If I could do science like Spider-Man

A few Saturdays ago, I traveled home from a summer school at which I’d been lecturing in Sweden. Around 8:30 AM, before the taxi arrived, I settled into an armchair in my hotel room and refereed a manuscript from a colleague. After reaching the airport, I read an experimental proposal for measuring a quantity that colleagues and I had defined. I drafted an article for New Scientist on my trans-Atlantic flight, composed several emails, and provided feedback about a student’s results (we’d need more data). Around 8 PM Swedish time, I felt satisfyingly exhausted—and about ten hours of travel remained. So I switched on Finnair’s entertainment system and navigated to Spider-Man: No Way Home.

I found much to delight. Actor Alfred Molina plays the supervillain Doc Ock with charisma and verve that I hadn’t expected from a tentacled murderer. Playing on our heartstrings, Willem Dafoe imbues the supervillain Norman Osborn with frailty and humanity. Three characters (I won’t say which, for the spoiler-sensitive) exhibit a playful chemistry. To the writers who thought to bring the trio together, I tip my hat. I tip my hat also to the special-effects coders who sweated over reconciling Spider-Man’s swoops and leaps with the laws of mechanics.

I’m not a physicist to pick bones with films for breaking physical laws. You want to imagine a Mirror Dimension controlled by a flying erstwhile surgeon? Go for it. Falling into a vat of electrical eels endows you with the power to control electricity? Why not. Films like Spider-Man’s aren’t intended to portray physical laws accurately; they’re intended to portray people and relationships meaningfully. So I raised nary an eyebrow at characters’ zipping between universes (although I had trouble buying teenage New Yorkers who called adults “sir” and “ma’am”).

Anyway, no hard feelings about the portrayal of scientific laws. The portrayal of the scientific process, though, entertained me even more than Dr. Strange’s trademark facetiousness. In one scene, twelfth grader Peter Parker (Spider-Man’s alter-ego) commandeers a high-school lab with two buddies. In a fraction of a night, the trio concocts cures for four supervillains whose evil stems from physical, chemical, and biological accidents (e.g., falling into the aforementioned vat of electric eels).1 And they succeed. In a few hours. Without test subjects or even, as far as we could see, samples of their would-be test subjects. Without undergoing several thousand iterations of trying out their cures, failing, and tweaking their formulae—or even undergoing one iteration.

I once collaborated with an experimentalist renowned for his facility with superconducting qubits. He’d worked with a panjandrum of physics years before—a panjandrum who later reminisced to me, “A theorist would propose an experiment, [this experimentalist would tackle the proposal,] and boom—the proposal would work.” Yet even this experimentalist’s team invested a year in an experiment that he’d predicted would take a month.

Worse, the observatory LIGO detected gravitational waves in 2016 after starting to take data in 2002…after beginning its life during the 1960s.2 

Recalling the toil I’d undertaken all day—and only as a theorist, not even as an experimentalist charged with taking data through the night—I thought, I want to be like Spider-Man. Specifically, I want to do science like Spider-Man. Never mind shooting webs out of my wrists or swooping through the air. Never mind buddies in the Avengers, a Greek-statue physique, or high-tech Spandex. I want to try out a radical new idea and have it work. On the first try. Four times in a row on the same day. 

Daydreaming in the next airport (and awake past my bedtime), I imagined what a theorist could accomplish with Spider-Man’s scientific superpowers. I could calculate any integral…write code free of bugs on the first try3…prove general theorems in a single appendix!

Too few hours later, I woke up at home, jet-lagged but free of bites from radioactive calculators. I got up, breakfasted, showered, and settled down to work. Because that’s what scientists do—work. Long and hard, including when those around us are dozing or bartering frequent-flyer miles, such that the satisfaction of discoveries is well-earned. I have to go edit a paper now, but, if you have the time, I recommend watching the latest Spider-Man movie. It’s a feast of fantasy.

1And from psychological disorders, but the therapy needed to cure those would doom any blockbuster.

2You might complain that comparing Peter Parker’s labwork with LIGO’s is unfair. LIGO required the construction of large, high-tech facilities; Parker had only to cure a lizard-man of his reptilian traits and so on. But Tony Stark built a particle accelerator in his basement within a few hours, in Iron Man; and superheroes are all of a piece, as far as their scientific exploits are concerned.

3Except for spiders?

Quantum connections

We were seated in the open-air back of a boat, motoring around the Stockholm archipelago. The Swedish colors fluttered above our heads; the occasional speedboat zipped past, rocking us in its wake; and wildflowers dotted the bank on either side. Suddenly, a wood-trimmed boat glided by, and the captain waved from his perch.

The gesture surprised me. If I were in a vehicle of the sort most familiar to me—a car—I wouldn’t wave to other drivers. In a tram, I wouldn’t wave to passengers on a parallel track. Granted, trams and cars are closed, whereas boats can be open-air. But even as a pedestrian in a downtown crossing, I wouldn’t wave to everyone I passed. Yet, as boat after boat pulled alongside us, we received salutation after salutation.

The outing marked the midpoint of the Quantum Connections summer school. Physicists Frank Wilczek, Antti Niemi, and colleagues coordinate the school, which draws students and lecturers from across the globe. Although sponsored by Stockholm University, the school takes place at a century-old villa whose name I wish I could pronounce: Högberga Gård. The villa nestles atop a cliff on an island in the archipelago. We ventured off the island after a week of lectures.

Charlie Marcus lectured about materials formed from superconductors and semiconductors; John Martinis, about superconducting qubits; Jianwei Pan, about quantum advantages; and others, about symmetries, particle statistics, and more. Feeling like an ant among giants, I lectured about quantum thermodynamics. Two other lectures linked quantum physics with gravity—and in a way you might not expect. I appreciated the opportunity to reconnect with the lecturer: Igor Pikovski.

Cruising around Stockholm

Igor doesn’t know it, but he’s one of the reasons why I joined the Harvard-Smithsonian Institute for Theoretical Atomic, Molecular, and Optical Physics (ITAMP) as an ITAMP Postdoctoral Fellow in 2018. He’d held the fellowship beginning a few years before, and he’d earned a reputation for kindness and consideration. Also, his research struck me as some of the most fulfilling that one could undertake.

If you’ve heard about the intersection of quantum physics and gravity, you’ve probably heard of approaches other than Igor’s. For instance, physicists are trying to construct a theory of quantum gravity, which would describe black holes and the universe’s origin. Such a “theory of everything” would reduce to Einstein’s general theory of relativity when applied to planets and would reduce to quantum theory when applied to atoms. In another example, physicists leverage quantum technologies to observe properties of gravity. Such technologies enabled the observatory LIGO to register gravitational waves—ripples in space-time. 

Igor and his colleagues pursue a different goal: to observe phenomena whose explanations depend on quantum theory and on gravity.

In his lectures, Igor illustrated with an experiment first performed in 1975. The experiment relies on what happens if you jump: You gain energy associated with resisting the Earth’s gravitational pull—gravitational potential energy. A quantum object’s energy determines how the object’s quantum state changes in time. The experimentalists applied this fact to a beam of neutrons. 

They put the beam in a superposition of two locations: closer to the Earth’s surface and farther away. The closer component changed in time in one way, and the farther component changed another way. After a while, the scientists recombined the components. The two interfered with each other similarly to the waves created by two raindrops falling near each other on a puddle. The interference evidenced gravity’s effect on the neutrons’ quantum state.

Summer-school venue. I’d easily say it’s gorgeous but not easily pronounce its name.

The experimentalists approximated gravity as dominated by the Earth alone. But other masses can influence the gravitational field noticeably. What if you put a mass in a superposition of different locations? What would happen to space-time?

Or imagine two quantum particles too far apart to interact with each other significantly. Could a gravitational field entangle the particles by carrying quantum correlations from one to the other?

Physicists including Igor ponder these questions…and then ponder how experimentalists could test their predictions. The more an object influences gravity, the more massive the object tends to be, and the more easily the object tends to decohere—to spill the quantum information that it holds into its surroundings.

The “gravity-quantum interface,” as Igor entitled his lectures, epitomizes what I hoped to study in college, as a high-school student entranced by physics, math, and philosophy. What’s more curious and puzzling than superpositions, entanglement, and space-time? What’s more fundamental than quantum theory and gravity? Little wonder that connecting them inspires wonder.

But we humans are suckers for connections. I appreciated the opportunity to reconnect with a colleague during the summer school. Boaters on the Stockholm archipelago waved to our cohort as they passed. And who knows—gravitational influences may even have rippled between the boats, entangling us a little.

Requisite physicist-visiting-Stockholm photo

With thanks to the summer-school organizers, including Pouya Peighami and Elizabeth Yang, for their invitation and hospitality.

Distilling Quantum Particles

This is a story about distillation—a process that has kept my family busy for generations.

My great, great, great, great grandfather was known as Brännvinskungen, loosely translated as the Vodka King. This “royal” ancestor of mine lived in the deepest forests of Småland, Sweden; the forests that during his time would populate the US state of Minnesota with emigrants fleeing the harshest lands of Europe. The demand for alcoholic beverages among their inhabitants was great. And the Vodka King had refined both his recipe and the technology to meet the demand. He didn’t claim to compete with big Stockholm-based companies in terms of quality or ambition. Nevertheless, his ability to, using simple means and low cost, turn water into (fortified) wine earned him his majestic title.

I’m not about to launch the concept of quantum vodka. Instead, I’m about to tell you about my and my stellar colleagues’ results on the distillation of quantum particles. In the spirit of the Vodka King, I don’t intend to compete with the big players of quantum computing. Instead, I will describe how a simple and low-cost method can distil information in quantum particles and improve technologies for measurements of physical things. Before I tell you about how quantum distillation can improve measurements, I need to explain why anyone would use quantum physics to do measurements in the first place, something known as quantum metrology.

According to Wikipedia, “metrology is the scientific study of measurement”. And just about any physical experiment or technology relies on measurements. Quantum metrology is the field of using quantum phenomena, such as entanglement, to improve measurements [1]. The ability to quantum-boost technologies for measurements has fostered a huge interest in quantum metrology. My hope is that speedometers, voltmeters, GPS devices and clocks will be improved by quantum metrology in the near future. 

There are some problems to overcome before quantum metrology will make it to the mainstream. Just like our eyes on a bright day, quantum-measurement devices saturate (are blinded) if they are subjected to overly intense beams of quantum particles. Very often the particle detectors are the limiting factor in quantum metrology: one can prepare incredibly strong beams of quantum particles, but one cannot detect and access all the information they contain. To remedy this, one could use lower-intensity beams, or insert filters just before the detectors. But ideally, one would distil the information from a large number of particles into a few, going from high to low intensity without losing any information. 

Figure 1: Rough workings of non-polarising sunglasses (left), polarising sunglasses (middle) and the new quantum filter (right). Light-particles are represented by bottles, and information by the bottles’ content.

Collaborators and I have developed a quantum filter that solves this precise problem [2, 3]. (See this blog post for more details on our work.) Our filter provides sunglasses for quantum-metrology technologies. However, unlike normal sunglasses, our quantum filters increase the information content of the individual particles that pass through them. Figure 1 compares sunglasses (polarising and non-polarising) with our quantum filter; miniature bottles represent light-particles, and their content represents information.

  • The left-most boxes show the effect of non-polarising sunglasses, which can be used when there is a strong beam of different types of light particles that carry different amounts of information. The sunglasses block a fraction of the light particles. This reduces glare and avoids eyes’ being blinded. However, information is lost with the blocked light particles. 
  • When driving a car, you see light particles from the surroundings, which vibrate both horizontally and vertically. The annoying glare from the road, however, is made of light particles which vibrate predominantly horizontally. In this scenario, vertical light carries more information than horizontal light. Polarising sunglasses (middle boxes) can help. Irritating horizontal light particles are blocked, but informative vertical ones aren’t. On the level of the individual particles, however, no distillation takes place; the information in a vertical light particle is the same before and after the filter.
  • The right-most boxes show the workings of our quantum filter. In quantum metrology, often all particles are the same, and all carry a small amount of information. Our filter blocks some particles, but compresses their information into the particles that survive the filter. The number of particles is reduced, but the information isn’t.

Our filter is not only different to sunglasses, but also to standard distillation processes. Distillation of alcohol has a limit: 100%. Given 10 litres of 10% wine, one could get at most 1 litre of 100% alcohol, not ½ litres of 200% alcohol. Our quantum filters are different. There is no cap on how much information can be distilled into a few particles; the information of a million particles can all be compressed into a single quantum particle. This exotic feature relies on negativity [4]. Quantum things cannot generally be described by probabilities between 0% and 100%, sometimes they require the exotic occurrence of negative probabilities. Experiments whose explanations require negative probabilities are said to possess negativity. 

Figure 2: Quantum metrology with laser-light particles. (a) Without quantum filter. (b) With quantum filter.

In a recent theory-experiment collaboration, spearheaded by Aephraim Steinberg’s quantum-optics group, our multi-institutional team designed a measurement device that can harness negativity [5]. Figure 2 shows an artistic model of our technology. We used single light particles to measure the optical rotation induced by a piece of crystal. Light particles were created by a laser, and then sent through the crystal. The light particles were rotated by the crystal: information about the degree of rotation was encoded in the particles. By measuring these particles, we could access this information and learn what the rotation was. In Figure 2(a) the beam of particles is too strong, and the detectors do not work properly. Thus, we insert our quantum filter [Figure 2(b)]. Every light particle that passed our quantum filter carried the information of over 200 blocked particles. In other words, the number of particles that reached our detector was 200 times less, but the information the detector received stayed constant. This allowed us to measure the optical rotation to a level impossible without our filter. 

Our ambition is that our proof-of-principle experiment will lead to the development of filters for other measurements, beyond optical rotations. Quantum metrology with light particles is involved in technologies ranging from quantum-computer calibration to gravitational-wave detection, so the possibilities for our metaphorical quantum vodka are many.

David Arvidsson-Shukur, Cambridge (UK), 14 April 2022

David is a quantum researcher at the Hitachi Cambridge Laboratory. His research focuses on both fundamental aspects of quantum phenomena, and on practical aspects of bringing such phenomena into technologies.

[1] ‘Advances in quantum metrology’, V. Giovannetti, S. Lloyd, L. Maccone, Nature photonics, 5, 4, (2011), https://www.nature.com/articles/nphoton.2011.35

[2] ‘Quantum Advantage in Postselected Metrology’, D. R. M. Arvidsson-Shukur, N. Yunger Halpern, H. V. Lepage, A. A. Lasek, C. H. W. Barnes, and S. Lloyd, Nature Communications, 11, 3775 (2020), https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-17559-w

[3] ‘Quantum Learnability is Arbitrarily Distillable’, J. Jenne, D. R. M. Arvidsson-Shukur, arXiv, (2020), https://arxiv.org/abs/2104.09520

[4] ‘Conditions tighter than noncommutation needed for nonclassicality’, D. R. M. Arvidsson-Shukur, J. Chevalier Drori, N. Yunger Halpern, J. Phys. A: Math. Theor., 54, 284001, (2021), https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1751-8121/ac0289

[5] ‘Negative quasiprobabilities enhance phase-estimation in quantum-optics experiment’, N. Lupu-Gladstein, Y. B. Yilmaz, D. R. M. Arvidsson-Shukur, A. Broducht, A. O. T. Pang, Æ. Steinberg, N. Yunger Halpern, P.R.L (in production), (2022), https://arxiv.org/abs/2111.01194

Quantum Encryption in a Box

Over the last few decades, transistor density has become so high that classical computers have run into problems with some of the quirks of quantum mechanics. Quantum computers, on the other hand, exploit these quirks to revolutionize the way computers work. They promise secure communications, simulation of complex molecules, ultrafast computations, and much more. The fear of being left behind as this new technology develops is now becoming pervasive around the world. As a result, there are large, near-term investments in developing quantum technologies, with parallel efforts aimed at attracting young people into the field of quantum information science and engineering in the long-term.

I was not surprised then that, after completing my master’s thesis in quantum optics at TU Berlin in Germany, I was invited to participate in a program called Quanten 1×1 and hosted by the Junge Tueftler (Young Tinkerers) non-profit, to get young people excited about quantum technologies. As part of a small team, we decided to develop tabletop games to explain the concepts of superposition, entanglement, quantum gates, and quantum encryption. In the sections that follow, I will introduce the thought process that led to the design of one of the final products on quantum encryption. If you want to learn more about the other games, you can find the relevant links at the end of this post.

The price of admission into the quantum realm

How much quantum mechanics is too much? Is it enough for people to know about the health of Schrödinger’s cat, or should we use a squishy ball with a smiley face and an arrow on it to get people excited about qubits and the Bloch sphere? In other words, what is the best way to go beyond metaphors and start delving into the real stuff? After all, we are talking about cutting-edge quantum technology here, which requires years of study to understand. Even the quantum experts I met with during the project had a hard time explaining their work to lay people.

Since there is no standardized way to explain these topics outside a university, the goal of our project was to try different models to teach quantum phenomena and make the learning as entertaining as possible. Compared to methods where people passively absorb the information, our tabletop-games approach leverages people’s curiosity and leads to active learning through trial and error.

A wooden quantum key generator (BB84)

Everybody has secrets

Most of the (sensitive) information that is transmitted over the Internet is encrypted. This means that only those with the right “secret key” can unlock the digital box and read the private message within. Without the secret key used to decrypt, the message looks like gibberish – a series of random characters. To encrypt the billions of messages being exchanged every day (over 300 billion emails alone), the Internet relies heavily on public-key cryptography and so-called one-way functions. These mathematical functions allow one to generate a public key to be shared with everyone, from a private key kept to themselves. The public key plays the role of a digital padlock that only the private key can unlock. Anyone (human or computer) who wants to communicate with you privately can get a digital copy of your padlock (by copying it from a pinned tweet on your Twitter account, for example), put their private message inside a digital box provided by their favorite app or Internet communication protocol running behind the scenes, lock the digital box using your digital padlock (public-key), and then send it over to you (or, accidentally, to anyone else who may be trying to eavesdrop). Ingeniously, only the person with the private key (you) can open the box and read the message, even if everyone in the world has access to that digital box and padlock.

But there is a problem. Current one-way functions hide the private key within the public key in a way that powerful enough quantum computers can reveal. The implications of this are pretty staggering. Your information (bank account, email, bitcoin wallet, etc) as currently encrypted will be available to anyone with such a computer. This is a very serious issue of global importance. So serious indeed, that the President of the United States recently released a memo aimed at addressing this very issue. Fortunately, there are ways to fight quantum with quantum. That is, there are quantum encryption protocols that not even quantum computers can break. In fact, they are as secure as the laws of physics.

Quantum Keys

A popular way of illustrating how quantum encryption works is through single photon sources and polarization filters. In classroom settings, this often boils down to lasers and small polarizing filters a few meters apart. Although lasers are pretty cool, they emit streams of photons (particles of light), not single photons needed for quantum encryption. Moreover, measuring polarization of individual photons (another essential part of this process) is often very tricky, especially without the right equipment. In my opinion the concept of quantum mechanical measurement and the collapse of wave functions is not easily communicated in this way.

Inspired by wooden toys and puzzles my mom bought for me as a kid after visits to the dentist, I tried to look for a more physical way to visualize the experiment behind the famous BB84 quantum key distribution protocol. After a lot of back and forth between the drawing board and laser cutter, the first quantum key generator (QeyGen) was built. 

How does the box work?

Note: This short description leaves out some details. For a deeper dive, I recommend watching the tutorial video on our Youtube channel.

The quantum key generator (QeyGen) consists of an outer and an inner box. The outer box is used by the person generating the secret key, while the inner box is used by the person with whom they wish to share that key. The sender prepares a coin in one of two states (heads = 0, tails = 1) and inserts it either into slot 1 (horizontal basis), or slot 2 (vertical basis) of the outer box. The receiver then measures the state of the coin in one of the same two bases by sliding the inner box to the left (horizontal basis = 1) or right (vertical basis = 2). Crucially, if the bases to prepare and measure the coin match, then both sender and receiver get the same value for the coin. But if the basis used to prepare the coin doesn’t match the measurement basis, the value of the coin collapses into one of the two allowed states in the measurement basis with 50/50 chance. Because of this design, the box can be used to illustrate the BB84 protocol that allows two distant parties to create and share a secure encryption key.

Simulating the BB84 protocol

The following is a step by step tutorial on how to play out the BB84 protocol with the QeyGen. You can play it with two (Alice, Bob) or three (Alice, Bob, Eve) people. It is useful to know right from the start that this protocol is not used to send private messages, but is instead used to generate a shared private key that can then be used with various encryption methods, like the one-time pad, to send secret messages.

BB84 Protocol:

  1. Alice secretly “prepares” a coin by inserting it facing-towards (0) or facing-away (1) from her into one of the two slots (bases) on the outer box. She writes down the value (0 or 1) and basis (horizontal or vertical) of the coin she just inserted.
  2. (optional) Eve, the eavesdropper, tries to “measure” the coin by sliding the inner box left (horizontal basis) or right (vertical basis), before putting the coin back through the outer box without anyone noticing.
  3. Bob then secretly measures the coin in a basis of his choice and writes down the value (0 or 1) and basis (horizontal and vertical) as well.
  4. Steps 1 and 3 are then repeated several times. The more times Alice and Bob go through this process, the more secure their secret key will be.

Sharing the key while checking for eavesdroppers:

  1. Alice and Bob publicly discuss which bases they used at each “prepare” and “measure” step, and cross out the values of the coin corresponding to the bases that didn’t match (about half of them on average; here, it would be rounds 1,3,5,6,7, and 11).
  2. Then, they publicly announce the first few (or a random subset of the) values that survive the previous step (i.e. have matching bases; here, it is rounds 2 and 4). If the values match for each round, then it is safe to assume that there was no eavesdrop attack. The remaining values are kept secret and can be used as a secure key for further communication.
  3. If the values of Alice and Bob don’t match, Eve must have measured the coin (before Bob) in the wrong basis (hence, randomizing its value) and put it back in the wrong orientation from the one Alice had originally chosen. Having detected Eve’s presence, Alice and Bob switch to a different channel of communication and try again.

Note that the more rounds Alice and Bob choose for the eavesdropper detection, the higher the chance that the channel of communication is secure, since N rounds that all return the same value for the coin mean a 2^{-N} chance that Eve got lucky and guessed Alice’s inputs correctly. To put this in perspective, a 20-round check for Eve provides a 99.9999% guarantee of security. Of course, the more rounds used to check for Eve, the fewer secure bits are left for Alice and Bob to share at the end. On average, after a total of 2(N+M) rounds, with N rounds dedicated to Eve, we get an M-bit secret key.

What do people learn?

When we play with the box, we usually encounter three main topics that we discuss with the participants.

  1. qm states and quantum particles: We talk about superposition of quantum particles and draw an analogy from the coin to polarized photons.
  2. qm measurement and basis: We ask about the state of the coin and discuss how we actually define a state and a basis for a coin. By using the box, we emphasize that the measurement itself (in which basis the coin is observed) can directly affect the state of the coin and collapse its “wavefunction”.
  3. BB84 protocol: After a little playtime of preparing and measuring the coin with the box, we introduce the steps to perform the BB84 protocol as described above. The penny-dropping moment (pun intended) often happens when the participants realize that a spy intervening between preparation and measurement can change the state of the coin, leading to contradictions in the subsequent eavesdrop test of the protocol and exposing the spy.

I hope that this small outline has provided a rough idea of how the box works and why we developed it. If you have access to a laser cutter, I highly recommend making a QeyGen for yourself (link to files below). For any further questions, feel free to contact me at t.schubert@fu-berlin.de.

Resources and acknowledgments

Project page Junge Tueftler: tueftelakademie.de/quantum1x1
Video series for the QeyGen: youtube.com/watch?v=YmdoAP1TJRo
Laser cut files: thingiverse.com/thing:5376516

The program was funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (Germany) and was a collaboration between the Jungen Tueftlern and the Technical University of Berlin.
A special thanks to Robert from Project Sci.Com who helped me with the development.

How Captain Okoli got his name

About two years ago, I dreamt up a character called Captain Okoli. He features in the imaginary steampunk novel from which I drew snippets to begin the chapters of my otherwise nonfiction book. Captain Okoli is innovative, daring, and kind; he helps the imaginary novel’s heroine, Audrey, on her globe-spanning quest. 

Captain Okoli inherited his name from Chiamaka Okoli, who was a classmate and roommate of mine while we pursued our master’s degrees at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. Unfortunately, an illness took Chiamaka’s life shortly after she completed her PhD. Captain Okoli is my tribute to her memory, but my book lacked the space for an explanation of who Chiamaka was or how Captain Okoli got his name. The Perimeter Institute offered a platform in its publication Inside the Perimeter. You can find the article—a story about an innovative, daring, and kind woman—here.

These are a few of my favorite steampunk books

As a physicist, one grows used to answering audience questions at the end of a talk one presents. As a quantum physicist, one grows used to answering questions about futuristic technologies. As a quantum-steampunk physicist, one grows used to the question “Which are your favorite steampunk books?”

Literary Hub has now published my answer.

According to its website, “Literary Hub is an organizing principle in the service of literary culture, a single, trusted, daily source for all the news, ideas and richness of contemporary literary life. There is more great literary content online than ever before, but it is scattered, easily lost—with the help of its editorial partners, Lit Hub is a site readers can rely on for smart, engaged, entertaining writing about all things books.”

My article, “Five best books about the romance of Victorian science,” appeared there last week. You’ll find fiction, nonfiction as imaginative as fiction, and crossings of the border between the two. 

My contribution to literature about the romance of Victorian science—my (mostly) nonfiction book, Quantum Steampunk: The Physics Of Yesterday’s Tomorrow—was  published two weeks ago. Where’s a hot-air-balloon emoji when you need one?

One equation to rule them all?

In lieu of composing a blog post this month, I’m publishing an article in Quanta Magazine. The article provides an introduction to fluctuation relations, souped-up variations on the second law of thermodynamics, which helps us understand why time flows in only one direction. The earliest fluctuation relations described classical systems, such as single strands of DNA. Many quantum versions have been proved since. Their proliferation contrasts with the stereotype of physicists as obsessed with unification—with slimming down a cadre of equations into one über-equation. Will one quantum fluctuation relation emerge to rule them all? Maybe, and maybe not. Maybe the multiplicity of quantum fluctuation relations reflects the richness of quantum thermodynamics.

You can read more in Quanta Magazine here and yet more in chapter 9 of my book. For recent advances in fluctuation relations, as opposed to the broad introduction there, check out earlier Quantum Frontiers posts here, here, here, here, and here.

The power of being able to say “I can explain that”

Caltech condensed-matter theorist Gil Refael explained his scientific raison dê’tre early in my grad-school career: “What really gets me going is seeing a plot [of experimental data] and being able to say, ‘I can explain that.’” The quote has stuck with me almost word for word. When I heard it, I was working deep in abstract quantum information theory and thermodynamics, proving theorems about thought experiments. Embedding myself in pure ideas has always held an aura of romance for me, so I nodded along without seconding Gil’s view.

Roughly nine years later, I concede his point.

The revelation walloped me last month, as I was polishing a paper with experimental collaborators. Members of the Institute for Quantum Optics and Quantum Information (IQOQI) in Innsbruck, Austria—Florian Kranzl, Manoj Joshi, and Christian Roos—had performed an experiment in trapped-ion guru Rainer Blatt’s lab. Their work realized an experimental proposal that I’d designed with fellow theorists near the beginning of my postdoc stint. We aimed to observe signatures of particularly quantum thermalization

Throughout the universe, small systems exchange stuff with their environments. For instance, the Earth exchanges heat and light with the rest of the solar system. After exchanging stuff for long enough, the small system equilibrates with the environment: Large-scale properties of the small system (such as its volume and energy) remain fairly constant; and as much stuff enters the small system as leaves, on average. The Earth remains far from equilibrium, which is why we aren’t dead yet

Far from equilibrium and proud of it

In many cases, in equilibrium, the small system shares properties of the environment, such as the environment’s temperature. In these cases, we say that the small system has thermalized and, if it’s quantum, has reached a thermal state.

The stuff exchanged can consist of energy, particles, electric charge, and more. Unlike classical planets, quantum systems can exchange things that participate in quantum uncertainty relations (experts: that fail to commute). Quantum uncertainty mucks up derivations of the thermal state’s mathematical form. Some of us quantum thermodynamicists discovered the mucking up—and identified exchanges of quantum-uncertain things as particularly nonclassical thermodynamics—only a few years ago. We reworked conventional thermodynamic arguments to accommodate this quantum uncertainty. The small system, we concluded, likely equilibrates to near a thermal state whose mathematical form depends on the quantum-uncertain stuff—what we termed a non-Abelian thermal state. I wanted to see this equilibration in the lab. So I proposed an experiment with theory collaborators; and Manoj, Florian, and Christian took a risk on us.

The experimentalists arrayed between six and fifteen ions in a line. Two ions formed the small system, and the rest formed the quantum environment. The ions exchanged the x-, y-, and z-components of their spin angular momentum—stuff that participates in quantum uncertainty relations. The ions began with a fairly well-defined amount of each spin component, as described in another blog post. The ions exchanged stuff for a while, and then the experimentalists measured the small system’s quantum state.

The small system equilibrated to near the non-Abelian thermal state, we found. No conventional thermal state modeled the results as accurately. Score!

My postdoc and numerical-simulation wizard Aleks Lasek modeled the experiment on his computer. The small system, he found, remained farther from the non-Abelian thermal state in his simulation than in the experiment. Aleks plotted the small system’s distance to the non-Abelian thermal state against the ion chain’s length. The points produced experimentally sat lower down than the points produced numerically. Why?

I think I can explain that, I said. The two ions exchange stuff with the rest of the ions, which serve as a quantum environment. But the two ions exchange stuff also with the wider world, such as stray electromagnetic fields. The latter exchanges may push the small system farther toward equilibrium than the extra ions alone do.

Fortunately for the development of my explanatory skills, collaborators prodded me to hone my argument. The wider world, they pointed out, effectively has a very high temperature—an infinite temperature.1 Equilibrating with that environment, the two ions would acquire an infinite temperature themselves. The two ions would approach an infinite-temperature thermal state, which differs from the non-Abelian thermal state we aimed to observe.

Fair, I said. But the extra ions probably have a fairly high temperature themselves. So the non-Abelian thermal state is probably close to the infinite-temperature thermal state. Analogously, if someone cooks goulash similarly to his father, and the father cooks goulash similarly to his grandfather, then the youngest chef cooks goulash similarly to his grandfather. If the wider world pushes the two ions to equilibrate to infinite temperature, then, because the infinite-temperature state lies near the non-Abelian thermal state, the wider world pushes the two ions to equilibrate to near the non-Abelian thermal state.

Tasty, tasty thermodynamicis

I plugged numbers into a few equations to check that the extra ions do have a high temperature. (Perhaps I should have done so before proposing the argument above, but my collaborators were kind enough not to call me out.) 

Aleks hammered the nail into the problem’s coffin by incorporating into his simulations the two ions’ interaction with an infinite-temperature wider world. His numerical data points dropped to near the experimental data points. The new plot supported my story.

I can explain that! Aleks’s results buoyed me the whole next day; I found myself smiling at random times throughout the afternoon. Not that I’d explained a grand mystery, like the unexpected hiss heard by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson when they turned on a powerful antenna in 1964. The hiss turned out to come from the cosmic microwave background (CMB), a collection of photons that fill the visible universe. The CMB provided evidence for the then-controversial Big Bang theory of the universe’s origin. Discovering the CMB earned Penzias and Wilson a Nobel Prize. If the noise caused by the CMB was music to cosmologists’ ears, the noise in our experiment is the quiet wailing of a shy banshee. But it’s our experiment’s noise, and we understand it now.

The experience hasn’t weaned me off the romance of proving theorems about thought experiments. Theorems about thermodynamic quantum uncertainty inspired the experiment that yielded the plot that confused us. But I now second Gil’s sentiment. In the throes of an experiment, “I can explain that” can feel like a battle cry.

1Experts: The wider world effectively has an infinite temperature because (i) the dominant decoherence is dephasing relative to the \sigma_z product eigenbasis and (ii) the experimentalists rotate their qubits often, to simulate a rotationally invariant Hamiltonian evolution. So the qubits effectively undergo dephasing relative to the \sigma_x, \sigma_y, and \sigma_z eigenbases.

Building a Koi pond with Lie algebras

When I was growing up, one of my favourite places was the shabby all-you-can-eat buffet near our house. We’d walk in, my mom would approach the hostess to explain that, despite my being abnormally large for my age, I qualified for kids-eat-free, and I would peel away to stare at the Koi pond. The display of different fish rolling over one another was bewitching. Ten-year-old me would have been giddy to build my own Koi pond, and now I finally have. However, I built one using Lie algebras.

The different fish swimming in the Koi pond are, in many ways, like charges being exchanged between subsystems. A “charge” is any globally conserved quantity. Examples of charges include energy, particles, electric charge, or angular momentum. Consider a system consisting of a cup of coffee in your office. The coffee will dynamically exchange charges with your office in the form of heat energy. Still, the total energy of the coffee and office is conserved (assuming your office walls are really well insulated). In this example, we had one type of charge (heat energy) and two subsystems (coffee and office). Consider now a closed system consisting of many subsystems and many different types of charges. The closed system is like the finite Koi pond with different charges like the different fish species. The charges can move around locally, but the total number of charges is globally fixed, like how the fish swim around but can’t escape the pond. Also, the presence of one type of charge can alter another’s movement, just as a big fish might block a little one’s path. 

Unfortunately, the Koi pond analogy reaches its limit when we move to quantum charges. Classically, charges commute. This means that we can simultaneously determine the amount of each charge in our system at each given moment. In quantum mechanics, this isn’t necessarily true. In other words, classically, I can count the number of glossy fish and matt fish. But, in quantum mechanics, I can’t.

So why does this matter? Subsystems exchanging charges are prevalent in thermodynamics. Quantum thermodynamics extends thermodynamics to include small systems and quantum effects. Noncommutation underlies many important quantum phenomena. Hence, studying the exchange of noncommuting charges is pivotal in understanding quantum thermodynamics. Consequently, noncommuting charges have emerged as a rapidly growing subfield of quantum thermodynamics. Many interesting results have been discovered from no longer assuming that charges commute (such as these). Until recently, most of these discoveries have been theoretical. Bridging these discoveries to experimental reality requires Hamiltonians (functions that tell you how your system evolves in time) that move charges locally but conserve them globally. Last year it was unknown whether these Hamiltonians exist, what they look like generally, how to build them, and for what charges you could find them.

Nicole Yunger Halpern (NIST physicist, my co-advisor, and Quantum Frontiers blogger) and I developed a prescription for building Koi ponds for noncommuting charges. Our prescription allows you to systematically build Hamiltonians that overtly move noncommuting charges between subsystems while conserving the charges globally. These Hamiltonians are built using Lie algebras, abstract mathematical tools that can describe many physical quantities (including everything in the standard model of particle physics and space-time metric). Our results were recently published in npj QI. We hope that our prescription will bolster the efforts to bridge the results of noncommuting charges to experimental reality.

In the end, a little group theory was all I needed for my Koi pond. Maybe I’ll build a treehouse next with calculus or a remote control car with combinatorics.

Space-time and the city

I felt like a gum ball trying to squeeze my way out of a gum-ball machine. 

I was one of 50-ish physicists crammed into the lobby—and in the doorway, down the stairs, and onto the sidewalk—of a Manhattan hotel last December. Everyone had received a COVID vaccine, and the omicron variant hadn’t yet begun chewing up North America. Everyone had arrived on the same bus that evening, feeding on the neon-bright views of Fifth Avenue through dinnertime. Everyone wanted to check in and offload suitcases before experiencing firsthand the reason for the nickname “the city that never sleeps.” So everyone was jumbled together in what passed for a line.

We’d just passed the halfway point of the week during which I was pretending to be a string theorist. I do that whenever my research butts up against black holes, chaos, quantum gravity (the attempt to unify quantum physics with Einstein’s general theory of relativity), and alternative space-times. These topics fall under the heading “It from Qubit,” which calls for understanding puzzling physics (“It”) by analyzing how quantum systems process information (“Qubit”). The “It from Qubit” crowd convenes for one week each December, to share progress and collaborate.1 The group spends Monday through Wednesday at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), dogged by photographs of Einstein, busts of Einstein, and roads named after Einstein. A bus ride later, the group spends Thursday and Friday at the Simons Foundation in New York City.

I don’t usually attend “It from Qubit” gatherings, as I’m actually a quantum information theorist and quantum thermodynamicist. Having admitted as much during the talk I presented at the IAS, I failed at pretending to be a string theorist. Happily, I adore being the most ignorant person in a roomful of experts, as the experience teaches me oodles. At lunch and dinner, I’d plunk down next to people I hadn’t spoken to and ask what they see as trending in the “It from Qubit” community. 

One buzzword, I’d first picked up on shortly before the pandemic had begun (replicas). Having lived a frenetic life, that trend seemed to be declining. Rising buzzwords (factorization and islands), I hadn’t heard in black-hole contexts before. People were still tossing around terms from when I’d first forayed into “It from Qubit” (scrambling and out-of-time-ordered correlator), but differently from then. Five years ago, the terms identified the latest craze. Now, they sounded entrenched, as though everyone expected everyone else to know and accept their significance.

One buzzword labeled my excuse for joining the workshops: complexity. Complexity wears as many meanings as the stereotypical New Yorker wears items of black clothing. Last month, guest blogger Logan Hillberry wrote about complexity that emerges in networks such as brains and social media. To “It from Qubit,” complexity quantifies the difficulty of preparing a quantum system in a desired state. Physicists have conjectured that a certain quantum state’s complexity parallels properties of gravitational systems, such as the length of a wormhole that connects two black holes. The wormhole’s length grows steadily for a time exponentially large in the gravitational system’s size. So, to support the conjecture, researchers have been trying to prove that complexity typically grows similarly. Collaborators and I proved that it does, as I explained in my talk and as I’ll explain in a future blog post. Other speakers discussed experimental complexities, as well as the relationship between complexity and a simplified version of Einstein’s equations for general relativity.

Inside the Simons Foundation on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan

I learned a bushel of physics, moonlighting as a string theorist that week. The gum-ball-machine lobby, though, retaught me something I’d learned long before the pandemic. Around the time I squeezed inside the hotel, a postdoc struck up a conversation with the others of us who were clogging the doorway. We had a decent fraction of an hour to fill; so we chatted about quantum thermodynamics, grant applications, and black holes. I asked what the postdoc was working on, he explained a property of black holes, and it reminded me of a property of thermodynamics. I’d nearly reached the front desk when I realized that, out of the sheer pleasure of jawing about physics with physicists in person, I no longer wanted to reach the front desk. The moment dangles in my memory like a crystal ornament from the lobby’s tree—pendant from the pandemic, a few inches from the vaccines suspended on one side and from omicron on the other. For that moment, in a lobby buoyed by holiday lights, wrapped in enough warmth that I’d forgotten the December chill outside, I belonged to the “It from Qubit” community as I hadn’t belonged to any community in 22 months.

Happy new year.

Presenting at the IAS was a blast. Photo credit: Jonathan Oppenheim.

1In person or virtually, pandemic-dependently.

Thanks to the organizers of the IAS workshop—Ahmed Almheiri, Adam Bouland, Brian Swingle—for the invitation to present and to the organizers of the Simons Foundation workshop—Patrick Hayden and Matt Headrick—for the invitation to attend.