“Nature, you instruct me.”

“Settle thy studies.”

Alone in his workroom, a student contemplates his future. Piles of books teeter next to him. Boxes line the walls; and glass vials, the boxes. Sunbeams that struggle through the stained-glass window illuminate dust.

The student’s name is Faust. I met him during my last winter in college, while complementing Physics 42: Introductory Quantum Mechanics with German 44: The Faust Tradition. A medieval German alchemist, Faust has inspired plays, novels, operas, the short story “The Devil and Daniel Webster” about an American Congressman, and the film “Bedazzled” starring Brendan Frasier.


The Faust tradition in popular culture. Mephistopheles is the demon who buys Faust’s soul. (http://xkcd.com/501/)

As I wondered what to pursue a PhD in, so (roughly speaking) did Faust. In plays by Christopher Marlowe and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust wavers among law, theology, philosophy, and medicine. You’ve probably heard what happens next: Faust chooses sorcery, conjures a demon, and bargains away his soul. Hardly the role model for a college student. I preferred to keep my soul, though Maxwell’s demon had stolen my heart.

A few decades after Goethe penned Faust, English physicist James Maxwell proposed a thought experiment. Consider a box divided into two rooms, he wrote, and a demon controlling the door between the rooms. Since others have explained Maxwell’s paradox, I won’t parrot them. Suffice to say, the demon helps clarify why time flows, what knowledge is, and how information relates to matter. Quantum-information physicists, I learned in a seminar after German 44, study Maxwell’s demon. Via the demon, experiment, and math, QI physicists study the whole world. I wanted to contemplate the whole world, like Goethe’s Faust. By studying QI, I might approximate my goal. Faust, almost as much as my QI seminar, convinced me to pursue a PhD in physics.

Fast forward two years. Someone must have misread my application, because Caltech let me sign my soul to its PhD program. I am the newest Preskillite. Or Preskillnik. Whichever term, if either, irks my supervisor more.

For five years, I will haunt this blog. (Spiros will haunt me if I don’t haunt it.) I’ll try to post one article per month. Pure quantum information occupies me usually: abstract math that encodes physical effects, like entropy (a key to why time flows), decoherence (a system’s transformation from quantum to ordinary), and entanglement (one particle’s ability to affect another, instantaneously, from across a room).

In case I wax poetic about algebra, I apologize in advance. Apologies if I write too many stories about particles in boxes. In addition to training a scientist’s lens on atoms, I enjoy training it on science, culture, and communities. Tune in for scientists’ uses (and abuses) of language, why physics captivates us, and the bittersweetness of representing half our species in a roomful of male physicists (advantage: I rarely wait in line to use a physics department’s bathroom).

As I prepare to move to Caltech, a Faust line keeps replaying in my mind. It encapsulates my impression of a PhD, though written 200 years ago: “Nothing I had; and yet, enough for youth—/ delight in fiction, and the thirst for truth.”

Pleasure to meet you, Quantum Frontiers. Drink with me.

This entry was posted in News, Reflections, Theoretical highlights and tagged , , , , , , , by Nicole Yunger Halpern. Bookmark the permalink.

About Nicole Yunger Halpern

I'm a theoretical physicist and an ITAMP Postdoctoral Fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Institute for Theoretical Atomic, Molecular, and Optical Physics (ITAMP). Before moving here, I completed a physics PhD at Caltech's Institute for Quantum Information and Matter, under John Preskill's auspices. I write one article per month for Quantum Frontiers. My research consists of what I call "quantum steampunk" (https://quantumfrontiers.com/2018/07/29/so-long-and-thanks-for-all-the-fourier-transforms/): I re-envision 19th-century thermodynamics with 21st-century quantum information theory, and I use the combination as a new lens through which to view various fields of science. As of September 2021, I'll be a physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), a QuICS Fellow, a JQI affiliate, and an adjunct assistant professor at the Department of Physics and the Institute for Physical Science and Technology at the University of Maryland. For information about those acronyms, see my research group's webpage (https://quantumsteampunk.umiacs.io).

6 thoughts on ““Nature, you instruct me.”

  1. Doesn’t roll off the tongue, but better to be a Preskillnik than a nudnik. Or a nogoodnik.

    “Alright, already, I’m just a Preskillnik.
    Alright, already, it’s true. So nu?”

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