John Baez is a tough act to follow.
The mathematical physicist presented a colloquium at Cal State LA this May.1 The talk’s title: “My Favorite Number.” The advertisement image: A purple “24” superimposed atop two egg cartons.
The colloquium concerned string theory. String theorists attempt to reconcile Einstein’s general relativity with quantum mechanics. Relativity concerns the large and the fast, like the sun and light. Quantum mechanics concerns the small, like atoms. Relativity and with quantum mechanics individually suggest that space-time consists of four dimensions: up-down, left-right, forward-backward, and time. String theory suggests that space-time has more than four dimensions. Counting dimensions leads theorists to John Baez’s favorite number.
His topic struck me as bold, simple, and deep. As an otherworldly window onto the pedestrian. John Baez became, when I saw the colloquium ad, a hero of mine.
And a tough act to follow.
I presented Cal State LA’s physics colloquium the week after John Baez. My title: “Quantum steampunk: Quantum information applied to thermodynamics.” Steampunk is a literary, artistic, and film genre. Stories take place during the 1800s—the Victorian era; the Industrial era; an age of soot, grime, innovation, and adventure. Into the 1800s, steampunkers transplant modern and beyond-modern technologies: automata, airships, time machines, etc. Example steampunk works include Will Smith’s 1999 film Wild Wild West. Steampunk weds the new with the old.
So does quantum information applied to thermodynamics. Thermodynamics budded off from the Industrial Revolution: The steam engine crowned industrial technology. Thinkers wondered how efficiently engines could run. Thinkers continue to wonder. But the steam engine no longer crowns technology; quantum physics (with other discoveries) does. Quantum information scientists study the roles of information, measurement, and correlations in heat, energy, entropy, and time. We wed the new with the old.
What image could encapsulate my talk? I couldn’t lean on egg cartons. I proposed a steampunk warrior—cravatted, begoggled, and spouting electricity. The proposal met with a polite cough of an email. Not all department members, Milan Mijic pointed out, had heard of steampunk.
Milan is a Cal State LA professor and my erstwhile host. We toured the palm-speckled campus around colloquium time. What, he asked, can quantum information contribute to thermodynamics?
Heat offers an example. Imagine a classical (nonquantum) system of particles. The particles carry kinetic energy, or energy of motion: They jiggle. Particles that bump into each other can exchange energy. We call that energy heat. Heat vexes engineers, breaking transistors and lowering engines’ efficiencies.
Like heat, work consists of energy. Work has more “orderliness” than the heat transferred by random jiggles. Examples of work exertion include the compression of a gas: A piston forces the particles to move in one direction, in concert. Consider, as another example, driving electrons around a circuit with an electric field. The field forces the electrons to move in the same direction. Work and heat account for all the changes in a system’s energy. So states the First Law of Thermodynamics.
Suppose that the system is quantum. It doesn’t necessarily have a well-defined energy. But we can stick the system in an electric field, and the system can exchange motional-type energy with other systems. How should we define “work” and “heat”?
Quantum information offers insights, such as via entropies. Entropies quantify how “mixed” or “disordered” states are. Disorder grows as heat suffuses a system. Entropies help us extend the First Law to quantum theory.
So I explained during the colloquium. Rarely have I relished engaging with an audience as much as I relished engaging with Cal State LA’s. Attendees made eye contact, posed questions, commented after the talk, and wrote notes. A student in a corner appeared to be writing homework solutions. But a presenter couldn’t have asked for more from the rest. One exclamation arrested me like a coin in the cogs of a grandfather clock.
I’d peppered my slides with steampunk art: paintings, drawings, stills from movies. The peppering had staved off boredom as I’d created the talk. I hoped that the peppering would stave off my audience’s boredom. I apologized about the trimmings.
“No!” cried a woman near the front. “It’s lovely!”
I was about to discuss experiments by Jukka Pekola’s group. Pekola’s group probes quantum thermodynamics using electronic circuits. The group measures heat by counting the electrons that hop from one part of the circuit to another. Single-electron transistors track tunneling (quantum movements) of single particles.
Heat complicates engineering, calculations, and California living. Heat scrambles signals, breaks devices, and lowers efficiencies. Quantum heat can evade definition. Thermodynamicists grind their teeth over heat.
“No!” the woman near the front had cried. “It’s lovely!”
She was referring to steampunk art. But her exclamation applied to my subject. Heat has not only practical importance, but also fundamental: Heat influences every law of thermodynamics. Thermodynamic law underpins much of physics as 24 underpins much of string theory. Lovely, I thought, indeed.
Cal State LA offered a new view of my subfield, an otherworldly window onto the pedestrian. The more pedestrian an idea—the more often the idea surfaces, the more of our world the idea accounts for—the deeper the physics. Heat seems as pedestrian as a Pokémon Go player. But maybe, someday, I’ll present an idea as simple, bold, and deep as the number 24.
With gratitude to Milan Mijic, and to Cal State LA’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, for their hospitality.
1For nonacademics: A typical physics department hosts several presentations per week. A seminar relates research that the speaker has undertaken. The audience consists of department members who specialize in the speaker’s subfield. A department’s astrophysicists might host a Monday seminar; its quantum theorists, a Wednesday seminar; etc. One colloquium happens per week. Listeners gather from across the department. The speaker introduces a subfield, like the correction of errors made by quantum computers. Course lectures target students. Endowed lectures, often named after donors, target researchers.