A peek inside Northrop Grumman’s subatomic endeavors

As the weather turns colder and we trade outdoor pools for pumpkin spice and then Christmas carols, perhaps you’re longing for summer’s warmth. For me, it is not just warmth I yearn for: This past summer, I worked as a physics intern at Northrop Grumman. With the internship came invaluable lessons and long-lasting friendships formed in a unique environment that leverages quantum computing in industry.

More on that in a bit. First, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Jade LeSchack, and I am an undergraduate physics major at the University of Maryland, College Park. I interact with Dr. Nicole Yunger Halpern’s group and founded the Undergraduate Quantum Association at UMD, a student organization for those interested in quantum science and technology. 

Undergraduate Quantum Association Vice President, Sondos Quqandi (right), and me hosting the quantum track of the Bitcamp hackathon

Back to Northrop Grumman. Northrop Grumman’s work as a defense contractor has led them to join the global effort to harness the power of quantum computing through their transformational-computing department, which is where I worked. Northrop Grumman is approaching quantum computing via proprietary superconducting technology. Superconductors are special types of conductors that can carry electric current with zero resistance when cooled to very low temperatures. We’re talking one hundred times colder than outer space. Superconducting electronics are brought to almost-absolute-zero temperatures using a dilution refrigerator, a machine that, frankly, looks closer to a golden chandelier than an appliance for storing your perishables.

An example of the inside of a dilution refrigerator

I directly worked with these golden chandeliers for one week during my internship. This week entailed shadowing staff physicists and was my favorite week of the internship. I shadowed Dr. Amber McCreary as she ran experiments with the dilution fridges and collected data. Amber explained all the steps of her experiments and answered my numerous questions.

Working in the transformational-computing unit, I had physicists from a variety of backgrounds at my disposal. These physicists hailed from across the country — with quite a few from my university — and were welcoming and willing to show me the ropes. The structure of the transformational-computing department was unlike what I have seen with academia since the department is product-oriented. Some staff manned a dilution fridge, while others managed products stemming from the superconductor research.

Outside this week in the lab, I worked on my chosen, six-week-long project: restructuring part of the transformational-computing codebase. Many transformational-computing experiments require curve fitting which is finding the curve of best fit through a set of data points. Pre-written algorithms can perform curve-fitting for certain equations such as polynomial equations, but it is harder for more-complicated equations. I worked with a fellow intern named Thomas, and our job was to tackle these more-complicated equations. Although I never saw the dilution fridges again, I gained many programming skills and improved programs for the transformation-computing department. 

The internship was not all work and no play. The memories I made and connections I forged will last much longer than the ten weeks in which they were founded. Besides the general laughs, there were three happy surprises I’d like to share. The first was lunch-time ultimate frisbee. I play ultimate frisbee on the University of Maryland women’s club team, and when my manager mentioned there was a group at Northrop Grumman who played during the week, I jumped on the chance to join. 

The second happy surprise involved a frozen treat. On a particularly long day of work, my peers and I scoured a storage closet in the office on an office-supplies raid. What we found instead of supplies was an ice-cream churner. Since the COVID lock-down, a hobby of mine that I have avidly practiced has been ice-cream making. A rediscovered ice-cream churner plus an experienced ice-cream maker brought three ice-cream days for the office. Naturally, they were huge successes! 

And last, I won an Emmy. 

Me winning an Emmy

Well, not quite.

I was shocked when, after a team lunch, my manager turned to the intern team and nonchalantly said, “Let’s go see if the Emmy is available.” I was perplexed but intrigued, and my manager explained that Northrop Grumman had won an Emmy for science in advancing cinematic technology. And it turned out that the Emmy was available for photographs! We were all excited; this was probably the only time we would hold a coveted cinema award reserved for the red carpet.

Not only did I contribute to Northrop Grumman’s quantum efforts, but I also played ultimate frisbee and held an Emmy. Interning at Northrop Grumman was a wonderful opportunity that has left me with new quantum knowledge and fond memories. 

The spirit of relativity

One of the most immersive steampunk novels I’ve read winks at an experiment performed in a university I visited this month. The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, by Natasha Pulley, features a budding scientist named Grace Carrow. Grace attends Oxford as one of its few women students during the 1880s. To access the university’s Bodleian Library without an escort, she masquerades as male. The librarian grouses over her request.

“‘The American Journal of  Science – whatever do you want that for?’” As the novel points out, “The only books more difficult to get hold of than little American journals were first copies of [Isaac Newton’s masterpiece] Principia, which were chained to the desks.”

As a practitioner of quantum steampunk, I relish slipping back to this stage of intellectual history. The United States remained an infant, to centuries-old European countries. They looked down upon the US as an intellectual—as well as partially a literal—wilderness.1 Yet potential was budding, as Grace realized. She was studying an American experiment that paved the path for Einstein’s special theory of relativity.

How does light travel? Most influences propagate through media. For instance, ocean waves propagate in water. Sound propagates in air. The Victorians surmised that light similarly travels through a medium, which they called the luminiferous aether. Nobody, however, had detected the aether.

Albert A. Michelson and Edward W. Morley squared up to the task in 1887. Michelson, brought up in a Prussian immigrant family, worked as a professor at the Case School of Applied Science in Cleveland, Ohio. Morley taught chemistry at Western Reserve University, which shared its campus with the recent upstart Case. The two schools later merged to form Case Western Reserve University, which I visited this month.

We can intuit Michelson and Morley’s experiment by imagining two passengers on a (steam-driven, if you please) locomotive: Audrey and Baxter. Say that Audrey walks straight across the aisle, from one window to another. In the same time interval, and at the same speed relative to the train, Baxter walks down the aisle, from row to row of seats. The train carries both passengers in the direction in which Baxter walks.

The Audrey and Baxter drawings (not to scale) are by Todd Cahill.

Baxter travels farther than Audrey, as the figures below show. Covering a greater distance in the same time, he travels more quickly.

Relative lengths of Audrey’s and Baxter’s displacements (top and bottom, respectively)

Replace each passenger with a beam of light, and replace the train with the aether. (The aether, Michelson and Morley reasoned, was moving relative to their lab as a train moves relative to the countryside. The reason was, the aether filled space and the Earth was moving through space. The Earth was moving through the aether, so the lab was moving through the aether, so the aether was moving relative to the lab.)

The scientists measured how quickly the “Audrey” beam of light traveled relative to the “Baxter” beam. The measurement relied on an apparatus that now bears the name of one of the experimentalists: the Michelson interferometer. To the scientists’ surprise, the Audrey beam traveled just as quickly as the Baxter beam. The aether didn’t carry either beam along as a train carries a passenger. Light can travel in a vacuum, without any need for a medium.

Exhibit set up in Case Western Reserve’s physics department to illustrate the Michelson-Morley experiment rather more articulately than my sketch above does

The American Physical Society, among other sources, calls Michelson and Morley’s collaboration “what might be regarded as the most famous failed experiment to date.” The experiment provided the first rigorous evidence that the aether doesn’t exist and that, no matter how you measure light’s speed, you’ll only ever observe one value for it (if you measure it accurately). Einstein’s special theory of relativity provided a theoretical underpinning for these observations in 1905. The theory provides predictions about two observers—such as Audrey and Baxter—who are moving relative to each other. As long as they aren’t accelerating, they agree about all physical laws, including the speed of light.

Morley garnered accolades across the rest of his decades-long appointment at Western Reserve University. Michelson quarreled with his university’s administration and eventually resettled at the University of Chicago. In 1907, he received the first Nobel Prize awarded to any American for physics. The citation highlighted “his optical precision instruments and the spectroscopic and metrological investigations carried out with their aid.”

Today, both scientists enjoy renown across Case Western Reserve University. Their names grace the sit-down restaurant in the multipurpose center, as well as a dormitory and a chemistry building. A fountain on the quad salutes their experiment. And stories about a symposium held in 1987—the experiment’s centennial—echo through the physics building. 

But Michelson and Morley’s spirit most suffuses the population. During my visit, I had the privilege and pleasure of dining with members of WiPAC, the university’s Women in Physics and Astronomy Club. A more curious, energetic group, I’ve rarely seen. Grace Carrow would find kindred spirits there.

With thanks to Harsh Mathur (pictured above), Patricia Princehouse, and Glenn Starkman, for their hospitality, as well as to the Case Western Reserve Department of Physics, the Institute for the Science of Origins, and the Gundzik Endowment.

Aside: If you visit Cleveland, visit its art museum! As Quantum Frontiers regulars know, I have a soft spot for ancient near-Eastern and ancient Egyptian art. I was impressed by the Cleveland Museum of Art’s artifacts from the reign of pharaoh Amenhotep III and the museum’s reliefs of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti. Also, boasting a statue of Gudea (a ruler of the ancient city-state of Lagash) and a relief from the palace of Assyrian kind Ashurnasirpal II, the museum is worth its ancient-near-Eastern salt.

1Not that Oxford enjoyed scientific renown during the Victorian era. As Cecil Rhodes—creator of the Rhodes Scholarship—opined then, “Wherever you turn your eye—except in science—an Oxford man is at the top of the tree.”

Announcing the quantum-steampunk short-story contest!

The year I started studying calculus, I took the helm of my high school’s literary magazine. Throughout the next two years, the editorial board flooded campus with poetry—and poetry contests. We papered the halls with flyers, built displays in the library, celebrated National Poetry Month, and jerked students awake at morning assembly (hitherto known as the quiet kid you’d consult if you didn’t understand the homework, I turned out to have a sense of humor and a stage presence suited to quoting from that venerated poet Dr. Seuss.1 Who’d’ve thought?). A record number of contest entries resulted.

That limb of my life atrophied in college. My college—a stereotypical liberal-arts affair complete with red bricks—boasted a literary magazine. But it also boasted English and comparative-literature majors. They didn’t need me, I reasoned. The sun ought to set on my days of engineering creative-writing contests.

I’m delighted to be eating my words, in announcing the Quantum-Steampunk Short-Story Contest.

From Pinterest

The Maryland Quantum-Thermodynamics Hub is running the contest this academic year. I’ve argued that quantum thermodynamics—my field of research—resembles the literary and artistic genre of steampunk. Steampunk stories combine Victorian settings and sensibilities with futuristic technologies, such as dirigibles and automata. Quantum technologies are cutting-edge and futuristic, whereas thermodynamics—the study of energy—developed during the 1800s. Inspired by the first steam engines, thermodynamics needs retooling for quantum settings. That retooling is quantum thermodynamics—or, if you’re feeling whimsical (as every physicist should), quantum steampunk.

The contest opens this October and closes on January 15, 2023. Everyone aged 13 or over may enter a story, written in English, of up to 3,000 words. Minimal knowledge of quantum theory is required; if you’ve heard of Schrödinger’s cat, superpositions, or quantum uncertainty, you can pull out your typewriter and start punching away. 

Entries must satisfy two requirements: First, stories must be written in a steampunk style, including by taking place at least partially during the 1800s. Transport us to Meiji Japan; La Belle Époque in Paris; gritty, smoky Manchester; or a camp of immigrants unfurling a railroad across the American west. Feel free to set your story partially in the future; time machines are welcome.

Second, each entry must feature at least one quantum technology, real or imagined. Real and under-construction quantum technologies include quantum computers, communication networks, cryptographic systems, sensors, thermometers, and clocks. Experimentalists have realized quantum engines, batteries, refrigerators, and teleportation, too. Surprise us with your imagined quantum technologies (and inspire our next research-grant proposals).

In an upgrade from my high-school days, we’ll be awarding $4,500 worth of Visa gift certificates. The grand prize entails $1,500. Entries can also win in categories to be finalized during the judging process; I anticipate labels such as Quantum Technology We’d Most Like to Have, Most Badass Steampunk Hero/ine, Best Student Submission, and People’s Choice Award.

Our judges run the gamut from writers to quantum physicists. Judge Ken Liu‘s latest novel peered out from a window of my local bookstore last month. He’s won Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards—the topmost three prizes that pop up if you google “science-fiction awards.” Appropriately for a quantum-steampunk contest, Ken has pioneered the genre of silkpunk, “a technology aesthetic based on a science fictional elaboration of traditions of engineering in East Asia’s classical antiquity.” 

Emily Brandchaft Mitchell is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Maryland. She’s authored a novel and published short stories in numerous venues. Louisa Gilder wrote one of the New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2009, The Age of Entanglement. In it, she imagines conversations through which scientists came to understand the core of this year’s Nobel Prize in physics. Jeffrey Bub is a philosopher of physics and a Distinguished University Professor Emeritus at the University of Maryland. He’s also published graphic novels about special relativity and quantum physics with his artist daughter. 

Patrick Warfield, a musicologist, serves as the Associate Dean for Arts and Programming at the University of Maryland. (“Programming” as in “activities,” rather than as in “writing code,” the meaning I encounter more often.) Spiros Michalakis is a quantum mathematician and the director of Caltech’s quantum outreach program. You may know him as a scientific consultant for Marvel Comics films.

Walter E. Lawrence III is a theoretical quantum physicist and a Professor Emeritus at Dartmouth College. As department chair, he helped me carve out a niche for myself in physics as an undergrad. Jack Harris, an experimental quantum physicist, holds a professorship at Yale. His office there contains artwork that features dragons.

University of Maryland undergraduate Hannah Kim designed the ad above. She and Jade LeSchack, founder of the university’s Undergraduate Quantum Association, round out the contest’s leadership team. We’re standing by for your submissions through—until the quantum internet exists—the hub’s website. Send us something to dream on.

1Come to think of it, Seuss helped me prepare for a career in physics. He coined the terms wumbus and nerd; my PhD advisor invented NISQ, the name for a category of quantum devices. NISQ now has its own Wikipedia page, as does nerd

Mo’ heights mo’ challenges – Climbing mount grad school

My wife’s love of mountain hiking and my interest in quantum thermodynamics collided in Telluride, Colorado.

We spent ten days in Telluride, where I spoke at the Information Engines at the Frontiers of Nanoscale Thermodynamics workshop. Telluride is a gorgeous city surrounded by mountains and scenic trails. My wife (Hasti) and I were looking for a leisurely activity one morning. We chose hiking Bear Creek Trail, a 5.1-mile hike with a 1092-foot elevation. This would have been a reasonable choice… back home.

Telluride’s elevation is 8,750 feet (ten times that of our hometown’s). This meant there was nothing leisurely about the hike. Ill-prepared, I dragged myself up the mountain in worn runners and tight jeans. My gasps for breath reminded me how new heights (a literal one in this case) could bring unexpected challenges – A lesson I’ve encountered many times as a graduate student. 

My wife and I atop bear creek trail

I completely squandered my undergrad. One story sums it up best. I was studying for my third-year statistical mechanics final when I realized I could pass the course without writing the final. So, I didn’t write the final. After four years of similar negligence, I somehow graduated, certain I’d left academics forever. Two years later, I rediscovered my love for physics and grieved about wasting my undergraduate. I decided to try again and apply for grad school. I learned Canada had 17 Universities I could apply to with a 70 average; each one rejected me.

I was ecstatic to eventually be accepted into a master’s of math. But, the high didn’t last. Learning math and physics from popular science books and PBS videos is very different from studying for University exams. If I wanted to keep this opportunity, I had to learn how to study.

16 months later, I graduated with a 97 average and an offer to do a master’s of physics at the University of Waterloo. I would be working at the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC), supervised by Raymond Laflamme (one of the co-founders of the field of quantum computing). My first day at IQC felt surreal. I had become an efficient student and felt ready for the IQC. But, like the bear creek trail, another height would bring another challenge. Ultimately, grad school isn’t about getting good grades; it’s about researching. Raymond (Ray) gave me my first research project, and I was dumbfounded about where to start and too insecure about asking for help.

With Ray and Jonathan Halliwell’s (professor at Imperial College London and guitarist-extraordinaire) guidance, I published my first paper and accepted a Ph.D. offer from Ray. After publishing my second paper, I thought it would be smooth sailing through my Ph.D..  Alas, I was again mistaken. It’s also not enough to solve problems others give you; you need to come up with some problems on your own. So, I tried. I spent the first 8-months of my Ph.D. pursuing a problem I came up with, and It was a complete dud. It turns out the problems also need to be worth solving. For those keeping track, this is challenge number four.

I have now finished the third year of my Ph.D. (two, if you don’t count the year I “took off” to write a textbook with Ray and superconducting-qubit experimentalist, Prof. Chris Wilson). During that time, Nicole Yunger Halpern (NIST physicist, my new co-advisor, and Quantum Frontiers blogger) introduced me to the field of quantum thermodynamics. We’ve published a paper together (related blog post and Vanier interview) and have a second on the way. Despite that, I’m still grappling with that last challenge. I have no problem finding research questions that would be fun to solve. However, I’m still not sure which ones are worth solving. But, like the other challenges, I’m hopeful I’ll figure it out.

While this lesson was inspiring, the city of Telluride inspired me the most. Telluride is at a local minimum elevation, surrounded by mountains. Meaning there is virtually nowhere to go but up. I’m hoping the same is true for me.

We’re founding a quantum-thermodynamics hub!

We’re building a factory in Maryland. 

It’ll tower over the University of Maryland campus, a behemoth of 19th-century brick and 21st-century glass across from the football field. Turbines will turn, and gears will grind, where students now sip lattes near the Stadium Drive parking lot. The factory’s fuel: steam, quantum physics, and ambition. Its goal: to create an epicenter for North American quantum thermodynamics.

The factory is metaphorical, of course. Collaborators and I are establishing a quantum-thermodynamics hub centered at the University of Maryland. The hub is an abstraction—a community that’ll collaborate on research, coordinate gatherings, host visitors, and raise the public’s awareness of quantum thermodynamics. But I’d rather envision the hub as a steampunk factory that pumps out discoveries and early-career scientists.

Quantum thermodynamics has burgeoned over the past decade, especially in Europe. At the beginning of my PhD, I read paper after paper that acknowledged COST, a funding agency established by the European Union. COST dedicated a grant to thermodynamics guided by the mathematics and concepts of quantum information theory. The grant funded students, travel, and the first iterations of an annual conference that continues today. Visit Germany, Finland, France, Britain (which belonged to the European Union when I began my PhD), or elsewhere across the pond, and you’ll stumble across quantum-thermodynamics strongholds. Hotspots burn also in Brazil, Israel, Singapore, and elsewhere.

Inspired by our international colleagues, collaborators and I are banding together. Since I founded a research group last year, Maryland has achieved a critical mass of quantum thermodynamicists: Chris Jarzynski reigns as a king of the field of fluctuation relations, equalities that help us understand why time flows in only one direction. Sebastian Deffner, I regard as an academic older brother to look up to. And I run the Quantum-Steampunk Laboratory.

We’ve built railroads to research groups across the continent and steamers to cross the ocean. Other members of the hub include Kanu Sinha, a former Marylander who studies open systems in Arizona; Steve Campbell, a Dublin-based prover of fundamental bounds; and two experts on quantum many-body systems: former Marylander Amir Kalev and current Marylander Luis Pedro García-Pintos. We’re also planning collaborations with institutions from Canada to Vienna.

The hub will pursue a threefold mission of research, community building, and outreach. As detailed on our research webpage, “We aim to quantify how, thermodynamically, decoherence and the spread of information lead to emergent phenomena: classical objectivity and the flow of time.” To grow North America’s quantum-thermodynamics community, we’ll run annual symposia and an international conference. Our visitors’ program will create the atmosphere of a local watering hole. Outreach will include more posts on this blog—including by guest authors—a quantum-steampunk short-story contest (expect details this fall), and more.

Come visit us by dirigible, train, or gyropter. Air your most thought-provoking quantum-thermodynamics discoveries in a seminar with us, and solicit feedback. Find collaborators, and learn about the latest. The factory wheels are beginning to turn.

With thanks to the John Templeton Foundation for the grant to establish the hub.

Rocks that roll

In Terry Pratchett’s fantasy novel Soul Music, rock ’n roll arrives in Ankh-Morpork. Ankh-Morpork resembles the London of yesteryear—teeming with heroes and cutthroats, palaces and squalor—but also houses vampires, golems, wizards, and a sentient suitcase. Against this backdrop, a young harpist stumbles upon a mysterious guitar. He forms a band with a dwarf and with a troll who plays tuned rocks, after which the trio calls its style “Music with Rocks In.” The rest of the story consists of satire, drums, and rocks that roll. 

The topic of rolling rocks sounds like it should elicit more yawns than an Elvis concert elicited screams. But rocks’ rolling helped recent University of Maryland physics PhD student Zackery Benson win a National Research Council Fellowship. He and his advisor, Wolfgang Losert, converted me into a fan of granular flow.

What I’ve been studying recently. Kind of.

Grains make up materials throughout the galaxy, such as the substance of avalanches. Many granular materials undergo repeated forcing by their environments. For instance, the grains that form an asteroid suffer bombardment from particles flying through outer space. The gravel beneath train tracks is compressed whenever a train passes. 

Often, a pattern characterizes the forces in a granular system’s environment. For instance, trains in a particular weight class may traverse some patch of gravel, and the trains may arrive with a particular frequency. Some granular systems come to encode information about those patterns in their microscopic configurations and large-scale properties. So granular flow—little rocks that roll—can impact materials science, engineering, geophysics, and thermodynamics.

Granular flow sounds so elementary, you might expect us to have known everything about it since long before the Beatles’ time. But we didn’t even know until recently how to measure rolling in granular flows. 

Envision a grain as a tiny sphere, like a globe of the Earth. Scientists focused mostly on how far grains are translated through space in a flow, analogouslly to how far a globe travels across a desktop if flicked. Recently, scientists measured how far a grain rotates about one axis, like a globe fixed in a frame. Sans frame, though, a globe can spin about more than one axis—about three independent axes. Zack performed the first measurement of all the rotations and translations of all the particles in a granular flow.

Each grain was an acrylic bead about as wide as my pinky nail. Two holes were drilled into each bead, forming an X, for reasons I’ll explain. 

Image credit: Benson et al., Phys. Rev. Lett. 129, 048001 (2022).

Zack dumped over 10,000 beads into a rectangular container. Then, he poured in a fluid that filled the spaces between the grains. Placing a weight atop the grains, he exerted a constant pressure on them. Zack would push one of the container’s walls inward, compressing the grains similarly to how a train compresses gravel. Then, he’d decompress the beads. He repeated this compression cycle many times.

Image credit: Benson et al., Phys. Rev. E 103, 062906 (2021).

Each cycle consisted of many steps: Zack would compress the beads a tiny amount, pause, snap pictures, and then compress a tiny amount more. During each pause, the camera activated a fluorescent dye in the fluid, which looked clear in the photographs. Lacking the fluorescent dye, the beads showed up as dark patches. Clear X’s cut through the dark patches, as dye filled the cavities drilled into the beads. From the X’s, Zack inferred every grain’s orientation. He inferred how every grain rotated by comparing the orientation in one snapshot with the orientation in the next snapshot. 

Image credit: Benson et al., Phys. Rev. Lett. 129, 048001 (2022).

Wolfgang’s lab had been trying for fifteen years to measure all the motions in a granular flow. The feat required experimental and computational skill. I appreciated the chance to play a minor role, in analyzing the data. Physical Review Letters published our paper last month.

From Zack’s measurements, we learned about the unique roles played by rotations in granular flow. For instance, rotations dominate the motion in a granular system’s bulk, far from the container’s walls. Importantly, the bulk dissipates the most energy. Also, whereas translations are reversible—however far grains shift while compressed, they tend to shift oppositely while decompressed—rotations are not. Such irreversibility can contribute to materials’ aging.

In Soul Music, the spirit of rock ’n roll—conceived of as a force in its own right—offers the guitarist the opportunity to never age. He can live fast, die young, and enjoy immortality as a legend, for his guitar comes from a dusty little shop not entirely of Ankh-Morpork’s world. Such shops deal in fate and fortune, the author maintains. Doing so, he takes a dig at the River Ankh, which flows through the city of Ankh-Morpork. The Ankh’s waters hold so much garbage, excrement, midnight victims, and other muck that they scarcely count as waters:

And there was even an Ankh-Morpork legend, wasn’t there, about some old drum [ . . . ] that was supposed to bang itself if an enemy fleet was seen sailing up the Ankh? The legend had died out in recent centuries, partly because this was the Age of Reason and also because no enemy fleet could sail up the Ankh without a gang of men with shovels going in front.

Such a drum would qualify as magic easily, but don’t underestimate the sludge. As a granular-flow system, it’s more incredible than you might expect.

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.