The Ground Space of Babel

Librarians are committing suicide.

So relates the narrator of the short story “The Library of Babel.” The Argentine magical realist Jorge Luis Borges wrote the story in 1941.

Librarians are committing suicide partially because they can’t find the books they seek. The librarians are born in, and curate, a library called “infinite” by the narrator. The library consists of hexagonal cells, of staircases, of air shafts, and of closets for answering nature’s call. The narrator has never heard of anyone’s finding an edge of the library. Each hexagon houses 20 shelves, each of which houses 32 books, each of which contains 410 pages, each of which contains 40 lines, each of which consists of about 80 symbols. Every symbol comes from a set of 25: 22 letters, the period, the comma, and the space.

The library, a sage posited, contains every combination of the 25 symbols that satisfy the 410-40-and-80-ish requirement. His compatriots rejoiced:

All men felt themselves to be the masters of an intact and secret treasure. There was no personal or world problem whose eloquent solution did not exist in some hexagon. [ . . . ] a great deal was said about the Vindications: books of apology and prophecy which vindicated for all time the acts of every man in the universe and retained prodigious arcana for his future. Thousands of the greedy abandoned their sweet native hexagons and rushed up the stairways, urged on by the vain intention of finding their Vindication.

Probability punctured their joy: “the possibility of a man’s finding his Vindication, or some treacherous variation thereof, can be computed as zero.”

Many-body quantum physicists can empathize with Borges’s librarian.

A handful of us will huddle over a table or cluster in front of a chalkboard.

“Has anyone found this Hamiltonian’s ground space?” someone will ask.1

Library of Babel

A Hamiltonian is an observable, a measurable property. Consider a quantum system S, such as a set of particles hopping between atoms. We denote the system’s Hamiltonian by H. H determines how the system’s state changes in time. A musical about H swept Broadway last year.

A quantum system’s energy, E, might assume any of many possible values. H encodes the possible values. The least possible value, E0, we call the ground-state energy.

Under what condition does S have an amount E0 of energy? S must occupy a ground state. Consider Olympic snowboarder Shaun White in a half-pipe. He has kinetic energy, or energy of motion, when sliding along the pipe. He gains gravitational energy upon leaving the ground. He has little energy when sitting still on the snow. A quantum analog of that sitting constitutes a ground state.2

Consider, for example, electrons in a magnetic field. Each electron has a property called spin, illustrated with an arrow. The arrow’s direction represents the spin’s state. The system occupies a ground state when every arrow points in the same direction as the magnetic field.

Shaun White has as much energy, sitting on the ground in the half-pipe’s center, as he has sitting at the bottom of an edge of the half-pipe. Similarly, a quantum system might have multiple ground states. These states form the ground space.

“Has anyone found this Hamiltonian’s ground space?”

Olympic crashes

“Find” means, here,“identify the form of.” We want to derive a mathematical expression for the quantum analog of “sitting still, at the bottom of the half-pipe.”

“Find” often means “locate.” How do we locate an object such as a library? By identifying its spatial coordinates. We specify coordinates relative to directions, such as north, east, and up. We specify coordinates also when “finding” ground states.

Libraries occupy the physical space we live in. Ground states occupy an abstract mathematical space, a Hilbert space. The Hilbert space consists of the (pure) quantum states accessible to the system—loosely speaking, how the spins can orient themselves.

Libraries occupy a three-dimensional space. An N-spin system corresponds to a 2N-dimensional Hilbert space. Finding a ground state amounts to identifying 2N coordinates. The problem’s size grows exponentially with the number of particles.

An exponential quantifies also the size of the librarian’s problem. Imagine trying to locate some book in the Library of Babel. How many books should you expect to have to check? How many books does the library hold? Would you have more hope of finding the book, wandering the Library of Babel, or finding a ground state, wandering the Hilbert space? (Please take this question with a grain of whimsy, not as instructions for calculating ground states.)

A book’s first symbol has one of 25 possible values. So does the second symbol. The pair of symbols has one of 25 \times 25 = 25^2 possible values. A trio has one of 25^3 possible values, and so on.

How many symbols does a book contain? About \frac{ 410 \text{ pages} }{ 1 \text{ book} }  \:  \frac{ 40 \text{ lines} }{ 1 \text{ page} }  \:  \frac{ 80 \text{ characters} }{ 1 \text{ line} }  \approx  10^6 \, , or a million. The number of books grows exponentially with the number of symbols per book: The library contains about 25^{ 10^6 } books. You contain only about 10^{24} atoms. No wonder librarians are committing suicide.

Do quantum physicists deserve more hope? Physicists want to find ground states of chemical systems. Example systems are discussed here and here. The second paper refers to 65 electrons distributed across 57 orbitals (spatial regions). How large a Hilbert space does this system have? Each electron has a spin that, loosely speaking, can point upward or downward (that corresponds to a two-dimensional Hilbert space). One might expect each electron to correspond to a Hilbert space of dimensionality (57 \text{ orbitals}) \frac{ 2 \text{ spin states} }{ 1 \text{ orbital} } = 114. The 65 electrons would correspond to a Hilbert space \mathcal{H}_{\rm tot} of dimensionality 114^{65}.

But no two electrons can occupy the same one-electron state, due to Pauli’s exclusion principle. Hence \mathcal{H}_{\rm tot} has dimensionality {114 \choose 65} (“114 choose 65″), the number of ways in which you can select 65 states from a set of 114 states.

{114 \choose 65} equals approximately 10^{34}. Mathematica (a fancy calculator) can print a one followed by 34 zeroes. Mathematica refuses to print the number 25^{ 10^6 } of Babel’s books. Pity the librarians more than the physicists.


Pity us less when we have quantum computers (QCs). They could find ground states far more quickly than today’s supercomputers. But building QCs is taking about as long as Borges’s narrator wandered the library, searching for “the catalogue of catalogues.”

What would Borges and his librarians make of QCs? QCs will be able to search unstructured databases quickly, via Grover’s algorithm. Babel’s library lacks structure. Grover’s algorithm outperforms classical algorithms just when fed large databases. 25^{ 10^6 } books constitute a large database. Researchers seek a “killer app” for QCs. Maybe Babel’s librarians could vindicate quantum computing and quantum computing could rescue the librarians. If taken with a grain of magical realism.


1Such questions remind me of an Uncle Alfred who’s misplaced his glasses. I half-expect an Auntie Muriel to march up to us physicists. She, sensible in plaid, will cross her arms.

“Where did you last see your ground space?” she’ll ask. “Did you put it on your dresser before going to bed last night? Did you use it at breakfast, to read the newspaper?”

We’ll bow our heads and shuffle off to double-check the kitchen.

2More accurately, a ground state parallels Shaun White’s lying on the ground, stone-cold.

This entry was posted in Reflections by Nicole Yunger Halpern. Bookmark the permalink.

About Nicole Yunger Halpern

I'm pursuing a physics PhD with the buccaneers of Quantum Frontiers. Before moving to Caltech, I studied at Dartmouth College and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. I apply quantum-information tools to thermodynamics and statistical mechanics (the study of heat, work, information, and time), particularly at small scales. I like my quantum information physical, my math algebraic, and my spins rotated but not stirred.

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