Happy Halloween from…the discrete Wigner function?

Do you hope to feel a breath of cold air on the back of your neck this Halloween? I’ve felt one literally: I earned my Masters in the icebox called “Ontario,” at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. Perimeter’s colloquia1 take place in an auditorium blacker than a Quentin Tarantino film. Aephraim Steinberg presented a colloquium one air-conditioned May.

Steinberg experiments on ultracold atoms and quantum optics2 at the University of Toronto. He introduced an idea that reminds me of biting into an apple whose coating you’d thought consisted of caramel, then tasting blood: a negative (quasi)probability.

Probabilities usually range from zero upward. Consider Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery. Villagers in a 20th-century American village prepare slips of paper. The number of slips equals the number of families in the village. One slip bears a black spot. Each family receives a slip. Each family has a probability p > 0  of receiving the marked slip. What happens to the family that receives the black spot? Read Jackson’s story—if you can stomach more than a Tarantino film.

Jackson peeled off skin to reveal the offal of human nature. Steinberg’s experiments reveal the offal of Nature. I’d expect humaneness of Jackson’s villagers and nonnegativity of probabilities. But what looks like a probability and smells like a probability might be hiding its odor with Special-Edition Autumn-Harvest Febreeze.


A quantum state resembles a set of classical3 probabilities. Consider a classical system that has too many components for us to track them all. Consider, for example, the cold breath on the back of your neck. The breath consists of air molecules at some temperature T. Suppose we measured the molecules’ positions and momenta. We’d have some probability p_1 of finding this particle here with this momentum, that particle there with that momentum, and so on. We’d have a probability p_2 of finding this particle there with that momentum, that particle here with this momentum, and so on. These probabilities form the air’s state.

We can tell a similar story about a quantum system. Consider the quantum light prepared in a Toronto lab. The light has properties analogous to position and momentum. We can represent the light’s state with a mathematical object similar to the air’s probability density.4 But this probability-like object can sink below zero. We call the object a quasiprobability, denoted by \mu.

If a \mu sinks below zero, the quantum state it represents encodes entanglement. Entanglement is a correlation stronger than any achievable with nonquantum systems. Quantum information scientists use entanglement to teleport information, encrypt messages, and probe the nature of space-time. I usually avoid this cliché, but since Halloween is approaching: Einstein called entanglement “spooky action at a distance.”


Eugene Wigner and others defined quasiprobabilities shortly before Shirley Jackson wrote The Lottery. Quantum opticians use these \mu’s, because quantum optics and quasiprobabilities involve continuous variables. Examples of continuous variables include position: An air molecule can sit at this point (e.g., x = 0) or at that point (e.g., x = 1) or anywhere between the two (e.g., x = 0.001). The possible positions form a continuous set. Continuous variables model quantum optics as they model air molecules’ positions.

Information scientists use continuous variables less than we use discrete variables. A discrete variable assumes one of just a few possible values, such as 0 or 1, or trick or treat.


How a quantum-information theorist views Halloween.

Quantum-information scientists study discrete systems, such as electron spins. Can we represent discrete quantum systems with quasiprobabilities \mu as we represent continuous quantum systems? You bet your barmbrack.

Bill Wootters and others have designed quasiprobabilities for discrete systems. Wootters stipulated that his \mu have certain properties. The properties appear in this review.  Most physicists label properties “1,” “2,” etc. or “Prop. 1,” “Prop. 2,” etc. The Wootters properties in this review have labels suited to Halloween.


Seeing (quasi)probabilities sink below zero feels like biting into an apple that you think has a caramel coating, then tasting blood. Did you eat caramel apples around age six? Caramel apples dislodge baby teeth. When baby teeth fall out, so does blood. Tasting blood can mark growth—as does the squeamishness induced by a colloquium that spooks a student. Who needs haunted mansions when you have negative quasiprobabilities?


For nonexperts:

1Weekly research presentations attended by a department.


3Nonquantum (basically).

4Think “set of probabilities.”