Mingling stat mech with quantum info in Maryland

I felt like a yoyo.

I was standing in a hallway at the University of Maryland. On one side stood quantum-information theorists. On the other side stood statistical-mechanics scientists.* The groups eyed each other, like Jets and Sharks in West Side Story, except without fighting or dancing.

This March, the groups were generous enough to host me for a visit. I parked first at QuICS, the Joint Center for Quantum Information and Computer Science. Established in October 2014, QuICS had moved into renovated offices the previous month. QuICSland boasts bright colors, sprawling armchairs, and the scent of novelty. So recently had QuICS arrived that the restroom had not acquired toilet paper (as I learned later than I’d have preferred).

Interaction space

Photo credit: QuICS

From QuICS, I yoyo-ed to the chemistry building, where Chris Jarzynski’s group studies fluctuation relations. Fluctuation relations, introduced elsewhere on this blog, describe out-of-equilibrium systems. A system is out of equilibrium if large-scale properties of it change. Many systems operate out of equilibrium—boiling soup, combustion engines, hurricanes, and living creatures, for instance. Physicists want to describe nonequilibrium processes but have trouble: Living creatures are complicated. Hence the buzz about fluctuation relations.

My first Friday in Maryland, I presented a seminar about quantum voting for QuICS. The next Tuesday, I was to present about one-shot information theory for stat-mech enthusiasts. Each week, the stat-mech crowd invites its speaker to lunch. Chris Jarzynski recommended I invite QuICS. Hence the Jets-and-Sharks tableau.

“Have you interacted before?” I asked the hallway.

“No,” said a voice. QuICS hadn’t existed till last fall, and some QuICSers hadn’t had offices till the previous month.**


“We’re QuICS,” volunteered Stephen Jordan, a quantum-computation theorist, “the Joint Center for Quantum Information and Computer Science.”

So began the mingling. It continued at lunch, which we shared at three circular tables we’d dragged into a chain. The mingling continued during the seminar, as QuICSers sat with chemists, materials scientists, and control theorists. The mingling continued the next day, when QuICSer Alexey Gorshkov joined my discussion with the Jarzynski group. Back and forth we yoyo-ed, between buildings and topics.

“Mingled,” said Yigit Subasi. Yigit, a postdoc of Chris’s, specialized in quantum physics as a PhD student. I’d asked how he thinks about quantum fluctuation relations. Since Chris and colleagues ignited fluctuation-relation research, theorems have proliferated like vines in a jungle. Everyone and his aunty seems to have invented a fluctuation theorem. I canvassed Marylanders for bushwhacking tips.

Imagine, said Yigit, a system whose state you know. Imagine a gas, whose temperature you’ve measured, at equilibrium in a box. Or imagine a trapped ion. Begin with a state about which you have information.

Imagine performing work on the system “violently.” Compress the gas quickly, so the particles roil. Shine light on the ion. The system will leave equilibrium. “The information,” said Yigit, “gets mingled.”

Imagine halting the compression. Imagine switching off the light. Combine your information about the initial state with assumptions and physical laws.*** Manipulate equations in the right way, and the information might “unmingle.” You might capture properties of the violence in a fluctuation relation.

2 photos - cut

With Zhiyue Lu and Andrew Maven Smith of Chris Jarzynski’s group (left) and with QuICSers (right)

I’m grateful to have exchanged information in Maryland, to have yoyo-ed between groups. We have work to perform together. I have transformations to undergo.**** Let the unmingling begin.

With gratitude to Alexey Gorshkov and QuICS, and to Chris Jarzynski and the University of Maryland Department of Chemistry, for their hospitality, conversation, and camaraderie.

*Statistical mechanics is the study of systems that contain vast numbers of particles, like the air we breathe and white dwarf stars. I harp on about statistical mechanics often.

**Before QuICS’s birth, a future QuICSer had collaborated with a postdoc of Chris’s on combining quantum information with fluctuation relations.

***Yes, physical laws are assumptions. But they’re glorified assumptions.

****Hopefully nonviolent transformations.

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.

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

Democrat plus Republican over the square-root of two

I wish I could superpose votes on Election Day.

However much I agree with Candidate A about social issues, I dislike his running mate. I lean toward Candidate B’s economic plans and C’s science-funding record, but nobody’s foreign policy impresses me. Must I settle on one candidate? May I not vote


Now you can—at least in theory. Caltech postdoc Ning Bao and I concocted quantum elections in which voters can superpose, entangle, and create probabilistic mixtures of votes.

Previous quantum-voting work has focused on privacy and cryptography. Ning and I channeled quantum game theory. Quantum game theorists ask what happens if players in classical games, such as the Prisoner’s Dilemma, could superpose strategies and share entanglement. Quantization can change the landscape of possible outcomes.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma, for example, concerns two thugs whom the police have arrested and have isolated in separate cells. Each prisoner must decide whether to rat out the other. How much time each serves depends on who, if anyone, confesses. Since neither prisoner knows the other’s decision, each should rat to minimize his or her jail time. But both would serve less time if neither confessed. The prisoners can escape this dilemma using quantum resources.

Introducing superpositions and entanglement into games helps us understand the power of quantum mechanics. Elections involve gameplay; pundits have been feeding off Hilary Clinton’s for months. So superpositions and entanglement merit introduction into elections.

How can you model elections with quantum systems? Though multiple options exist, Ning and I followed two principles: (1) A general quantum process—a preparation procedure, an evolution, and a measurement—should model a quantum election. (2) Quantum elections should remain as true as possible to classical.

Given our quantum voting system, one can violate a quantum analogue of Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem. Arrow’s Theorem, developed by the Nobel-winning economist Kenneth Arrow during the mid-20th century, is a no-go theorem about elections: If a constitution has three innocuous-seeming properties, it’s a dictatorship. Ning and I translated the theorem as faithfully as we knew how into our quantum voting scheme. The result, dubbed the Quantum Arrow Conjecture, rang false.

Superposing (and probabilistically mixing) votes entices me for a reason that science does: I feel ignorant. I read articles and interview political junkies about national defense; but I miss out on evidence and subtleties. I read quantum-physics books and work through papers; but I miss out on known mathematical tools and physical interpretations. Not to mention tools and interpretations that humans haven’t discovered.

Science involves identifying (and diminishing) what humanity doesn’t know. Science frees me to acknowledge my ignorance. I can’t throw all my weight behind Candidate A’s defense policy because I haven’t weighed all the arguments about defense, because I don’t know all the arguments. Believing that I do would violate my job description. How could I not vote for elections that accommodate superpositions?

Though Ning and I identified applications of superpositions and entanglement, more quantum strategies might await discovery. Monogamy of entanglement, discussed elsewhere on this blog, might limit the influence voters exert on each other. Also, we quantized ordinal voting systems (in which each voter ranks candidates, as in “A above C above B”). The quantization of cardinal voting (in which each voter grades the candidates, as in “5 points to A, 3 points to C, 2 points to B”) or another voting scheme might yield more insights.

If you have such insights, drop us a line. Ideally before the presidential smack-down of 2016.

Bell’s inequality 50 years later

This is a jubilee year.* In November 1964, John Bell submitted a paper to the obscure (and now defunct) journal Physics. That paper, entitled “On the Einstein Podolsky Rosen Paradox,” changed how we think about quantum physics.

The paper was about quantum entanglement, the characteristic correlations among parts of a quantum system that are profoundly different than correlations in classical systems. Quantum entanglement had first been explicitly discussed in a 1935 paper by Einstein, Podolsky, and Rosen (hence Bell’s title). Later that same year, the essence of entanglement was nicely and succinctly captured by Schrödinger, who said, “the best possible knowledge of a whole does not necessarily include the best possible knowledge of its parts.” Schrödinger meant that even if we have the most complete knowledge Nature will allow about the state of a highly entangled quantum system, we are still powerless to predict what we’ll see if we look at a small part of the full system. Classical systems aren’t like that — if we know everything about the whole system then we know everything about all the parts as well. I think Schrödinger’s statement is still the best way to explain quantum entanglement in a single vigorous sentence.

To Einstein, quantum entanglement was unsettling, indicating that something is missing from our understanding of the quantum world. Bell proposed thinking about quantum entanglement in a different way, not just as something weird and counter-intuitive, but as a resource that might be employed to perform useful tasks. Bell described a game that can be played by two parties, Alice and Bob. It is a cooperative game, meaning that Alice and Bob are both on the same side, trying to help one another win. In the game, Alice and Bob receive inputs from a referee, and they send outputs to the referee, winning if their outputs are correlated in a particular way which depends on the inputs they receive.

But under the rules of the game, Alice and Bob are not allowed to communicate with one another between when they receive their inputs and when they send their outputs, though they are allowed to use correlated classical bits which might have been distributed to them before the game began. For a particular version of Bell’s game, if Alice and Bob play their best possible strategy then they can win the game with a probability of success no higher than 75%, averaged uniformly over the inputs they could receive. This upper bound on the success probability is Bell’s famous inequality.**

Classical and quantum versions of Bell's game. If Alice and Bob share entangled qubits rather than classical bits, then they can win the game with a higher success probability.

Classical and quantum versions of Bell’s game. If Alice and Bob share entangled qubits rather than classical bits, then they can win the game with a higher success probability.

There is also a quantum version of the game, in which the rules are the same except that Alice and Bob are now permitted to use entangled quantum bits (“qubits”)  which were distributed before the game began. By exploiting their shared entanglement, they can play a better quantum strategy and win the game with a higher success probability, better than 85%. Thus quantum entanglement is a useful resource, enabling Alice and Bob to play the game better than if they shared only classical correlations instead of quantum correlations.

And experimental physicists have been playing the game for decades, winning with a success probability that violates Bell’s inequality. The experiments indicate that quantum correlations really are fundamentally different than, and stronger than, classical correlations.

Why is that such a big deal? Bell showed that a quantum system is more than just a probabilistic classical system, which eventually led to the realization (now widely believed though still not rigorously proven) that accurately predicting the behavior of highly entangled quantum systems is beyond the capacity of ordinary digital computers. Therefore physicists are now striving to scale up the weirdness of the microscopic world to larger and larger scales, eagerly seeking new phenomena and unprecedented technological capabilities.

1964 was a good year. Higgs and others described the Higgs mechanism, Gell-Mann and Zweig proposed the quark model, Penzias and Wilson discovered the cosmic microwave background, and I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show. Those developments continue to reverberate 50 years later. We’re still looking for evidence of new particle physics beyond the standard model, we’re still trying to unravel the large scale structure of the universe, and I still like listening to the Beatles.

Bell’s legacy is that quantum entanglement is becoming an increasingly pervasive theme of contemporary physics, important not just as the source of a quantum computer’s awesome power, but also as a crucial feature of exotic quantum phases of matter, and even as a vital element of the quantum structure of spacetime itself. 21st century physics will advance not only by probing the short-distance frontier of particle physics and the long-distance frontier of cosmology, but also by exploring the entanglement frontier, by elucidating and exploiting the properties of increasingly complex quantum states.

frontiersSometimes I wonder how the history of physics might have been different if there had been no John Bell. Without Higgs, Brout and Englert and others would have elucidated the spontaneous breakdown of gauge symmetry in 1964. Without Gell-Mann, Zweig could have formulated the quark model. Without Penzias and Wilson, Dicke and collaborators would have discovered the primordial black-body radiation at around the same time.

But it’s not obvious which contemporary of Bell, if any, would have discovered his inequality in Bell’s absence. Not so many good physicists were thinking about quantum entanglement and hidden variables at the time (though David Bohm may have been one notable exception, and his work deeply influenced Bell.) Without Bell, the broader significance of quantum entanglement would have unfolded quite differently and perhaps not until much later. We really owe Bell a great debt.

*I’m stealing the title and opening sentence of this post from Sidney Coleman’s great 1981 lectures on “The magnetic monopole 50 years later.” (I’ve waited a long time for the right opportunity.)

**I’m abusing history somewhat. Bell did not use the language of games, and this particular version of the inequality, which has since been extensively tested in experiments, was derived by Clauser, Horne, Shimony, and Holt in 1969.

I spy with my little eye…something algebraic.

Look at this picture.

Peter 1

Does any part of it surprise you? Look more closely.

Peter 2

Now? Try crossing your eyes.

Peter 3

Do you see a boy’s name?

I spell “Peter” with two e’s, but “Piotr” and “Pyotr” appear as authors’ names in papers’ headers. Finding “Petr” in a paper shouldn’t have startled me. But how often does “Gretchen” or “Amadeus” materialize in an equation?

When I was little, my reading list included Eye Spy, Where’s Waldo?, and Puzzle Castle. The books teach children to pay attention, notice details, and evaluate ambiguities.

That’s what physicists do. The first time I saw the picture above, I saw a variation on “Peter.” I was reading (when do I not?) about the intersection of quantum information and thermodynamics. The authors were discussing heat and algebra, not saints or boys who picked pecks of pickled peppers. So I looked more closely.

Each letter resolved into part of a story about a physical system. The P represents a projector. A projector is a mathematical object that narrows one’s focus to a particular space, as blinders on a horse do. The E tells us which space to focus on: a space associated with an amount E of energy, like a country associated with a GDP of $500 billion.

Some of the energy E belongs to a heat reservoir. We know so because “reservoir” begins with r, and R appears in the picture. A heat reservoir is a system, like a colossal bathtub, whose temperature remains constant. The Greek letter \tau, pronounced “tau,” represents the reservoir’s state. The reservoir occupies an equilibrium state: The bath’s large-scale properties—its average energy, volume, etc.—remain constant. Never mind about jacuzzis.

Piecing together the letters, we interpret the picture as follows: Imagine a vast, constant-temperature bathtub (R). Suppose we shut the tap long enough ago that the water in the tub has calmed (\tau). Suppose the tub neighbors a smaller system—say, a glass of Perrier.* Imagine measuring how much energy the bath-and-Perrier composite contains (P). Our measurement device reports the number E.

Quite a story to pack into five letters. Didn’t Peter deserve a second glance?

The equation’s right-hand side forms another story. I haven’t seen Peters on that side, nor Poseidons nor Gallahads. But look closely, and you will find a story.


The images above appear in “Fundamental limitations for quantum and nanoscale thermodynamics,” published by Michał Horodecki and Jonathan Oppenheim in Nature Communications in 2013.


*Experts: The ρS that appears in the first two images represents the smaller system. The tensor product represents the reservoir-and-smaller-system composite.