The complementarity (not incompatibility) of reason and rhyme

Shortly after learning of the Institute for Quantum Information and Matter, I learned of its poetry.

I’d been eating lunch with a fellow QI student at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. Perimeter’s faculty includes Daniel Gottesman, who earned his PhD at what became Caltech’s IQIM. Perhaps as Daniel passed our table, I wondered whether a liberal-arts enthusiast like me could fit in at Caltech.

“Have you seen Daniel Gottesman’s website?” my friend replied. “He’s written a sonnet.”


He could have written equations with that quill.

Digesting this news with my chicken wrap, I found the website after lunch. The sonnet concerned quantum error correction, the fixing of mistakes made during computations by quantum systems. After reading Daniel’s sonnet, I found John Preskill’s verses about Daniel. Then I found more verses of John’s.

To my Perimeter friend: You win. I’ll fit in, no doubt.

Exhibit A: the latest edition of The Quantum Times, the newsletter for the American Physical Society’s QI group. On page 10, my enthusiasm for QI bubbles over into verse. Don’t worry if you haven’t heard all the terms in the poem. Consider them guidebook entries, landmarks to visit during a Wikipedia trek.

If you know the jargon, listen to it with a newcomer’s ear. Does anyone other than me empathize with frustrated lattices? Or describe speeches accidentally as “monotonic” instead of as “monotonous”? Hearing jargon outside its natural habitat highlights how not to explain research to nonexperts. Examining names for mathematical objects can reveal properties that we never realized those objects had. Inviting us to poke fun at ourselves, the confrontation of jargon sprinkles whimsy onto the meringue of physics.

No matter your familiarity with physics or poetry: Enjoy. And fifty points if you persuade Physical Review Letters to publish this poem’s sequel.

Quantum information

By Nicole Yunger Halpern

If “CHSH” rings a bell,
you know QI’s fared, lately, well.
Such promise does this field portend!
In Neumark fashion, let’s extend
this quantum-information spring:
dilation, growth, this taking wing.

We span the space of physics types
from spin to hypersurface hype,
from neutron-beam experiment
to Bohm and Einstein’s discontent,
from records of a photon’s path
to algebra and other math
that’s more abstract and less applied—
of platforms’ details, purified.

We function as a refuge, too,
if lattices can frustrate you.
If gravity has got your goat,
momentum cutoffs cut your throat:
Forget regimes renormalized;
our states are (mostly) unit-sized.
Velocities stay mostly fixed;
results, at worst, look somewhat mixed.

Though factions I do not condone,
the action that most stirs my bones
is more a spook than Popov ghosts; 1
more at-a-distance, less quark-close.

This field’s a tot—cacophonous—
like cosine, not monotonous.
Cacophony enlivens thought:
We’ve learned from noise what discord’s not.

So take a chance on wave collapse;
enthuse about the CP maps;
in place of “part” and “piece,” say “bit”;
employ, as yardstick, Hilbert-Schmidt;
choose quantum as your nesting place,
of all the fields in physics space.

1 With apologies to Ludvig Faddeev.

This entry was posted in Reflections 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). Catch me at ITAMP, Harvard physics, or MIT. 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" ( 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.

7 thoughts on “The complementarity (not incompatibility) of reason and rhyme

  1. It reads interesting to sew all the jargon together in a poem!

    “Examining names for mathematical objects can reveal properties that we never realized those objects had.” Indeed! Sometimes a good name of mathematical objects does help us see them more clearly. Now I’m reviewing GR again, and found some jargon, like “atlas” of the manifold, very good name. So I think for physicists and mathematicians, besides solving problem, it’s also worth taking time to come up with a good jargon in order to get the idea across 🙂

    • Thanks for the insight! “Atlas” does indeed sound like an illustrative term in the context of GR. I intend to write more about names in physics and math — stay tuned!

  2. Cool poem! I think one of the cool things about physics and math poetry is how it shows how versatile and meaning-filled a lot of scientific language is, so that we can use it to talk about things that have nothing to do with science. There’s a lot of metaphorical potential there. I do these sorts of poems occasionally. I posted one on my blog a couple months back:

    • Agreed! Everyday words acquire physics meanings, and physics terms migrate into everyday conversations. (I once analyzed catalogued and analyzed instances of the latter terms for a folklore database. Having analyzed physics ideas from algebraic, geometric, physical, etc. standpoints, I got a kick out of analyzing them from a folklorist’s standpoint.) Poems help us to figure out what we’re saying.

      Thanks for sharing your poem; I found it piercing. May your future Valentine’s Days involve terminology more like “unit probability of success.”

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