Random walks

A college professor of mine proposed a restaurant venture to our class. He taught statistical mechanics, the physics of many-particle systems. Examples range from airplane fuel to ice cubes to primordial soup. Such systems contain 1024 particles each—so many particles that we couldn’t track them all if we tried. We can gather only a little information about the particles, so their actions look random.

So does a drunkard’s walk. Imagine a college student who (outside of the pandemic) has stayed out an hour too late and accepted one too many red plastic cups. He’s arrived halfway down a sidewalk, where he’s clutching a lamppost, en route home. Each step has a 50% chance of carrying him leftward and a 50% chance of carrying him rightward. This scenario repeats itself every Friday. On average, five minutes after arriving at the lamppost, he’s back at the lamppost. But, if we wait for a time T, we have a decent chance of finding him a distance \sqrt{T} away. These characteristic typify a simple random walk.

Random walks crop up across statistical physics. For instance, consider a grain of pollen dropped onto a thin film of water. The water molecules buffet the grain, which random-walks across the film. Robert Brown observed this walk in 1827, so we call it Brownian motion. Or consider a magnet at room temperature. The magnet’s constituents don’t walk across the surface, but they orient themselves according random-walk mathematics. And, in quantum many-particle systems, information can spread via a random walk. 

So, my statistical-mechanics professor said, someone should open a restaurant near MIT. Serve lo mein and Peking duck, and call the restaurant the Random Wok.

This is the professor who, years later, confronted another alumna and me at a snack buffet.

“You know what this is?” he asked, waving a pastry in front of us. We stared for a moment, concluded that the obvious answer wouldn’t suffice, and shook our heads.

“A brownie in motion!”

Not only pollen grains undergo Brownian motion, and not only drunkards undergo random walks. Many people random-walk to their careers, trying out and discarding alternatives en route. We may think that we know our destination, but we collide with a water molecule and change course.

Such is the thrust of Random Walks, a podcast to which I contributed an interview last month. Abhigyan Ray, an undergraduate in Mumbai, created the podcast. Courses, he thought, acquaint us only with the successes in science. Stereotypes cast scientists as lone geniuses working in closed offices and silent labs. He resolved to spotlight the collaborations, the wrong turns, the lessons learned the hard way—the random walks—of science. Interviewees range from a Microsoft researcher to a Harvard computer scientist to a neurobiology professor to a genomicist.

You can find my episode on Instagram, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Spotify. We discuss the bridging of disciplines; the usefulness of a liberal-arts education in physics; Quantum Frontiers; and the delights of poking fun at my PhD advisor, fellow blogger and Institute for Quantum Information and Matter director John Preskill

This entry was posted in News, Real science, Reflections, The expert's corner by Nicole Yunger Halpern. Bookmark the permalink.

About Nicole Yunger Halpern

I’m a theoretical physicist at the Joint Institute for Quantum Information and Computer Science in Maryland. My research group re-envisions 19th-century thermodynamics for the 21st century, using the mathematical toolkit of quantum information theory. We then apply quantum thermodynamics as a lens through which to view the rest of science. I call this research “quantum steampunk,” after the steampunk genre of art and literature that juxtaposes Victorian settings (à la thermodynamics) with futuristic technologies (à la quantum information). For more information, check out my upcoming book Quantum Steampunk: The Physics of Yesterday’s Tomorrow. I earned my PhD at Caltech under John Preskill’s auspices; one of my life goals is to be the subject of one of his famous (if not Pullitzer-worthy) poems. Follow me on Twitter @nicoleyh11.

4 thoughts on “Random walks

  1. Beautiful writing indeed … 🙂 I have been pondering about the emerging Quantum Biological Information Theory (QBIT) with a bit of my own innate sporadic (probabilistic too? – focus, time, & attention wise ) Quantum Random Walks in serious studies, explorations & writing findings & observations… But I am enjoying the Quantum learning journey so far!

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