The quantum steampunker by Massachusetts Bay

Every spring, a portal opens between Waltham, Massachusetts and another universe. 

The other universe has a Watch City dual to Waltham, known for its watch factories. The cities throw a festival to which explorers, inventors, and tourists flock. Top hats, goggles, leather vests, bustles, and lace-up boots dot the crowds. You can find pet octopodes, human-machine hybrids, and devices for bending space and time. Steam powers everything.

Watch City

Watch City Steampunk Festival

So I learned thanks to Maxim Olshanyi, a professor of physics at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He hosted my colloquium, “Quantum steampunk: Quantum information meets thermodynamics,” earlier this month. Maxim, I discovered, has more steampunk experience than I. He digs up century-old designs for radios, builds the radios, and improves upon the designs. He exhibits his creations at the Watch City Steampunk Festival.

Maxim photo

Maxim Olshanyi

I never would have guessed that Maxim moonlights with steampunkers. But his hobby makes sense: Maxim has transformed our understanding of quantum integrability.

Integrability is to thermalization as Watch City is to Waltham. A bowl of baked beans thermalizes when taken outside in Boston in October: Heat dissipates into the air. After half-an-hour, large-scale properties bear little imprint of their initial conditions: The beans could have begun at 112ºF or 99º or 120º. Either way, the beans have cooled.

Integrable systems avoid thermalizing; more of their late-time properties reflect early times. Why? We can understand through an example, an integrable system whose particles don’t interact with each other (whose particles are noninteracting fermions). The dynamics conserve the particles’ momenta. Consider growing the system by adding particles. The number of conserved quantities grows as the system size. The conserved quantities retain memories of the initial conditions.

Imagine preparing an integrable system, analogously to preparing a bowl of baked beans, and letting it sit for a long time. Will the system equilibrate, or settle down to, a state predictable with a simple rule? We might expect not. Obeying the same simple rule would cause different integrable systems to come to resemble each other. Integrable systems seem unlikely to homogenize, since each system retains much information about its initial conditions.

Boston baked beans

Maxim and collaborators exploded this expectation. Integrable systems do relax to simple equilibrium states, which the physicists called the generalized Gibbs ensemble (GGE). Josiah Willard Gibbs cofounded statistical mechanics during the 1800s. He predicted the state to which nonintegrable systems, like baked beans in autumnal Boston, equilibrate. Gibbs’s theory governs classical systems, like baked beans, as does the GGE theory. But also quantum systems equilibrate to the GGE, and Gibbs’s conclusions translate into quantum theory with few adjustments. So I’ll explain in quantum terms.

Consider quantum baked beans that exchange heat with a temperature-T environment. Let \hat{H} denote the system’s Hamiltonian, which basically represents the beans’ energy. The beans equilibrate to a quantum Gibbs state, e^{ - \hat{H} / ( k_{\rm B} T ) } / Z. The k_{\rm B} denotes Boltzmann’s constant, a fundamental constant of nature. The partition function Z enables the quantum state to obey probability theory (normalizes the state).

Maxim and friends modeled their generalized Gibbs ensemble on the Gibbs state. Let \hat{I}_m denote a quantum integrable system’s m^{\rm th} conserved quantity. This system equilibrates to e^{ - \sum_m \lambda_m \hat{I}_m } / Z_{\rm GGE}. The Z_{\rm GGE} normalizes the state. The intensive parameters \lambda_m’s serve analogously to temperature and depend on the conserved quantities’ values. Maxim and friends predicted this state using information theory formalized by Ed Jaynes. Inventing the GGE, they unlocked a slew of predictions about integrable quantum systems. 


A radio built by Maxim. According to him, “The invention was to replace a diode with a diode bridge, in a crystal radio, thus gaining a factor of two in the output power.”

I define quantum steampunk as the intersection of quantum theory, especially quantum information theory, with thermodynamics, and the application of this intersection across science. Maxim has used information theory to cofound a branch of quantum statistical mechanics. Little wonder that he exhibits homemade radios at the Watch City Steampunk Festival. He also holds a license to drive steam engines and used to have my postdoc position. I appreciate having older cousins to look up to. Here’s hoping that I become half the quantum steampunker that I found by Massachusetts Bay.

With thanks to Maxim and the rest of the University of Massachusetts Boston Department of Physics for their hospitality.

The next Watch City Steampunk Festival takes place on May 9, 2020. Contact me if you’d attend a quantum-steampunk meetup!

This entry was posted in Real science, Reflections, The expert's corner, Theoretical highlights 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.

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