Quantum steampunk invades Scientific American

London, at an hour that made Rosalind glad she’d nicked her brother’s black cloak instead of wearing her scarlet one. The factory alongside her had quit belching smoke for the night, but it would start again soon. A noise caused her to draw back against the brick wall. Glancing up, she gasped. An oblong hulk was drifting across the sky. The darkness obscured the details, but she didn’t need to see; a brass-colored lock would be painted across the side. Mellator had launched his dirigible.

A variation on the paragraph above began the article that I sent to Scientific American last year. Clara Moskowitz, an editor, asked which novel I’d quoted the paragraph from. I’d made the text up, I confessed. 


Most of my publications, which wind up in physics journals, don’t read like novels. But I couldn’t resist when Clara invited me to write a feature about quantum steampunk, the confluence of quantum information and thermodynamics. Quantum Frontiers regulars will anticipate paragraphs two and three of the article:

Welcome to steampunk. This genre has expanded across literature, art and film over the past several decades. Its stories tend to take place near nascent factories and in grimy cities, in Industrial Age England and the Wild West—in real-life settings where technologies were burgeoning. Yet steampunk characters extend these inventions into futuristic technologies, including automata and time machines. The juxtaposition of old and new creates an atmosphere of romanticism and adventure. Little wonder that steampunk fans buy top hats and petticoats, adorn themselves in brass and glass, and flock to steampunk conventions. 

These fans dream the adventure. But physicists today who work at the intersection of three fields—quantum physics, information theory and thermodynamics—live it. Just as steampunk blends science-fiction technology with Victorian style, a modern field of physics that I call “quantum steampunk” unites 21st-century technology with 19th-century scientific principles. 

The Scientific American graphics team dazzled me. For years, I’ve been hankering to work with artists on visualizing quantum steampunk. I had an opportunity after describing an example of quantum steampunk in the article. The example consists of a quantum many-body engine that I designed with members Christopher White, Sarang Gopalakrishnan, and Gil Refael of Caltech’s Institute for Quantum Information and Matter. Our engine is a many-particle system ratcheted between two phases accessible to quantum matter, analogous to liquid and solid. The engine can be realized with, e.g., ultracold atoms or trapped ions. Lasers would trap and control the particles. Clara, the artists, and I drew the engine, traded comments, and revised the figure tens of times. In early drafts, the lasers resembled the sketches in atomic physicists’ Powerpoints. Before the final draft, the lasers transformed into brass-and-glass beauties. They evoke the scientific instruments crafted through the early 1900s, before chunky gray aesthetics dulled labs.


Scientific American published the feature this month; you can read it in print or, here, online. Many thanks to Clara for the invitation, for shepherding the article into print, and for her enthusiasm. To repurpose the end of the article, “You’re reading about this confluence of old and new on Quantum Frontiers. But you might as well be holding a novel by H. G. Wells or Jules Verne.”


Figures courtesy of the Scientific American graphics team.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized 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" (https://quantumfrontiers.com/2018/07/29/so-long-and-thanks-for-all-the-fourier-transforms/): 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.

1 thought on “Quantum steampunk invades Scientific American

  1. Pingback: The grand tour of quantum thermodynamics | Quantum Frontiers

Your thoughts here.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s