Steampunk quantum

A dark-haired man leans over a marble balustrade. In the ballroom below, his assistants tinker with animatronic elephants that trumpet and with potions for improving black-and-white photographs. The man is an inventor near the turn of the 20th century. Cape swirling about him, he watches technology wed fantasy.

Welcome to the steampunk genre. A stew of science fiction and Victorianism, steampunk has invaded literature, film, and the Wall Street Journal. A few years after James Watt improved the steam engine, protagonists build animatronics, clone cats, and time-travel. At sci-fi conventions, top hats and blast goggles distinguish steampunkers from superheroes.


The closest the author has come to dressing steampunk.

I’ve never read steampunk other than H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine—and other than the scene recapped above. The scene features in The Wolsenberg Clock, a novel by Canadian poet Jay Ruzesky. The novel caught my eye at an Ontario library.

In Ontario, I began researching the intersection of QI with thermodynamics. Thermodynamics is the study of energy, efficiency, and entropy. Entropy quantifies uncertainty about a system’s small-scale properties, given large-scale properties. Consider a room of air molecules. Knowing that the room has a temperature of 75°F, you don’t know whether some molecule is skimming the floor, poking you in the eye, or elsewhere. Ambiguities in molecules’ positions and momenta endow the gas with entropy. Whereas entropy suggests lack of control, work is energy that accomplishes tasks.

Thermodynamics sprouted from the Industrial Revolution. Not content with inventing locomotives and factories, engineers wanted to improve efficiencies. How much heat does an engine waste, they asked, while burning fuel? How high can the engine’s work-to-waste ratio rise?

During the 20th century, information invaded thermodynamics. Leó Szilárd showed that we can “spend” information on work: If you know molecules’ positions, you can lift a weight while sacrificing that knowledge. Reversing the process, Rolf Landauer wrote, amounts to erasure: Deleting information costs work.

As technology shrinks, work and information couple in smaller and smaller systems. The spotlight has swept from trains to nanoscale engines, living cells’ molecular motors, and the smallest possible refrigerators. Not only roomfuls of molecules, but also single particles, need analyzing. Having partnered with information theory, thermodynamics must partner with quantum theory.

So I learned in Ontario. As I bustled from library to office, head full of Szilárd and Ruzesky, the two colluded. The penny dropped.

Or—since it sounds Victorian—the shilling.

Thermodynamic quantum information is steampunk.

Like steampunk storylines, thermodynamics matured when lamps burned gas and Charles Dickens burned midnight oil. Like thermo QI, steampunk involves the romanticism of a bygone age, the thrill of cutting-edge technology, and the fundamental natures of energy and information. Falling into thermo QI, I learned why steampunkers fall for stories like Lord Kelvin’s Machine. Doing QI, I do what people fantasize about. Apart from cloning cats.

Perhaps I should attend QI conferences in a hoop skirt and bustle. Would a corset hinder a presentation? Would a steampunk social night fly? On the other hand, theoretical physics needs no hoop skirts to be steampunk. It needs no goggles beyond bifocals, no stovepipes beyond thinking caps. Like physics, novels involve thought experiments. Like novels, physics transports us to the 1800s, into a train, and into living cells—without our leaving our desks.

For different steampunk physics, see Charles Day’s blog for Physics Today.

For technical primers on thermo QI, stay tuned. Noteworthy results appear here, here, here, and in many other publications.

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

About Nicole Yunger Halpern

I’m a theoretical physicist at the Joint Center for Quantum Information and Computer Science in Maryland. My research group re-envisions 19th-century thermodynamics for the 21st century, using the mathematical toolkit of quantum information theory. We then apply quantum thermodynamics as a lens through which to view the rest of science. I call this research “quantum steampunk,” after the steampunk genre of art and literature that juxtaposes Victorian settings (à la thermodynamics) with futuristic technologies (à la quantum information). For more information, check out my upcoming book Quantum Steampunk: The Physics of Yesterday’s Tomorrow. I earned my PhD at Caltech under John Preskill’s auspices; one of my life goals is to be the subject of one of his famous (if not Pullitzer-worthy) poems. Follow me on Twitter @nicoleyh11.

17 thoughts on “Steampunk quantum

  1. The understanding in entropy as a measure of the uncertainty in the small scales, and the connection of QI and thermodynamics (entropy) – by exploring smaller systems as time goes by – are interesting. Inspiring comment on the magic of the theoretical physicist – riding the time machine without leaving our desks. Btw, is that photo really you? So cute 🙂

    • Thanks! I’m glad you liked the article and the enchantment-of-theory idea. It’s one of the reasons why I’m doing theoretical physics.

      Yes, the photo is of me around age six. Thank you; my mother agrees. 🙂

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