Life, cellular automata, and mentoring

One night last July, IQIM postdoc Ning Bao emailed me a photo. He’d found a soda can that read, “Share a Coke with Patrick.”

Ning and I were co-mentoring two Summer Undergraduate Research Fellows, or SURFers. One mentee received Ning’s photo: Caltech physics major Patrick Rall.

“Haha,” Patrick emailed back. “I’ll share a Coke.”

Patrick, Ning, and I shared the intellectual equivalent of a six-pack last summer. We shared papers, meals, frustrations, hopes, late-night emails (from Patrick and Ning), 7-AM emails (from me), and webcomic strips. Now a senior, Patrick is co-authoring a paper about his SURF project.

The project grew from the question “What would happen if we quantized Conway’s Game of Life?” (For readers unfamiliar with the game, I’ll explain below.) Lessons we learned about the Game of Life overlapped with lessons I learned about life, as a first-time mentor. The soda fountain of topics contained the following flavors.

Patrick + Coke

Update rules: Till last spring, I’d been burrowing into two models for out-of-equilibrium physics. PhD students burrow as no prairie dogs can. But, given five years in Caltech’s grassland, I wanted to explore. I wanted an update.

Ning and I had trespassed upon quantum game theory months earlier. Consider a nonquantum game, such as the Prisoner’s Dilemma or an election. Suppose that players have physical systems, such as photons (particles of light), that occupy superposed or entangled states. These quantum resources can change the landscape of the game’s possible outcomes. These changes clarify how we can harness quantum mechanics to process, transmit, and secure information.

How might quantum resources change Conway’s Game of Life, or GoL? British mathematician John Conway invented the game in 1970. Imagine a square board divided into smaller squares, or cells. On each cell sits a white or a black tile. Black represents a living organism; white represents a lack thereof.

Conway modeled population dynamics with an update rule. If prairie dogs overpopulate a field, some die from overcrowding. If a black cell borders more than three black neighbors, a white tile replaces the black. If separated from its pack, a prairie dog dies from isolation. If a black tile borders too few black neighbors, we exchange the black for a white. Mathematics columnist Martin Gardner detailed the rest of Conway’s update rule in this 1970 article.

Updating the board repeatedly evolves the population. Black and white shapes might flicker and undulate. Space-ship-like shapes can glide across the board. A simple update rule can generate complex outcomes—including, I found, frustrations, hopes, responsibility for another human’s contentment, and more meetings than I’d realized could fit in one summer.

Prairie dogs

Modeled by Conway’s Game of Life. And by PhD students.

Initial conditions: The evolution depends on the initial state, on how you distribute white and black tiles when preparing the board. Imagine choosing the initial state randomly from all the possibilities. White likely mingles with about as much black. The random initial condition might not generate eye-catchers such as gliders. The board might fade to, and remain, one color.*

Enthusiasm can fade as research drags onward. Project Quantum GoL has continued gliding due to its initial condition: The spring afternoon on which Ning, Patrick, and I observed the firmness of each other’s handshakes; Patrick walked Ning and me through a CV that could have intimidated a postdoc; and everyone tried to soothe everyone else’s nerves but occasionally avoided eye contact.

I don’t mean that awkwardness sustained the project. The awkwardness faded, as exclamation points and smiley faces crept into our emails. I mean that Ning and I had the fortune to entice Patrick. We signed up a bundle of enthusiasm, creativity, programming skills, and determination. That determination perpetuated the project through the summer and beyond. Initial conditions can determine a system’s evolution.

Long-distance correlations:  “Sure, I’d love to have dinner with you both! Thank you for the invitation!”

Lincoln Carr, a Colorado School of Mines professor, visited in June. Lincoln’s group, I’d heard, was exploring quantum GoLs.** He studies entanglement (quantum correlations) in many-particle systems. When I reached out, Lincoln welcomed our SURF group to collaborate.

I relished coordinating his visit with the mentees. How many SURFers could say that a professor had visited for his or her sake? When I invited Patrick to dinner with Lincoln, Patrick lit up like a sunrise over grasslands.

Our SURF group began skyping with Mines every Wednesday. We brainstorm, analyze, trade code, and kvetch with Mines student Logan Hillberry and colleagues. They offer insights about condensed matter; Patrick, about data processing and efficiency; I, about entanglement theory; and Ning, about entropy and time evolution.

We’ve learned together about long-range entanglement, about correlations between far-apart quantum systems. Thank goodness for skype and email that correlate far-apart research groups. Everyone would have learned less alone.


Long-distance correlations between quantum states and between research groups

Time evolution: Logan and Patrick simulated quantum systems inspired by Conway’s GoL. Each researcher coded a simulation, or mathematical model, of a quantum system. They agreed on a nonquantum update rule; Logan quantized it in one way (constructed one quantum analog of the rule); and Patrick quantized the rule another way. They chose initial conditions, let their systems evolve, and waited.

In July, I noticed that Patrick brought a hand-sized green spiral notepad to meetings. He would synopsize his progress, and brainstorm questions, on the notepad before arriving. He jotted suggestions as we talked.

The notepad began guiding meetings in July. Patrick now steers discussions, ticking items off his agenda. The agenda I’ve typed remains minimized on my laptop till he finishes. My agenda contains few points absent from his, and his contains points not in mine.

Patrick and Logan are comparing their results. Behaviors of their simulations, they’ve found, depend on how they quantized their update rule. One might expect the update rule to determine a system’s evolution. One might expect the SURF program’s template to determine how research and mentoring skills evolve. But how we implement update rules matters.

SURF photo

Caltech’s 2015 quantum-information-theory Summer Undergraduate Research Fellows and mentors

Life: I’ve learned, during the past six months, about Conway’s Game of Life, simulations, and many-body entanglement. I’ve learned how to suggest references and experts when I can’t answer a question. I’ve learned that editing SURF reports by hand costs me less time than editing electronically. I’ve learned where Patrick and his family vacation, that he’s studying Chinese, and how undergrads regard on-campus dining. Conway’s Game of Life has expanded this prairie dog’s view of the grassland more than expected.

I’ll drink a Coke to that.

Glossary: Conway’s GoL is a cellular automatonA cellular automaton consists of a board whose tiles change according to some update rule. Different cellular automata correspond to different board shapes, to boards of different dimensions, to different types of tiles, and to different update rules.

*Reversible cellular automata have greater probabilities (than the GoL has) of updating random initial states through dull-looking evolutions.

**Others have pondered quantum variations on Conway’s GoL.

4 thoughts on “Life, cellular automata, and mentoring

  1. I have been following this blog for a while (since around my second year of grad school). I work on diamond nanophotonics @ MIT, and find the breadth of interests on this blog to be truly awe-inspiring. Anyways, I received an exciting email today from edX saying that “Topology in Condensed Matter: Tying Quantum Knots” will be taught again this spring! I believe the readership of this blog may find it exciting as well.

  2. This is a comment from an amateur. What if instead of just having a quantum Game of Life, maybe the entirety of existence could be a cellular automata system? Supposed you start with a single existent entity instead of a bunch of them as in the GoL. This entity would be one unit of existence/space/location and would have a built in “update” rule for replicating itself and thus creating additional identical units of existence/space/location surrounding the original unit. Each of these new units would have the same “update” rule and space would expand. One way to get some quantum aspect is that because each entity is a quantum unit of location, you can never predict in what positions the new units would be formed around the preceding units just because before the new units were formed there were no positions besides the preceding unit. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s my hobby, so I’m currently learning some 3D modeling software to try and model this. Anyways, your blog posting spurred this comment. Thanks for an interesting post!


    • Thanks for your comment, Roger. A classical game might be quantized in many ways, so other quantization schemes for the GoL must exist. If you try one out, have fun!

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