Quantum physics proposes a new way to study biology – and the results could revolutionize our understanding of how life works

By guest blogger Clarice D. Aiello, faculty at UCLA

Imagine using your cellphone to control the activity of your own cells to treat injuries and disease. It sounds like something from the imagination of an overly optimistic science fiction writer. But this may one day be a possibility through the emerging field of quantum biology.

Over the past few decades, scientists have made incredible progress in understanding and manipulating biological systems at increasingly small scales, from protein folding to genetic engineering. And yet, the extent to which quantum effects influence living systems remains barely understood.

Quantum effects are phenomena that occur between atoms and molecules that can’t be explained by classical physics. It has been known for more than a century that the rules of classical mechanics, like Newton’s laws of motion, break down at atomic scales. Instead, tiny objects behave according to a different set of laws known as quantum mechanics.

For humans, who can only perceive the macroscopic world, or what’s visible to the naked eye, quantum mechanics can seem counterintuitive and somewhat magical. Things you might not expect happen in the quantum world, like electrons “tunneling” through tiny energy barriers and appearing on the other side unscathed, or being in two different places at the same time in a phenomenon called superposition.

I am trained as a quantum engineer. Research in quantum mechanics is usually geared toward technology. However, and somewhat surprisingly, there is increasing evidence that nature – an engineer with billions of years of practice – has learned how to use quantum mechanics to function optimally. If this is indeed true, it means that our understanding of biology is radically incomplete. It also means that we could possibly control physiological processes by using the quantum properties of biological matter.

Quantumness in biology is probably real

Researchers can manipulate quantum phenomena to build better technology. In fact, you already live in a quantum-powered world: from laser pointers to GPS, magnetic resonance imaging and the transistors in your computer – all these technologies rely on quantum effects.

In general, quantum effects only manifest at very small length and mass scales, or when temperatures approach absolute zero. This is because quantum objects like atoms and molecules lose their “quantumness” when they uncontrollably interact with each other and their environment. In other words, a macroscopic collection of quantum objects is better described by the laws of classical mechanics. Everything that starts quantum dies classical. For example, an electron can be manipulated to be in two places at the same time, but it will end up in only one place after a short while – exactly what would be expected classically.

In a complicated, noisy biological system, it is thus expected that most quantum effects will rapidly disappear, washed out in what the physicist Erwin Schrödinger called the “warm, wet environment of the cell.” To most physicists, the fact that the living world operates at elevated temperatures and in complex environments implies that biology can be adequately and fully described by classical physics: no funky barrier crossing, no being in multiple locations simultaneously.

Chemists, however, have for a long time begged to differ. Research on basic chemical reactions at room temperature unambiguously shows that processes occurring within biomolecules like proteins and genetic material are the result of quantum effects. Importantly, such nanoscopic, short-lived quantum effects are consistent with driving some macroscopic physiological processes that biologists have measured in living cells and organisms. Research suggests that quantum effects influence biological functions, including regulating enzyme activitysensing magnetic fieldscell metabolism and electron transport in biomolecules.

How to study quantum biology

The tantalizing possibility that subtle quantum effects can tweak biological processes presents both an exciting frontier and a challenge to scientists. Studying quantum mechanical effects in biology requires tools that can measure the short time scales, small length scales and subtle differences in quantum states that give rise to physiological changes – all integrated within a traditional wet lab environment.

In my work, I build instruments to study and control the quantum properties of small things like electrons. In the same way that electrons have mass and charge, they also have a quantum property called spin. Spin defines how the electrons interact with a magnetic field, in the same way that charge defines how electrons interact with an electric field. The quantum experiments I have been building since graduate school, and now in my own lab, aim to apply tailored magnetic fields to change the spins of particular electrons.

Research has demonstrated that many physiological processes are influenced by weak magnetic fields. These processes include stem cell development and maturationcell proliferation ratesgenetic material repair and countless others. These physiological responses to magnetic fields are consistent with chemical reactions that depend on the spin of particular electrons within molecules. Applying a weak magnetic field to change electron spins can thus effectively control a chemical reaction’s final products, with important physiological consequences.

Currently, a lack of understanding of how such processes work at the nanoscale level prevents researchers from determining exactly what strength and frequency of magnetic fields cause specific chemical reactions in cells. Current cellphone, wearable and miniaturization technologies are already sufficient to produce tailored, weak magnetic fields that change physiology, both for good and for bad. The missing piece of the puzzle is, hence, a “deterministic codebook” of how to map quantum causes to physiological outcomes.

In the future, fine-tuning nature’s quantum properties could enable researchers to develop therapeutic devices that are noninvasive, remotely controlled and accessible with a mobile phone. Electromagnetic treatments could potentially be used to prevent and treat disease, such as brain tumors, as well as in biomanufacturing, such as increasing lab-grown meat production.

A whole new way of doing science

Quantum biology is one of the most interdisciplinary fields to ever emerge. How do you build community and train scientists to work in this area?

Since the pandemic, my lab at the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Surrey’s Quantum Biology Doctoral Training Centre have organized Big Quantum Biology meetings to provide an informal weekly forum for researchers to meet and share their expertise in fields like mainstream quantum physics, biophysics, medicine, chemistry and biology.

Research with potentially transformative implications for biology, medicine and the physical sciences will require working within an equally transformative model of collaboration. Working in one unified lab would allow scientists from disciplines that take very different approaches to research to conduct experiments that meet the breadth of quantum biology from the quantum to the molecular, the cellular and the organismal.

The existence of quantum biology as a discipline implies that traditional understanding of life processes is incomplete. Further research will lead to new insights into the age-old question of what life is, how it can be controlled and how to learn with nature to build better quantum technologies.


This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Clarice D. Aiello is a quantum engineer interested in how quantum physics informs biology at the nanoscale. She is an expert on nanosensors that harness room-temperature quantum effects in noisy environments. Aiello received a bachelor’s in physics from the Ecole Polytechnique, France; a master’s degree in physics from the University of Cambridge, Trinity College, UK; and a PhD in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She held postdoctoral appointments in bioengineering at Stanford University and in chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley. Two months before the pandemic, she joined the University of California, Los Angeles, where she leads the Quantum Biology Tech (QuBiT) Lab.


The author thanks Nicole Yunger Halpern and Spyridon Michalakis for the opportunity to talk about quantum biology to the physics audience of this wonderful blog!

Winners of the Quantum-Steampunk Short-Story Contest

During the past seven months, I’ve steamed across the Atlantic, sailed in a flying castle, teleported across the globe, and shuttled forward and backward in time. Literarily, not literally—the Quantum-Steampunk Short-Story Contest began welcoming submissions in October 2022. We challenged everybody aged 13 and over to write a steampunk narrative that involves a real or imagined quantum technology. One hundred sixty-seven entries arrived from 29 countries. Professional writers submitted stories, as did 13-year-olds. Tenured physics professors, librarians, English and math teachers, undergraduates, physicians, graduate students, and a United States Senate staffer entered. Thanks to their creativity, I now have a folder full of other worlds.

I’m over the moon (in a steam-powered ship) to announce the winners. David Wakeham received the $1,500 grand prize for the story The Creature of Ashen House. First runner-up Gerard McCaul won $1,000 for Doctor Up and Mister Down, and second runner-up Paulo Barreto won $500 for Eikonal. The People’s Choice Award ($500) went to Cristina Legarda for Pursuit, also nominated by two judges for a “Please Turn This into a Novel” award. Thanks to the 261 of you who voted in the People’s Choice competition!

In addition to traditional awards, we created four idiosyncratic ones, each entailing $250. We recognized Jeff Provine’s Stealing Buttons for its badass steampunk heroine; Matt King’s Three Imperiled Scientists for its wit and (relatedly) its portrayal of academia; Rick Searle’s The Recurrence Machine for its steampunk atmosphere; and Claudia Clarke’s Looking Forward, Looking Back, for its heart-capturing automaton. You can read all the finalist stories here.

Quantum-steampunk graphic by contest entrant Kayla Phan, who used YouChat Imagine

Sending our judges the finalists in March, I felt not only exhilaration (and relief, as whittling down 167 entries entails no little hand wringing), but also anxiety. Would the stories measure up? So I must have glowed when the first judge submitted his evaluations: Speculative-fiction author Ken Liu enthused, “The entries were so fun to read.” Similar reactions followed from across the panel, which featured experts in mathematics, philosophy, creative writing, experimental quantum physics, and history: “I had a very good time reading these stories,” another panelist wrote. “This was fun and some excellent spring break airplane (no dirigibles, I’m afraid) reading,” said another. Many thanks to our judges and short-listing committee for their input. University of Maryland undergraduates Hannah Cho and Jade Leschack led the team of students who narrowed down the candidates. I couldn’t resist treating the committee to a Victorian-inspired thank-you upon announcing the winners.

Thank-yous baked by Panera, not me

Although this year’s contest has ended, quantum-steampunk literature has just shipped out from its berth. Two contest entrants have posted their stories on their own online domains: You can read the mystery by Duke physics professor Ken Brown here and the adventure by quantum-algorithm designer Brian Siegelwax here. All other entrants, please feel free to post your stories and to submit them to other literary contests. Drop me a line, and leave a link in the chat below, when your story is published. I’d love to hear how your journey continues.

Also, stay tuned for v2.0 of the Quantum-Steampunk Short-Story Contest. An organization has expressed interest in a reboot during the 2024–2025 academic year. AI-collaboration category, anyone? Bonus points if you use a quantum neural network. Please email me if you’d like to support the effort!

Quantum-steampunk graphic by contest entrant Necklace Devkota

The opportunity to helm this contest has been a privilege and a dream. Many thanks to our writers, readers, funder (the John Templeton Foundation), staff (especially webmaster Anıl Zenginoğlu), judges, and shortlisting committee. Keep writing, and keep experimenting.

Quantum computing vs. Grubhub

pon receiving my speaking assignments for the Tucson Festival of Books, I mentally raised my eyebrows. I’d be participating in a panel discussion with Mike Evans, the founder of Grubhub? But I hadn’t created an app that’s a household name. I hadn’t transformed 30 million people’s eating habits. I’m a theoretical physicist; I build universes in my head for a living. I could spend all day trying to prove a theorem and failing, and no stocks would tumble as a result.

Once the wave of incredulity had crested, I noticed that the panel was entitled “The Future of Tech.” Grubhub has transformed technology, I reasoned, and quantum computing is in the process of doing so. Fair enough. 

Besides, my husband pointed out, the food industry requires fridges. Physicists building quantum computers from superconductors need fridges. The latter fridges require temperatures ten million times lower than restaurateurs do, but we still share an interest.

Very well, I thought. Game on.

Tucson hosts the third-largest book festival in the United States. And why shouldn’t it, as the festival takes place in early March, when much of the country is shivering and eyeing Arizona’s T-shirt temperatures with envy? If I had to visit any institution in the winter, I couldn’t object to the festival’s home, the University of Arizona.

The day before the festival, I presented a colloquium at the university, for the Arizona Quantum Alliance. The talk took place in the Wyant College of Optical Sciences, the home of an optical-instruments museum. Many of the instruments date to the 1800s and, built from brass and wood, smack of steampunk. I approved. Outside the optics building, workers were setting up tents to house the festival’s science activities.

The next day—a Saturday—dawned clear and bright. Late in the morning, I met Mike and our panel’s moderator, Bob Griffin, another startup veteran. We sat down at a table in the back of a broad tent, the tent filled up with listeners, and the conversation began.

I relished the conversation as I’d relished an early-morning ramble along the trails by my hotel at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains. I joined theoretical physics for the love of ideas, and this exchange of ideas offered an intellectual workout. One of Mike’s points resonated with me most: Grubhub didn’t advance technology much. He shifted consumers from ordering pizza via phone call to ordering pizza via computer, then to ordering pizza via apps on phones. Yet these small changes, accumulated across a population and encouraged by a pandemic, changed society. Food-delivery services exploded and helped establish the gig economy (despite Mike’s concerns about worker security). One small step for technology, adopted by tens of millions, can constitute one giant leap for commerce.

To me, Grubhub offered a foil for quantum computing, which offers a giant leap in technology: The physical laws best-suited to describing today’s computers can’t describe quantum computers. Some sources portray this advance as bound to transform all our lives in countless ways. This portrayal strikes some quantum scientists as hype that can endanger quality work. 

Quantum computers will transform cybersecurity, being able to break the safeguards that secure our credit-card information when we order food via Grubhub. Yet most consumers don’t know what safeguards are protecting us. We simply trust that safeguards exist. How they look under the hood will change by the time large-scale quantum computers exist—will metamorphose perhaps as dramatically as did Gregor Samsa before he woke up as an insect. But consumers’ lives might not metamorphose.

Quantum scientists hope and anticipate that quantum computers will enable discoveries in chemistry, materials science, and pharmacology. Molecules are quantum, and many materials exhibit quantum properties. Simulating quantum systems takes classical (everyday) computers copious amounts of time and memory—in some cases, so much that a classical computer the size of the universe would take ages. Quantum computers will be able to simulate quantum subjects naturally. But how these simulations will impact everyday life remains a question.

For example, consider my favorite potential application of quantum computers: fertilizer production, as envisioned by Microsoft’s quantum team. Humanity spends about 3% of the world’s energy on producing fertilizer, using a technique developed in 1909. Bacteria accomplish the same goal far more efficiently. But those bacteria use a molecule—nitrogenase—too complicated for us to understand using classical computers. Being quantum, the molecule invites quantum computation. Quantum computers may crack the molecule’s secrets and transform fertilizer production and energy use. The planet and humanity would benefit. We might reduce famines or avert human-driven natural disasters. But would the quantum computation change my neighbor’s behavior as Grubhub has? I can’t say.

Finally, evidence suggests that quantum computers can assist with optimization problems. Imagine a company that needs to transport supplies to various places at various times. How can the company optimize this process—implement it most efficiently? Quantum computers seem likely to be able to help. The evidence isn’t watertight, however, and quantum computers might not solve optimization problems exactly. If the evidence winds up correct, industries will benefit. But would this advance change Jane Doe’s everyday habits? Or will she only receive pizza deliveries a few minutes more quickly?

Don’t get me wrong; quantum technology has transformed our lives. It’s enabled the most accurate, most precise clocks in the world, which form the infrastructure behind GPS. Quantum physics has awed us, enabling the detection of gravitational waves—ripples, predicted by Einstein, in spacetime. But large-scale quantum computers—the holy grail of quantum technology—don’t suit all problems, such as totting up the miles I traveled en route to Tucson; and consumers might not notice quantum computers’ transformation of cybersecurity. I expect quantum computing to change the world, but let’s think twice about whether quantum computing will change everyone’s life like a blockbuster app.

I’ve no idea how many people have made this pun about Mike’s work, but the panel discussion left me with food for thought. He earned his undergraduate degree at MIT, by the way; so scientifically inclined Quantum Frontiers readers might enjoy his memoir, Hangry. It conveys a strong voice and dishes on data and diligence through stories. (For the best predictor of whether you’ll enjoy a burrito, ignore the starred reviews. Check how many people have reordered the burrito.)

The festival made my week. After the panel, I signed books; participated in a discussion about why “The Future Is Quantum!” with law professor Jane Bambauer; and narrowly missed a talk by Lois Lowry, a Newbury Award winner who wrote novels that I read as a child. (The auditorium filled up before I reached the door, but I’m glad that it did; Lois Lowry deserves a packed house and then some.) I learned—as I’d wondered—that yes, there’s something magical to being an author at a book festival. And I learned about how the future of tech depends on more than tech.

Identical twins and quantum entanglement

“If I had a nickel for every unsolicited and very personal health question I’ve gotten at parties, I’d have paid off my medical school loans by now,” my doctor friend complained. As a physicist, I can somewhat relate. I occasionally find myself nodding along politely to people’s eccentric theories about the universe. A gentleman once explained to me how twin telepathy (the phenomenon where, for example, one twin feels the other’s pain despite being in separate countries) comes from twins’ brains being entangled in the womb. Entanglement is a nonclassical correlation that can exist between spatially separated systems. If two objects are entangled, it’s possible to know everything about both of them together but nothing about either one. Entangling two particles (let alone full brains) over tens of kilometres (let alone full countries) is incredibly challenging. “Using twins to study entanglement, that’ll be the day,” I thought. Well, my last paper did something like that. 

In theory, a twin study consists of two people that are as identical as possible in every way except for one. What that allows you to do is isolate the effect of that one thing on something else. Aleksander Lasek (postdoc at QuICS), David Huse (professor of physics at Princeton), Nicole Yunger Halpern (NIST physicist and Quantum Frontiers blogger), and I were interested in isolating the effects of quantities’ noncommutation (explained below) on entanglement. To do so, we first built a pair of twins and then compared them

Consider a well-insulated thermos filled with soup. The heat and the number of “soup particles” inside the thermos are conserved. So the energy and the number of “soup particles” are conserved quantities. In classical physics, conserved quantities commute. This means that we can simultaneously measure the amount of each conserved quantity in our system, like the energy and number of soup particles. However, in quantum mechanics, this needn’t be true. Measuring one property of a quantum system can change another measurement’s outcome.

Conserved quantities’ noncommutation in thermodynamics has led to some interesting results. For example, it’s been shown that conserved quantities’ noncommutation can decrease the rate of entropy production. For the purposes of this post, entropy production is something that limits engine efficiency—how well engines can convert fuel to useful work. For example, if your car engine had zero entropy production (which is impossible), it would convert 100% of the energy in your car’s fuel into work that moved your car along the road. Current car engines can convert about 30% of this energy, so it’s no wonder that people are excited about the prospective application of decreasing entropy production. Other results (like this one and that one) have connected noncommutation to potentially hindering thermalization—the phenomenon where systems interact until they have similar properties, like when a cup of coffee cools. Thermalization limits memory storage and battery lifetimes. Thus, learning how to resist thermalization could also potentially lead to better technologies, such as longer-lasting batteries. 

One can measure the amount of entanglement within a system, and as quantum particles thermalize, they entangle. Given the above results about thermalization, we might expect that noncommutation would decrease entanglement. Testing this expectation is where the twins come in.

Say we built a pair of twins that were identical in every way except for one. Nancy, the noncommuting twin, has some features that don’t commute, say, her hair colour and height. This means that if we measure her height, we’ll have no idea what her hair colour is. For Connor, the commuting twin, his hair colour and height commute, so we can determine them both simultaneously. Which twin has more entanglement? It turns out it’s Nancy.

Disclaimer: This paragraph is written for an expert audience. Our actual models consist of 1D chains of pairs of qubits. Each model has three conserved quantities (“charges”), which are sums over local charges on the sites. In the noncommuting model, the three local charges are tensor products of Pauli matrices with the identity (XI, YI, ZI). In the commuting model, the three local charges are tensor products of the Pauli matrices with themselves (XX, YY, ZZ). The paper explains in what sense these models are similar. We compared these models numerically and analytically in different settings suggested by conventional and quantum thermodynamics. In every comparison, the noncommuting model had more entanglement on average.

Our result thus suggests that noncommutation increases entanglement. So does charges’ noncommutation promote or hinder thermalization? Frankly, I’m not sure. But I’d bet the answer won’t be in the next eccentric theory I hear at a party.

Memories of things past

My best friend—who’s held the title of best friend since kindergarten—calls me the keeper of her childhood memories. I recall which toys we played with, the first time I visited her house,1 and which beverages our classmates drank during snack time in kindergarten.2 She wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the first workshop I’ve co-organized centered on memory.

Memory—and the loss of memory—stars in thermodynamics. As an example, take what my husband will probably do this evening: bake tomorrow’s breakfast. I don’t know whether he’ll bake fruit-and-oat cookies, banana muffins, pear muffins, or pumpkin muffins. Whichever he chooses, his baking will create a scent. That scent will waft across the apartment, seep into air vents, and escape into the corridor—will disperse into the environment. By tomorrow evening, nobody will be able to tell by sniffing what my husband will have baked. 

That is, the kitchen’s environment lacks a memory. This lack contributes to our experience of time’s arrow: We sense that time passes partially by smelling less and less of breakfast. Physicists call memoryless systems and processes Markovian.

Our kitchen’s environment is Markovian because it’s large and particles churn through it randomly. But not all environments share these characteristics. Metaphorically speaking, a dispersed memory of breakfast may recollect, return to a kitchen, and influence the following week’s baking. For instance, imagine an atom in a quantum computer, rather than a kitchen in an apartment. A few other atoms may form our atom’s environment. Quantum information may leak from our atom into that environment, swish around in the environment for a time, and then return to haunt our atom. We’d call the atom’s evolution and environment non-Markovian.

I had the good fortune to co-organize a workshop about non-Markovianity—about memory—this February. The workshop took place at the Banff International Research Station, abbreviated BIRS, which you pronounce like the plural of what you say when shivering outdoors in Canada. BIRS operates in the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, high in the Rocky Mountains. The Banff Centre could accompany a dictionary entry for pristine, to my mind. The air feels crisp, the trees on nearby peaks stand out against the snow like evergreen fringes on white velvet, and the buildings balance a rustic-mountain-lodge style with the avant-garde. 

The workshop balanced styles, too, but skewed toward the theoretical and abstract. We learned about why the world behaves classically in our everyday experiences; about information-theoretic measures of the distances between quantum states; and how to simulate, on quantum computers, chemical systems that interact with environments. One talk, though, brought our theory back down to (the snow-dusted) Earth.

Gabriela Schlau-Cohen runs a chemistry lab at MIT. She wants to understand how plants transport energy. Energy arrives at a plant from the sun in the form of light. The light hits a pigment-and-protein complex. If the plant is lucky, the light transforms into a particle-like packet of energy called an exciton. The exciton traverses the receptor complex, then other complexes. Eventually, the exciton finds a spot where it can enable processes such as leaf growth. 

A high fraction of the impinging photons—85%—transform into excitons. How do plants convert and transport energy as efficiently as they do?

Gabriela’s group aims to find out—not by testing natural light-harvesting complexes, but by building complexes themselves. The experimentalists mimic the complex’s protein using DNA. You can fold DNA into almost any shape you want, by choosing the DNA’s base pairs (basic units) adroitly and by using “staples” formed from more DNA scraps. The sculpted molecules are called DNA origami.

Gabriela’s group engineers different DNA structures, analogous to complexes’ proteins, to have different properties. For instance, the experimentalists engineer rigid structures and flexible structures. Then, the group assesses how energy moves through each structure. Each structure forms an environment that influences excitons’ behaviors, similarly to how a memory-containing environment influences an atom.

Courtesy of Gabriela Schlau-Cohen

The Banff environment influenced me, stirring up memories like powder displaced by a skier on the slopes above us. I first participated in a BIRS workshop as a PhD student, and then I returned as a postdoc. Now, I was co-organizing a workshop to which I brought a PhD student of my own. Time flows, as we’re reminded while walking down the mountain from the Banff Centre into town: A cemetery borders part of the path. Time flows, but we belong to that thermodynamically remarkable class of systems that retain memories…memories and a few other treasures that resist change, such as friendships held since kindergarten.

1Plushy versions of Simba and Nala from The Lion King. I remain grateful to her for letting me play at being Nala.

2I’d request milk, another kid would request apple juice, and everyone else would request orange juice.

A (quantum) complex legacy: Part deux

I didn’t fancy the research suggestion emailed by my PhD advisor.

A 2016 email from John Preskill led to my publishing a paper about quantum complexity in 2022, as I explained in last month’s blog post. But I didn’t explain what I thought of his email upon receiving it.

It didn’t float my boat. (Hence my not publishing on it until 2022.)

The suggestion contained ingredients that ordinarily would have caulked any cruise ship of mine: thermodynamics, black-hole-inspired quantum information, and the concept of resources. John had forwarded a paper drafted by Stanford physicists Adam Brown and Lenny Susskind. They act as grand dukes of the community sussing out what happens to information swallowed by black holes. 

From Rare-Gallery

We’re not sure how black holes work. However, physicists often model a black hole with a clump of particles squeezed close together and so forced to interact with each other strongly. The interactions entangle the particles. The clump’s quantum state—let’s call it | \psi(t) \rangle—grows not only complicated with time (t), but also complex in a technical sense: Imagine taking a fresh clump of particles and preparing it in the state | \psi(t) \rangle via a sequence of basic operations, such as quantum gates performable with a quantum computer. The number of basic operations needed is called the complexity of | \psi(t) \rangle. A black hole’s state has a complexity believed to grow in time—and grow and grow and grow—until plateauing. 

This growth echoes the second law of thermodynamics, which helps us understand why time flows in only one direction. According to the second law, every closed, isolated system’s entropy grows until plateauing.1 Adam and Lenny drew parallels between the second law and complexity’s growth.

The less complex a quantum state is, the better it can serve as a resource in quantum computations. Recall, as we did last month, performing calculations in math class. You needed clean scratch paper on which to write the calculations. So does a quantum computer. “Scratch paper,” to a quantum computer, consists of qubits—basic units of quantum information, realized in, for example, atoms or ions. The scratch paper is “clean” if the qubits are in a simple, unentangled quantum state—a low-complexity state. A state’s greatest possible complexity, minus the actual complexity, we can call the state’s uncomplexity. Uncomplexity—a quantum state’s blankness—serves as a resource in quantum computation.

Manny Knill and Ray Laflamme realized this point in 1998, while quantifying the “power of one clean qubit.” Lenny arrived at a similar conclusion while reasoning about black holes and firewalls. For an introduction to firewalls, see this blog post by John. Suppose that someone—let’s call her Audrey—falls into a black hole. If it contains a firewall, she’ll burn up. But suppose that someone tosses a qubit into the black hole before Audrey falls. The qubit kicks the firewall farther away from the event horizon, so Audrey will remain safe for longer. Also, the qubit increases the uncomplexity of the black hole’s quantum state. Uncomplexity serves as a resource also to Audrey.

A resource is something that’s scarce, valuable, and useful for accomplishing tasks. Different things qualify as resources in different settings. For instance, imagine wanting to communicate quantum information to a friend securely. Entanglement will serve as a resource. How can we quantify and manipulate entanglement? How much entanglement do we need to perform a given communicational or computational task? Quantum scientists answer such questions with a resource theory, a simple information-theoretic model. Theorists have defined resource theories for entanglement, randomness, and more. In many a blog post, I’ve eulogized resource theories for thermodynamic settings. Can anyone define, Adam and Lenny asked, a resource theory for quantum uncomplexity?

Resource thinking pervades our world.

By late 2016, I was a quantum thermodynamicist, I was a resource theorist, and I’d just debuted my first black-hole–inspired quantum information theory. Moreover, I’d coauthored a review about the already-extant resource theory that looked closest to what Adam and Lenny sought. Hence John’s email, I expect. Yet that debut had uncovered reams of questions—questions that, as a budding physicist heady with the discovery of discovery, I could own. Why would I answer a question of someone else’s instead?

So I thanked John, read the paper draft, and pondered it for a few days. Then, I built a research program around my questions and waited for someone else to answer Adam and Lenny.

Three and a half years later, I was still waiting. The notion of uncomplexity as a resource had enchanted the black-hole-information community, so I was preparing a resource-theory talk for a quantum-complexity workshop. The preparations set wheels churning in my mind, and inspiration struck during a long walk.2

After watching my workshop talk, Philippe Faist reached out about collaborating. Philippe is a coauthor, a friend, and a fellow quantum thermodynamicist and resource theorist. Caltech’s influence had sucked him, too, into the black-hole community. We Zoomed throughout the pandemic’s first spring, widening our circle to include Teja Kothakonda, Jonas Haferkamp, and Jens Eisert of Freie University Berlin. Then, Anthony Munson joined from my nascent group in Maryland. Physical Review A published our paper, “Resource theory of quantum uncomplexity,” in January.

The next four paragraphs, I’ve geared toward experts. An agent in the resource theory manipulates a set of n qubits. The agent can attempt to perform any gate U on any two qubits. Noise corrupts every real-world gate implementation, though. Hence the agent effects a gate chosen randomly from near U. Such fuzzy gates are free. The agent can’t append or discard any system for free: Appending even a maximally mixed qubit increases the state’s uncomplexity, as Knill and Laflamme showed. 

Fuzzy gates’ randomness prevents the agent from mapping complex states to uncomplex states for free (with any considerable probability). Complexity only grows or remains constant under fuzzy operations, under appropriate conditions. This growth echoes the second law of thermodynamics. 

We also defined operational tasks—uncomplexity extraction and expenditure analogous to work extraction and expenditure. Then, we bounded the efficiencies with which the agent can perform these tasks. The efficiencies depend on a complexity entropy that we defined—and that’ll star in part trois of this blog-post series.

Now, I want to know what purposes the resource theory of uncomplexity can serve. Can we recast black-hole problems in terms of the resource theory, then leverage resource-theory results to solve the black-hole problem? What about problems in condensed matter? Can our resource theory, which quantifies the difficulty of preparing quantum states, merge with the resource theory of magic, which quantifies that difficulty differently?

Unofficial mascot for fuzzy operations

I don’t regret having declined my PhD advisor’s recommendation six years ago. Doing so led me to explore probability theory and measurement theory, collaborate with two experimental labs, and write ten papers with 21 coauthors whom I esteem. But I take my hat off to Adam and Lenny for their question. And I remain grateful to the advisor who kept my goals and interests in mind while checking his email. I hope to serve Anthony and his fellow advisees as well.

1…en route to obtaining a marriage license. My husband and I married four months after the pandemic throttled government activities. Hours before the relevant office’s calendar filled up, I scored an appointment to obtain our license. Regarding the metro as off-limits, my then-fiancé and I walked from Cambridge, Massachusetts to downtown Boston for our appointment. I thank him for enduring my requests to stop so that I could write notes.

2At least, in the thermodynamic limit—if the system is infinitely large. If the system is finite-size, its entropy grows on average.

A (quantum) complex legacy

Early in the fourth year of my PhD, I received a most John-ish email from John Preskill, my PhD advisor. The title read, “thermodynamics of complexity,” and the message was concise the way that the Amazon River is damp: “Might be an interesting subject for you.” 

Below the signature, I found a paper draft by Stanford physicists Adam Brown and Lenny Susskind. Adam is a Brit with an accent and a wit to match his Oxford degree. Lenny, known to the public for his books and lectures, is a New Yorker with an accent that reminds me of my grandfather. Before the physicists posted their paper online, Lenny sought feedback from John, who forwarded me the email.

The paper concerned a confluence of ideas that you’ve probably encountered in the media: string theory, black holes, and quantum information. String theory offers hope for unifying two physical theories: relativity, which describes large systems such as our universe, and quantum theory, which describes small systems such as atoms. A certain type of gravitational system and a certain type of quantum system participate in a duality, or equivalence, known since the 1990s. Our universe isn’t such a gravitational system, but never mind; the duality may still offer a toehold on a theory of quantum gravity. Properties of the gravitational system parallel properties of the quantum system and vice versa. Or so it seemed.

The gravitational system can have two black holes linked by a wormhole. The wormhole’s volume can grow linearly in time for a time exponentially long in the black holes’ entropy. Afterward, the volume hits a ceiling and approximately ceases changing. Which property of the quantum system does the wormhole’s volume parallel?

Envision the quantum system as many particles wedged close together, so that they interact with each other strongly. Initially uncorrelated particles will entangle with each other quickly. A quantum system has properties, such as average particle density, that experimentalists can measure relatively easily. Does such a measurable property—an observable of a small patch of the system—parallel the wormhole volume? No; such observables cease changing much sooner than the wormhole volume does. The same conclusion applies to the entanglement amongst the particles.

What about a more sophisticated property of the particles’ quantum state? Researchers proposed that the state’s complexity parallels the wormhole’s volume. To grasp complexity, imagine a quantum computer performing a computation. When performing computations in math class, you needed blank scratch paper on which to write your calculations. A quantum computer needs the quantum equivalent of blank scratch paper: qubits (basic units of quantum information, realized, for example, as atoms) in a simple, unentangled, “clean” state. The computer performs a sequence of basic operations—quantum logic gates—on the qubits. These operations resemble addition and subtraction but can entangle the qubits. What’s the minimal number of basic operations needed to prepare a desired quantum state (or to “uncompute” a given state to the blank state)? The state’s quantum complexity.1 

Quantum complexity has loomed large over multiple fields of physics recently: quantum computing, condensed matter, and quantum gravity. The latter, we established, entails a duality between a gravitational system and a quantum system. The quantum system begins in a simple quantum state that grows complicated as the particles interact. The state’s complexity parallels the volume of a wormhole in the gravitational system, according to a conjecture.2 

The conjecture would hold more water if the quantum state’s complexity grew similarly to the wormhole’s volume: linearly in time, for a time exponentially large in the quantum system’s size. Does the complexity grow so? The expectation that it does became the linear-growth conjecture.

Evidence supported the conjecture. For instance, quantum information theorists modeled the quantum particles as interacting randomly, as though undergoing a quantum circuit filled with random quantum gates. Leveraging probability theory,3 the researchers proved that the state’s complexity grows linearly at short times. Also, the complexity grows linearly for long times if each particle can store a great deal of quantum information. But what if the particles are qubits, the smallest and most ubiquitous unit of quantum information? The question lingered for years.

Jonas Haferkamp, a PhD student in Berlin, dreamed up an answer to an important version of the question.4 I had the good fortune to help formalize that answer with him and members of his research group: master’s student Teja Kothakonda, postdoc Philippe Faist, and supervisor Jens Eisert. Our paper, published in Nature Physics last year, marked step one in a research adventure catalyzed by John Preskill’s email 4.5 years earlier.

Imagine, again, qubits undergoing a circuit filled with random quantum gates. That circuit has some architecture, or arrangement of gates. Slotting different gates into the architecture effects different transformations5 on the qubits. Consider the set of all transformations implementable with one architecture. This set has some size, which we defined and analyzed.

What happens to the set’s size if you add more gates to the circuit—let the particles interact for longer? We can bound the size’s growth using the mathematical toolkits of algebraic geometry and differential topology. Upon bounding the size’s growth, we can bound the state’s complexity. The complexity, we concluded, grows linearly in time for a time exponentially long in the number of qubits.

Our result lends weight to the complexity-equals-volume hypothesis. The result also introduces algebraic geometry and differential topology into complexity as helpful mathematical toolkits. Finally, the set size that we bounded emerged as a useful concept that may elucidate circuit analyses and machine learning.

John didn’t have machine learning in mind when forwarding me an email in 2017. He didn’t even have in mind proving the linear-growth conjecture. The proof enables step two of the research adventure catalyzed by that email: thermodynamics of quantum complexity, as the email’s title stated. I’ll cover that thermodynamics in its own blog post. The simplest of messages can spin a complex legacy.

The links provided above scarcely scratch the surface of the quantum-complexity literature; for a more complete list, see our paper’s bibliography. For a seminar about the linear-growth paper, see this video hosted by Nima Lashkari’s research group.

1The term complexity has multiple meanings; forget the rest for the purposes of this article.

2According to another conjecture, the quantum state’s complexity parallels a certain space-time region’s action. (An action, in physics, isn’t a motion or a deed or something that Hamlet keeps avoiding. An action is a mathematical object that determines how a system can and can’t change in time.) The first two conjectures snowballed into a paper entitled “Does complexity equal anything?” Whatever it parallels, complexity plays an important role in the gravitational–quantum duality. 

3Experts: Such as unitary t-designs.

4Experts: Our work concerns quantum circuits, rather than evolutions under fixed Hamiltonians. Also, our work concerns exact circuit complexity, the minimal number of gates needed to prepare a state exactly. A natural but tricky extension eluded us: approximate circuit complexity, the minimal number of gates needed to approximate the state.

5Experts: Unitary operators.

Eight highlights from publishing a science book for the general public

What’s it like to publish a book?

I’ve faced the question again and again this year, as my book Quantum Steampunk hit bookshelves in April. Two responses suggest themselves.

On the one hand, I channel the Beatles: It’s a hard day’s night. Throughout the publication process, I undertook physics research full-time. Media opportunities squeezed themselves into the corners of the week: podcast and radio-show recordings, public-lecture preparations, and interviews with journalists. After submitting physics papers to coauthors and journals, I drafted articles for Quanta Magazine, Literary Hub, the New Scientist newsletter, and other venues—then edited the articles, then edited them again, and then edited them again. Often, I apologized to editors about not having the freedom to respond to their comments till the weekend. Before public-lecture season hit, I catalogued all the questions that I imagined anyone might ask, and I drafted answers. The resulting document spans 16 pages, and I study it before every public lecture and interview.

Public lecture at the Institute for the Science of Origins at Case Western Reserve University

Answer number two: Publishing a book is like a cocktail of watching the sun rise over the Pacific from Mt. Fuji, taking off in an airplane for the first time, and conducting a symphony in Carnegie Hall.1 I can scarcely believe that I spoke in the Talks at Google lecture series—a series that’s hosted Tina Fey, Noam Chomsky, and Andy Weir! And I found my book mentioned in the Boston Globe! And in a Dutch science publication! If I were an automaton from a steampunk novel, the publication process would have wound me up for months.

Publishing a book has furnished my curiosity cabinet of memories with many a seashell, mineral, fossil, and stuffed crocodile. Since you’ve asked, I’ll share eight additions that stand out.

Breakfast on publication day. Because how else would one celebrate the publication of a steampunk book?

1) I guest-starred on a standup-comedy podcast. Upon moving into college, I received a poster entitled 101 Things to Do Before You Graduate from Dartmouth. My list of 101 Things I Never Expected to Do in a Physics Career include standup comedy.2 I stand corrected.

Comedian Anthony Jeannot bills his podcast Highbrow Drivel as consisting of “hilarious conversations with serious experts.” I joined him and guest comedienne Isabelle Farah in a discussion about film studies, lunch containers, and hippies, as well as quantum physics. Anthony expected me to act as the straight man, to my relief. That said, after my explanation of how quantum computers might help us improve fertilizer production and reduce global energy consumption, Anthony commented that, if I’d been holding a mic, I should have dropped it. I cherish the memory despite having had to look up the term mic drop when the recording ended.

At Words Worth Books in Waterloo, Canada

2) I met Queen Victoria. In mid-May, I arrived in Canada to present about my science and my book at the University of Toronto. En route to the physics department, I stumbled across the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. Her Majesty was enthroned in front of the intricate sandstone building constructed during her reign. She didn’t acknowledge me, of course. But I hope she would have approved of the public lecture I presented about physics that blossomed during her era. 

Her Majesty, Queen Victoria

3) You sent me your photos of Quantum Steampunk. They arrived through email, Facebook, Twitter, text, and LinkedIn. They showed you reading the book, your pets nosing it, steampunk artwork that you’d collected, and your desktops and kitchen counters. The photographs have tickled and surprised me, although I should have expected them, upon reflection: Quantum systems submit easily to observation by their surroundings.3 Furthermore, people say that art—under which I classify writing—fosters human connection. Little wonder, then, that quantum physics and writing intersect in shared book selfies.

Photos from readers

4) A great-grandson of Ludwig Boltzmann’s emailed. Boltzmann, a 19th-century Austrian physicist, helped mold thermodynamics and its partner discipline statistical mechanics. So I sat up straighter upon opening an email from a physicist descended from the giant. Said descendant turned out to have watched a webinar I’d presented for the magazine Physics Today. Although time machines remain in the domain of steampunk fiction, they felt closer to reality that day.

5) An experiment bore out a research goal inspired by the book. My editors and I entitled the book’s epilogue Where to next? The future of quantum steampunk. The epilogue spurred me to brainstorm about opportunities and desiderata—literally, things desired. Where did I want for quantum thermodynamics to head? I shared my brainstorming with an experimentalist later that year. We hatched a project, whose experiment concluded this month. I’ll leave the story for after the paper debuts, but I can say for now that the project gives me chills—in a good way.

6) I recited part of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” with a fellow physicist at a public lecture. The Harvard Science Book Talks form a lecture series produced by the eponymous university and bookstore. I presented a talk hosted by Jacob Barandes—a Harvard physics lecturer, the secret sauce behind the department’s graduate program, and an all-around exemplar of erudition. He asked how entropy relates to “The Raven.”

Image from the Harvard Gazette

For the full answer, see chapter 11 of my book. Briefly: Many entropies exist. They quantify the best efficiencies with which we can perform thermodynamic tasks such as running an engine. Different entropies can quantify different tasks’ efficiencies if the systems are quantum, otherwise small, or far from equilibrium—outside the purview of conventional 19th-century thermodynamics. Conventional thermodynamics describes many-particle systems, such as factory-scale steam engines. We can quantify conventional systems’ efficiencies using just one entropy: the thermodynamic entropy that you’ve probably encountered in connection with time’s arrow. How does this conventional entropy relate to the many quantum entropies? Imagine starting with a quantum system, then duplicating it again and again, until accruing infinitely many copies. The copies’ quantum entropies converge (loosely speaking), collapsing onto one conventional-looking entropy. The book likens this collapse to a collapse described in “The Raven”:

The speaker is a young man who’s startled, late one night, by a tapping sound. The tapping exacerbates his nerves, which are on edge due to the death of his love: “Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing, / Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.” The speaker realizes that the tapping comes from the window, whose shutter he throws open. His wonders, fears, doubts, and dreams collapse onto a bird’s form as a raven steps inside. So do the many entropies collapse onto one entropy as the system under consideration grows infinitely large. We could say, instead, that the entropies come to equal each other, but I’d rather picture “The Raven.” 

I’d memorized the poem in high school but never had an opportunity to recite it for anyone—and it’s a gem to declaim. So I couldn’t help reciting a few stanzas in response to Jacob. But he turned out to have memorized the poem, too, and responded with the next several lines! Even as a physicist, I rarely have the chance to reach such a pinnacle of nerdiness.

With Pittsburgh Quantum Institute head honchos Rob Cunningham and Adam Leibovich

7) I stumbled across a steam-driven train in Pittsburgh. Even before self-driving cars heightened the city’s futuristic vibe, Pittsburgh has been as steampunk as the Nautilus. Captains of industry (or robber barons, if you prefer) raised the city on steel that fed the Industrial Revolution.4 And no steampunk city would deserve the title without a Victorian botanical garden.

A Victorian botanical garden features in chapter 5 of my book. To see a real-life counterpart, visit the Phipps Conservatory. A poem in glass and aluminum, the Phipps opened in 1893 and even boasts a Victoria Room.

Yes, really.

I sneaked into the Phipps during the Pittsburgh Quantum Institute’s annual conference, where I was to present a public lecture about quantum steampunk. Upon reaching the sunken garden, I stopped in my tracks. Yards away stood a coal-black, 19th-century steam train. 

At least, an imitation train stood yards away. The conservatory had incorporated Monet paintings into its scenery during a temporary exhibition. Amongst the palms and ponds were arranged props inspired by the paintings. Monet painted The Gare Saint-Lazare: Arrival of a Train near a station, so a miniature train stood behind a copy of the artwork. The scene found its way into my public lecture—justifying my playing hooky from the conference for a couple of hours (I was doing research for my talk!).

My book’s botanical garden houses hummingbirds, wildebeests, and an artificial creature called a Yorkicockasheepapoo. I can’t promise that you’ll spy Yorkicockasheepapoos while wandering the Phipps, but send me a photo if you do.

8) My students and postdocs presented me with a copy of Quantum Steampunk that they’d signed. They surprised me one afternoon, shortly after publication day, as I was leaving my office. The gesture ranks as one of the most adorable things that’ve ever happened to me, and their book is now the copy that I keep on campus. 

Students…book-selfie photographers…readers halfway across the globe who drop a line…People have populated my curiosity cabinet of with some of the most extraordinary book-publication memories. Thanks for reading, and thanks for sharing.

Book signing after public lecture at Chapman University. Photo from Justin Dressel.

1Or so I imagine, never having watched the sun rise from Mt. Fuji or conducted any symphony, let alone one at Carnegie Hall, and having taken off in a plane for the first time while two months old.

2Other items include serve as an extra in a film, become stranded in Taiwan, and publish a PhD thesis whose title contains the word “steampunk.”

3This ease underlies the difficulty of quantum computing: Any stray particle near a quantum computer can “observe” the computer—interact with the computer and carry off a little of the information that the computer is supposed to store.

4The Pittsburgh Quantum Institute includes Carnegie Mellon University, which owes its name partially to captain of industry Andrew Carnegie.

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.”