Green Acres. Lionel Barrymore appeared in a supporting role.

Dr. Frank Baxter and Eddie Albert in Our Mr. Sun.

Dr. Frank Baxter and Eddie Albert in Our Mr. Sun. (Source: Wikipedia)

Our Mr. Sun must have been the primary (unacknowledged) source for my article in the Pres-stein Gazette.  Though I learned from Wikipedia that Capra insisted (to the chagrin of some of his scientific advisers) on injecting some religious themes into the film, I don’t remember that aspect at all. The scientific content was remarkably sophisticated for a film that could be readily enjoyed by elementary school students, and I remember (or think I do) clever animations teaching me about the carbon cycle in stellar nuclear furnaces and photosynthesis as the ultimate source of all food sustaining life on earth. But I was especially struck by Dr. Baxter’s dire warning that, as the earth’s population grows, our planet will face shortages of food and fuel. On a more upbeat note he suggested that advanced technologies for harnessing the power of the sun would be the key to our survival, which inspired the optimistic conclusion of my article.

A lavishly produced prime-time show about science was a real novelty in 1956, many years before NOVA or the Discovery Channel. I wonder how many readers remember seeing the Dr. Frank Baxter movies when you were kids, either on TV or in school. Or was there another show that inspired you like Our Mr. Sun inspired me? I hope some of you will describe your experiences in the comments.

And I also wonder what resource could have a comparable impact on an eleven-year-old in today’s very different media environment. The obvious comparison is with Neil deGrasse Tyson’s revival of Cosmos, which aired on Fox in 2014. The premiere episode of Cosmos drew 8.5 million viewers on the night it was broadcast, but that is a poor measure of impact nowadays. Each episode has been rebroadcast many times, not just in the US and Canada but internationally as well, and the whole series is now available in DVD and Blu-ray. Will lots of kids in the coming years own it and watch it? Is Cosmos likely to be shown in classrooms as well?

Science is accessible to the curious through many other avenues today, particularly on YouTube. One can watch TED talks, or Minute Physics, or Veritasium, or Khan Academy, or Lenny Susskind’s lectures, not to mention our own IQIM videos on PHD Comics. And there are many other options. Maybe too many?

But do kids watch this stuff? If not, what online sources inspire them? Do they get as excited as I did when I watched Dr. Frank Baxter at age 11?

I don’t know. What do you think?

Macroscopic quantum teleportation: the story of my chair

In the summer of 2000, a miracle occurred: The National Science Foundation decided to fund a new Institute for Quantum Information at Caltech with a 5 million dollar award from their Information Technology Research program. I was to be the founding director of the IQI.

Jeff Kimble explained to me why we should propose establishing the IQI. He knew I had used my slice of our shared DARPA grant to bring Alexei Kitaev to Caltech as a visiting professor, which had been wonderful. Recalling how much we had both benefited from Kitaev’s visit, Jeff remarked emphatically that “This stuff’s not free.” He had a point. To have more fun we’d need more money. Jeff took the lead in recruiting a large team of Caltech theorists and experimentalists to join the proposal we submitted, but the NSF was primarily interested in supporting the theory of quantum computation rather than the experimental part of the proposal. That was how I wound up in charge, though I continued to rely on Jeff’s advice and support.

This was a new experience for me and I worried a lot about how directing an institute would change my life. But I had one worry above all: space. We envisioned a thriving institute brimming over with talented and enthusiastic young scientists and visitors drawn from the physics, computer science, and engineering communities. But how could we carve out a place on the Caltech campus where they could work and interact?

To my surprise and delight, Jeff and I soon discovered that someone else at Caltech shared our excitement over the potential of IQI — Richard Murray, who was then the Chair of Caltech’s Division of Engineering and Applied Science. Richard arranged for the IQI to occupy office space in Steele Laboratory and some space we could configure as we pleased in Jorgensen Laboratory. The hub of the IQI became the lounge in Jorgensen, which we used for our seminar receptions, group meetings, and innumerable informal discussions, until our move to the beautiful Annenberg Center when it opened in 2009.

I sketched a rough plan for the Jorgensen layout, including furniture for the lounge. The furniture, I was told, was “NIC”. Though I was too embarrassed to ask, I eventually inferred this meant “Not in Contract” — I would need to go furniture shopping, one of my many burgeoning responsibilities as Director.

By this time, Ann Harvey was in place as IQI administrator, a huge relief. But furniture was something I thought I knew about, because I had designed and furnished a common area for the particle theory group a couple of years earlier. As we had done on that previous occasion, my wife Roberta and I went to Krause’s Sofa Factory to order a custom-made couch, love seat, and lounge chair, in a grayish green leather which we thought would blend well with the carpeting.

Directing an institute is not as simple as it sounds, though. Before the furniture was delivered, Krause’s declared bankruptcy! We had paid in full, but I had some anxious moments wondering whether there would be a place to sit down in the IQI lounge. In the end, after some delay, our furniture was delivered in time for the grand opening of the new space in September 2001. A happy ending, but not really the end of the story.

Before the move to Annenberg in 2009, I ordered furniture to fill our (much smaller) studio space, which became the new IQI common area. The Jorgensen furniture was retired, and everything was new! It was nice … But every once in a while I felt a twinge of sadness. I missed my old leather chair, from which I had pontificated at eight years worth of group meetings. That chair and I had been through a lot together, and I couldn’t help but feel that my chair’s career had been cut short before its time.

I don’t recall mentioning these feelings to anyone, but someone must have sensed by regrets. Because one day not long after the move another miracle occurred … my chair was baaack! Sitting in it again felt … good. For five years now I’ve been pontificating from my old chair in our new studio, just like I used to. No one told me how my chair had been returned to me, and I knew better than to ask.

My chair today. Like me, a bit worn but still far from retirement.

My chair today. Like me, a bit worn but still far from retirement.

Eventually the truth comes out. At my 60th birthday celebration last year, Stephanie Wehner and Darrick Chang admitted to being the perpetrators, and revealed the whole amazing story in their article on “Macroscopic Quantum Teleportation” in a special issue of Nature Relocations. Their breakthrough article was enhanced by Stephanie’s extraordinary artwork, which you really have to see to believe. So if your curiosity is piqued, please follow this link to find out more.

Why, you may wonder, am I reminiscing today about the story of my chair? Well, is an excuse really necessary? But if you must know, it may be because, after two renewals and 14 years of operation, I submitted the IQI Final Report to the NSF this week. Don’t worry — the Report is not really Final, because the IQI has become part of an even grander vision, the IQIM (which has given birth to this blog among other good things). Like my chair, the IQI is not quite what it was, yet it lives on.

The nostalgic feelings aroused by filing the Final Report led me to reread the wonderful volume my colleagues put together for my birthday celebration, which recounts not only the unforgettable exploits of Stephanie and Darrick, but many other stories and testimonials that deeply touched me.

Browsing through that book today, one thing that struck me is the ways we sometimes have impact on others without even being aware of it. For example, Aram Harrow, Debbie Leung, Joe Renes and Stephanie all remember lectures I gave when they were undergraduate students (before I knew them), which might have influenced their later research careers. Knowing this will make it a little harder to say no the next time I’m invited to give a talk. Yaoyun Shi has vivid memories of the time I wore my gorilla mask to the IQI seminar on Halloween, which inspired him to dress up as “a butcher threatening to cut off the ears of my students with a bloody machete if they were not listening,” thus boosting his teaching evaluations. And Alexios Polychronakos, upon hearing that I had left particle theory to pursue quantum computing, felt it “was a bit like watching your father move to Las Vegas and marry a young dancer after you leave for college,” while at the same time he appreciated “that such reinventions are within the spectrum of possibilities for physicists who still have a pulse.”

I’m proud of what the IQI(M) has accomplished, but we’re just getting started. After 14 years, I still have a pulse, and my chair has plenty of wear left. Together we look forward to many more years of pontification.



How Physics for Poets can boost your Physics GRE score

As summer fades to autumn, prospective grad students are eyeing applications. Professors are suggesting courses, and seniors are preparing for Graduate Record Exams (GREs). American physics programs  (and a few programs abroad) require or encourage applicants to take the Physics GRE. If you’ve sighted physics grad school in your crosshairs, consider adding Physics for Poets (PFP) to your course list. Many colleges develop this light-on-the-math tour of physics history for non-majors. But Physics for Poets can boost your Physics GRE score while reinforcing the knowledge gained from your physics major.

My senior spring in college, PFP manifested as “PHYS 001/002: Understanding the Universe: From Atoms to the Big Bang.” The tallness of this order failed to daunt Marcelo Gleiser, a cosmologist whose lectures swayed with a rhythm like a Foucault pendulum. From creation myths and Greek philosophers, we proceeded via Copernicus and Kepler to Newton and the Enlightenment, Maxwell and electromagnetism, the Industrial Revolution and thermodynamics, Einstein’s relativity, and WWII and the first quantum revolution, ending with particle physics and cosmology. The course provided a history credit I needed. It offered a breather from problem sets, sandwiching my biophysics and quantum-computation lectures. Pragmatism aside, PHYS 2 showcased the grandness of the physicist’s legacy—of my legacy. PHYS 2 sharpened my determination to do that legacy justice. To do it justice, most of us must pass tests. Here’s how PFP can help.

(1) A Foucault pendulum, invented during the 19th century to demonstrate that the Earth rotates. (2) An excuse to review noninertial reference frames.

Reviewing basic physics can improve GRE scores. If thermodynamics has faded from memory, good luck calculating a Carnot engine’s efficiency. Several guides (and I) recommend reviewing notes and textbooks, working practice problems, simulating exams, and discussing material with peers.

Taking PFP, you will review for the GRE. A list of the topics on the Physics GRE appears here. Of the 14 mechanics topics, eight surfaced in PHYS 2. Taking PFP will force you to review GRE topics that lack of time (or that procrastination) might force you to skip. Earning credit for GRE prep, you won’t have to shoehorn that prep into your schedule at the expense of research. The Physics GRE covers basic physics developed during the past 500 years; so do many PFP courses.

The GRE, you might protest, involves more math than PFP. But GRE questions probe less deeply, and PFP can galvanize more reviews of math, than you might expect. According to Stanford’s Society of Physics Students, “Each [Physics GRE] question shouldn’t require much more than a minute’s worth of thought and computation.” Expect to use the Wave Equation and Maxwell’s Equations, not to derive the former from the latter. Some PFP instructors require students to memorize formulae needed on the GRE. PFP can verify whether your memory has interchanged the exponents in Kepler’s Third Law, or dropped the negative sign from the kinetic-energy term in Schrödinger’s Equation.

Even formulae excluded from PFP exams appear in PFP classes. In a PHYS 2 Powerpoint, Marcelo included Planck’s blackbody formula. Though he never asked me to regurgitate it, his review benefited me. Given such a Powerpoint, you can re-memorize the formula. Derive the Stefan-Boltzmann and Wien Displacement Laws. Do you remember how a blackbody’s energy density varies with frequency in the low-energy limit? PFP can catalyze your review of math used on the GRE.

xkcd - Science

Physics for Poets: It can work for applicants to physics grad programs.

While recapitulating basic physics, PFP can introduce “specialized” GRE topics. Examples include particle physics, astrophysics, and nuclear physics. Covered in advanced classes, these subjects might have evaded mention in your courses. Signing up for biophysics, I had to drop particle theory. PHYS 2 helped compensate for the drop. I learned enough about neutrinos and quarks to answer GRE questions about them. In addition to improving your score, surveying advanced topics in PFP can enhance your understanding of physics seminars and conversations. The tour can help you identify which research you should undertake. If you’ve tried condensed-matter and atmospheric research without finding your niche, tasting cosmology in PFP might point toward your next project. Sampling advanced topics in PFP, you can not only prepare for the GRE, but also enrich your research.

I am not encouraging you to replace advanced physics courses with PFP. I encourage you to complement advanced courses with PFP. If particle physics suits your schedule and intrigues you, enjoy. If you need to fulfill a history or social-sciences distribution requirement, check whether PFP can count. Consider PFP if you’ve committed to a thesis and three problem-set courses, you haven’t signed up for the minimum number of courses required by your college, and more problem sets would strangle you. Sleep deprivation improves neither exam scores nor understanding. Not that I sailed through PHYS 2 without working. I worked my rear off—fortunately for my science. Switching mindsets—pausing frustrating calculations to study Kepler—can refresh us. Stretch your calculational toolkit in advanced courses, and reinforce that toolkit with PFP.

In addition to reviewing basic physics and surveying specialized topics, you can seek study help from experts in PFP. When your questions about GRE topics overlap with PFP material, ask your instructor and TA. They’ll probably enjoy answering: Imagine teaching physics with little math, with one hand tied behind your back. Some students take your class not because they want to, but because they need science credits. Wouldn’t you enjoy directing a student who cares? While seeking answers, you can get to know your professor or TA. You can learn about his or her research. Maybe PFP will lead you to join that research. PFP not only may connect you to experts able to answer questions as no study guide can. PFP offers opportunities to enhance a course as few non-physics students can and to develop relationships with role models.

Science class

Instructors’ expertise has benefited science students throughout much of history.

Those relationships illustrate the benefits that PFP extends beyond GREs. As mentioned earlier, surveying advanced topics can diversify the research conversations you understand. The survey can direct you toward research you’ll pursue. Further exposure to research can follow from discussions with instructors. Intermissions from problem sets can promote efficiency. Other benefits of PFP include enhancement of explanatory skills and a bird’s-eye view of the scientific process to which you’re pledging several years. What a privilege we enjoy, PFP shows. We physicists explore questions asked for millennia. We wear mantles donned by Faraday, Bernoulli, and Pauli. When integrals pour out our ears and experiments break down, PFP can remind us why we bother. And that we’re in fine company.

Physics for Poets can improve your Physics GRE score and reinforce your physics major. Surveying basic physics, PFP will force you to review GRE topics. PFP may introduce specialized GRE topics absent from most physics majors. Opportunities abound to re-memorize equations and to complement lectures with math. Questioning instructors, you can deepen your understanding as with no study guide. Beyond boosting your GRE score, PFP can broaden your research repertoire, energize your calculations, improve your explanatory skills, and inspire.

Good luck with the academic year, and see you in grad school!

Reading the sub(linear) text

Physicists are not known for finesse. “Even if it cost us our funding,” I’ve heard a physicist declare, “we’d tell you what we think.” Little wonder I irked the porter who directed me toward central Cambridge.

The University of Cambridge consists of colleges as the US consists of states. Each college has a porter’s lodge, where visitors check in and students beg for help after locking their keys in their rooms. And where physicists ask for directions.

Last March, I ducked inside a porter’s lodge that bustled with deliveries. The woman behind the high wooden desk volunteered to help me, but I asked too many questions. By my fifth, her pointing at a map had devolved to jabbing.

Read the subtext, I told myself. Leave.

Or so I would have told myself, if not for that afternoon.

That afternoon, I’d visited Cambridge’s CMS, which merits every letter in “Centre for Mathematical Sciences.” Home to Isaac Newton’s intellectual offspring, the CMS consists of eight soaring, glass-walled, blue-topped pavilions. Their majesty walloped me as I turned off the road toward the gatehouse. So did the congratulatory letter from Queen Elizabeth II that decorated the route to the restroom.


I visited Nilanjana Datta, an affiliated lecturer of Cambridge’s Faculty of Mathematics, and her student, Felix Leditzky. Nilanjana and Felix specialize in entropies and one-shot information theory. Entropies quantify uncertainties and efficiencies. Imagine compressing many copies of a message into the smallest possible number of bits (units of memory). How few bits can you use per copy? That number, we call the optimal compression rate. It shrinks as the number of copies compressed grows. As the number of copies approaches infinity, that compression rate drops toward a number called the message’s Shannon entropy. If the message is quantum, the compression rate approaches the von Neumann entropy.

Good luck squeezing infinitely many copies of a message onto a hard drive. How efficiently can we compress fewer copies? According to one-shot information theory, the answer involves entropies other than Shannon’s and von Neumann’s. In addition to describing data compression, entropies describe the charging of batteriesthe concentration of entanglementthe encrypting of messages, and other information-processing tasks.

Speaking of compressing messages: Suppose one-shot information theory posted status updates on Facebook. Suppose that that panel on your Facebook page’s right-hand side showed news weightier than celebrity marriages. The news feed might read, “TRENDING: One-shot information theory: Second-order asymptotics.”

Second-order asymptotics, I learned at the CMS, concerns how the optimal compression rate decays as the number of copies compressed grows. Imagine compressing a billion copies of a quantum message ρ. The number of bits needed about equals a billion times the von Neumann entropy HvN(ρ). Since a billion is less than infinity, 1,000,000,000 HvN(ρ) bits won’t suffice. Can we estimate the compression rate more precisely?

The question reminds me of gas stations’ hidden pennies. The last time I passed a station’s billboard, some number like $3.65 caught my eye. Each gallon cost about $3.65, just as each copy of ρ costs about HvN(ρ) bits. But a 9/10, writ small, followed the $3.65. If I’d budgeted $3.65 per gallon, I couldn’t have filled my tank. If you budget HvN(ρ) bits per copy of ρ, you can’t compress all your copies.

Suppose some station’s owner hatches a plan to promote business. If you buy one gallon, you pay $3.654. The more you purchase, the more the final digit drops from four. By cataloguing receipts, you calculate how a tank’s cost varies with the number of gallons, n. The cost equals $3.65 × n to a first approximation. To a second approximation, the cost might equal $3.65 × n + an, wherein a represents some number of cents. Compute a, and you’ll have computed the gas’s second-order asymptotics.

Nilanjana and Felix computed a’s associated with data compression and other quantum tasks. Second-order asymptotics met information theory when Strassen combined them in nonquantum problems. These problems developed under attention from Hayashi, Han, Polyanski, Poor, Verdu, and others. Tomamichel and Hayashi, as well as Li, introduced quantumness.

In the total-cost expression, $3.65 × n depends on n directly, or “linearly.” The second term depends on √n. As the number of gallons grows, so does √n, but √n grows more slowly than n. The second term is called “sublinear.”

Which is the word that rose to mind in the porter’s lodge. I told myself, Read the sublinear text.

Little wonder I irked the porter. At least—thanks to quantum information, my mistake, and facial expressions’ contagiousness—she smiled.



With thanks to Nilanjana Datta and Felix Leditzky for explanations and references; to Nilanjana, Felix, and Cambridge’s Centre for Mathematical Sciences for their hospitality; and to porters everywhere for providing directions.

BICEP2 and soccer

I’m a Caltech physics graduate student who has been working on BICEP2/Keck Array since 2009. BICEP2 reported the first detection of B-mode polarization on degree angular scales, which John Preskill lists as one of his 10 biggest thrills. In my first post here on Quantum Frontiers, I will allegorically describe the current state of affairs of cosmic microwave background (CMB) cosmology. In a future post, I may share with you some of the insider history of how we arrived at this result and how it has felt to be a graduate student through it all.

BICEP2 is an experimental victory. The interpretation of the result is a work in progress. Emphasizing this distinction, I’ll present a soccer analogy in the spirit of the times. It’s as if there are goals on the board at halftime in a soccer game where neither team is expected to score any goals whatsoever. Although there’s no guarantee, the most likely interpretation of having goals on the board at halftime is that one of the two teams, namely inflationary gravitational waves, will win the game.

FIFA represents particle physics. It has been an international powerhouse for about a century. Fans around the globe are tuned into the World Cup. The discovery of the Higgs boson was the champion last time. Who will win this year?

Major League Soccer (MLS), on the other hand, represents CMB cosmology. It is a young league, only around since the 1990s. Its roots go back to the 1960s via the North American Soccer League, best remembered for the New York Cosmos, (or perhaps their New Jersey neighbors) who won an amazing championship in 1978. If you’re not from North America, you probably don’t pay much attention to MLS. You’ve heard of the LA Galaxy thanks to European superstar “David Planckham,” but you couldn’t name any other team. You may even be annoyed that they call it “soccer” instead of “football.” MLS is divided into Western and Eastern Conferences just as CMB cosmologists are concerned with large and small angular scales. Our story concerns an exhibition game between two Western Conference teams. The San Jose Earthquakes represent the ground-shaking possibility of inflationary gravitational waves. The LA Galaxy represent astronomical foregrounds. (Pick your favorite teams and adjust the analogy to taste.)

Let’s pretend that every time the Earthquakes and the Galaxy have ever played against each other over the years, the result has always been 0-0. Not just a draw. Scoreless. The matches become so boring year after year that they become a comedic punchline. Both sides’ defenses are too strong. To bring the fans back to the stands, the two teams agree to a publicity stunt. They’ll play a game at the South Pole! Crazy, right? The event is sponsored by BICEP, a brand of energy drink.*

Bookmakers take bets on the final score. Since neither team has ever scored against the other, the rules are simplified. You don’t have to bet on who will win or by how many goals. You only have to bet on the total score (detection significance in “sigma”). The odds for zero total score are high, so it’s the safe choice. Payoffs increase a little bit if you’re willing to bet against odds on a positive score, maybe one or two goals. You’ll win a small fortune if you correctly bet that three goals (“evidence”) are on the board by the end. A game ending with five goals or above (“discovery”) earns you a jackpot. Dizzle Mapo**, owner of the BICEP brand and an Earthquakes fan, decides to make it more interesting by putting a sizable chunk of her own money down on the long shot bet that at least five goals will be scored by the end. She doesn’t expect to get her money back. But why not go for it? She has the potential to win the largest sum in the history of sports gambling.

They play the game. It’s a slow one with lots of stoppage time. When the game is over, the final score is still a disappointing nil. Oh well, at least we all had a laugh watching the players stuff hand warmers in their shinguards.

One year later, Dizzle organizes for the two teams to return to South Pole in the BICEP2 friendly. She doesn’t want another stalemate, so as organizer decides to modify the net. Since she’s an Earthquakes fan, she widens only the Galaxy’s net. (The noise-equivalent temperature or NET is a measure of a CMB telescope’s sensitivity. BICEP2 looked only at the 150 GHz band in a field where the CMB was predicted to be brighter than the foregrounds.)

Dizzle discloses the widening of the net to the bookmakers. They will allow her to repeat her wager on the condition that they modify the scoreboard to display only the total score and not the individual team scores. She agrees. If there are any goals on the board, she’ll be pretty sure that they are goals for the Earthquakes. She won’t need to keep close track of which team scores which goals. After all, the Galaxy are the ones with the handicap. Few other bets come in. Most of the world is distracted by the World Cup. Besides, the common wisdom is that the game will end with zero goals, same as always. OK, maybe it’ll end with one or two goals. A week from now hardly anyone will remember the score anyway. Big whoop.

The BICEP2 players themselves are more excited about the game than the fans are. They’re playing to win. They kick in some goals. By minute twenty, the total score climbs to 5.

Wow! (It’s a discovery!) Dizzle screams so loudly that people can hear her through the thin walls of her luxury box. Word spreads across social media that something exciting is happening at some obscure soccer game at South Pole although it’s unclear what. Most of the mainstream media weren’t following it too closely until the rumors. Even the sports journalists were focused on the FIFA World Cup instead. It’s about ten minutes before halftime, and they’re all catching up. By the time they make any sense of the situation, that giant 5 is still on display.

In the next few minutes of playtime, events external to the game start to get weirder. First, an earthquake strikes the city of LA. For real. Second, reporters prepare the news item with a misleading headline, “Earthquakes score big win in BICEP2 soccer match at South Pole.” A more descriptive headline could have read, “Earthquakes likely, Galaxy possibly, scored big gambling win for Dizzle Mapo in BICEP2 soccer match at South Pole.” When asked for comment, Dizzle says, “I just won the biggest sports bet ever! Go Earthquakes!” What she means, of course, is, “I just won a bet that this game would have more than 5 goals scored in total. I won that bet, and my favorite team is likely winning by a strong margin. I’ll keep cheering for them through the second half. I may be able to figure out the exact score for each team if I ask what other spectators around the stadium saw. Next year, I’ll widen both nets and display both teams’ scores.” What the interviewers think she means, however, is, “I just won a bet that the Earthquakes would win big time. They did.” Journalists want to be accurate, but the story is unfamiliar and complicated. They are racing against the clock to break the story.

Soccer fans around the world pause a moment from the World Cup to read the piece. “Earthquakes did well in that BICEP2 game? Oh cool.” Even people who aren’t sports fans at all see the headline. “A soccer match at South Pole? Sounds fascinating!” Only people who read the entire news article learn about the wider net and the simplified scoreboard, and only the dedicated fans actively watching the game know that it’s still ongoing.

A TV camera is set up to broadcast the remainder of the game live. With one minute left in the first half, the referee blows the whistle. A player for the Galaxy is down. It’s unclear from the replay whether it was a foul or a flop. In any case the Galaxy are awarded a penalty kick. The shot goes in.

Now it’s halftime. In an impromptu ceremony, the bookmaker P. R. Letters presents Dizzle with an oversized check. Asked what she plans to do next, she exclaims, “I’m going to watch Spice World!”*** Expert sports commentators at the scene give an accurate halftime report. Five goals were scored, the majority of which were likely scored by the Earthquakes. At least one goal was scored by the Galaxy. Meanwhile, in the rest of the media, a new headline appears, even more misleading than the last one, “What the Dizzle? BICEP stock price drops as Earthquakes proven not to have shut out Galaxy.”

A few hooligans jeer from the sidelines that Dizzle was irresponsible for speaking to media before halftime, nay, before consulting everyone in the stadium for a detailed reconstruction of every play from start to finish. Ignore them. It’s a soccer game at the freakin’ South Pole. It’s the biggest win in sports gambling history. It’s news.  The public deserves to hear it. The confused media wouldn’t even be here in time for the jumbo check and halftime report if it weren’t for all the advance buzz. Is it so wrong that they take a breather from FIFA to learn about MSL and stick around for part two?

I can’t predict what will happen in the second half. Based on the balance of information about the unusual rules and the total score, the Earthquakes are likely in the lead and favored to win. Conceivably, the Galaxy can make a comeback. In fact – again conceivably – the Galaxy could already be in the lead. Maybe they trained much harder than anyone expected to offset their disadvantageously wide net. No matter the outcome, both teams will be good sports about it. Fans on both sides will demand a rematch. Dizzle has announced her plans to host BICEP3 because South Pole soccer is simply fun. There are many other brands of energy drink hoping to sponsor their own exhibition matches. It’s a competitive industry. You can also follow the Eastern Conference, where there’s an entirely different game being played. I’d pay to watch a game in outer space.

** “Dizzle Mapo” refers to the Dark Sector Laboratory (DSL), which has housed the BICEP series of telescopes, and the Martin A. Pomerantz Observatory (MAPO), which currently houses Keck Array.
*** The five Keck Array receivers are named after the Spice Girls.

“Feveral kinds of hairy mouldy fpots”

The book had a sheepskin cover, and mold was growing on the sheepskin. Robert Hooke, a pioneering microbiologist, slid the cover under one of the world’s first microscopes. Mold, he discovered, consists of “nothing elfe but feveral kinds of fmall and varioufly figur’d Mufhroms.” He described the Mufhroms in his treatise Micrographia, a 1665 copy of which I found in “Beautiful Science.” An exhibition at San Marino’s Huntington Library, “Beautiful Science” showcases the physics of rainbows, the stars that enthralled Galileo, and the world visible through microscopes.

Hooke image copy

Beautiful science of yesterday: An illustration, from Hooke’s Micrographia, of the mold.

“[T]hrough a good Microfcope,” Hooke wrote, the sheepskin’s spots appeared “to be a very pretty fhap’d Vegetative body.”

How like a scientist, to think mold pretty. How like quantum noise, I thought, Hooke’s mold sounds.

Quantum noise hampers systems that transmit and detect light. To phone a friend or send an email—“Happy birthday, Sarah!” or “Quantum Frontiers has released an article”—we encode our message in light. The light traverses a fiber, buried in the ground, then hits a detector. The detector channels the light’s energy into a current, a stream of electrons that flows down a wire. The variations in the current’s strength is translated into Sarah’s birthday wish.

If noise doesn’t corrupt the signal. From encoding “Happy birthday,” the light and electrons might come to encode “Hsappi birthdeay.” Quantum noise arises because light consists of packets of energy, called “photons.” The sender can’t control how many photons hit the detector.

To send the letter H, we send about 108 photons.* Imagine sending fifty H’s. When we send the first, our signal might contain 108- 153 photons; when we send the second, 108 + 2,083; when we send the third, 108 – 6; and so on. Receiving different numbers of photons, the detector generates different amounts of current. Different amounts of current can translate into different symbols. From H, our message can morph into G.

This spring, I studied quantum noise under the guidance of IQIM faculty member Kerry Vahala. I learned to model quantum noise, to quantify it, when to worry about it, and when not. From quantum noise, we branched into Johnson noise (caused by interactions between the wire and its hot environment); amplified-spontaneous-emission, or ASE, noise (caused by photons belched by ions in the fiber); beat noise (ASE noise breeds with the light we sent, spawning new noise); and excess noise (the “miscellaneous” folder in the filing cabinet of noise types).

Vahala image copy

Beautiful science of today: A microreso-nator—a tiny pendulum-like device— studied by the Vahala group.

Noise, I learned, has structure. It exhibits patterns. It has personalities. I relished studying those patterns as I relish sending birthday greetings while battling noise. Noise types, I see as a string of pearls unearthed in a junkyard. I see them as “pretty fhap[es]” in Hooke’s treatise. I see them—to pay a greater compliment—as “hairy mouldy fpots.”


*Optical-communications ballpark estimates:

  • Optical power: 1 mW = 10-3 J/s
  • Photon frequency: 200 THz = 2 × 1014 Hz
  • Photon energy: h𝜈 = (6.626 × 10-34 J . s)(2 × 1014 Hz) = 10-19 J
  • Bit rate: 1 GB = 109 bits/s
  • Number of bits per H: 10
  • Number of photons per H: (1 photon / 10-19 J) (10-3 J/s)(1 s / 109 bits)(10 bits / 1 H) = 108


An excerpt from this post was published today on Verso, the blog of the Huntington Library, Art Collection, and Botanical Gardens.

With thanks to Bassam Helou, Dan Lewis, Matt Stevens, and Kerry Vahala for feedback. With thanks to the Huntington Library (including Catherine Wehrey) and the Vahala group for the Micrographia image and the microresonator image, respectively.