Life among the experimentalists

I used to catch lizards—brown anoles, as I learned to call them later—as a child. They were colored as their name suggests, were about as long as one of my hands, and resented my attention. But they frequented our back porch, and I had a butterfly net. So I’d catch lizards, with my brother or a friend, and watch them. They had throats that occasionally puffed out, exposing red skin, and tails that detached and wriggled of their own accord, to distract predators.

Some theorists might appreciate butterfly nets, I imagine, for catching experimentalists. Some of us theorists will end a paper or a talk with “…and these predictions are experimentally accessible.” A pause will follow the paper’s release or the talk, in hopes that a reader or an audience member will take up the challenge. Usually, none does, and the writer or speaker retires to the Great Deck Chair of Theory on the Back Patio of Science.

So I was startled when an anole, metaphorically speaking, volunteered a superconducting qubit for an experiment I’d proposed.

The experimentalist is one of the few people I can compare to a reptile without fear that he’ll take umbrage: Kater Murch, an associate professor of physics at Washington University in St. Louis. The most evocative description of Kater that I can offer appeared in an earlier blog post: “Kater exudes the soberness of a tenured professor but the irreverence of a Californian who wears his hair slightly long and who tattooed his wedding band on.”

Kater expressed interest in an uncertainty relation I’d proved with theory collaborators. According to some of the most famous uncertainty relations, a quantum particle can’t have a well-defined position and a well-defined momentum simultaneously. Measuring the position disturbs the momentum; any later momentum measurement outputs a completely random, or uncertain, number. We measure uncertainties with entropies: The greater an entropy, the greater our uncertainty. We can cast uncertainty relations in terms of entropies.

I’d proved, with collaborators, an entropic uncertainty relation that describes chaos in many-particle quantum systems. Other collaborators and I had shown that weak measurements, which don’t disturb a quantum system much, characterize chaos. So you can check our uncertainty relation using weak measurements—as well as strong measurements, which do disturb quantum systems much. One can simplify our uncertainty relation—eliminate the chaos from the problem and even eliminate most of the particles. An entropic uncertainty relation for weak and strong measurements results.

Kater specializes in weak measurements, so he resolved to test our uncertainty relation. Physical Review Letters published the paper about our collaboration this month. Quantum measurements can not only create uncertainty, the paper shows, but also reduce it: Kater and his PhD student Jonathan Monroe used light to measure a superconducting qubit, a tiny circuit in which current can flow forever. The qubit had properties analogous to position and momentum (the spin’s z– and x-components). If the atom started with a well-defined “position” (the z-component) and the “momentum” (the x-component) was measured, the outcome was highly random; the total uncertainty about the two measurements was large. But if the atom started with a well-defined “position” (z-component) and another property (the spin’s y-component) was measured before the “momentum” (the x-component) was measured strongly, the total uncertainty was lower. The extra measurement was designed not to disturb the atom much. But the nudge prodded the atom enough, rendering the later “momentum” measurement (the x measurement) more predictable. So not only can quantum measurements create uncertainty, but gentle quantum measurements can also reduce it.

I didn’t learn only physics from our experiment. When I’d catch a lizard, I’d tip it into a tank whose lid contained a magnifying lens, and I’d watch the lizard. I didn’t trap Kater and Jonathan under a magnifying glass, but I did observe their ways. Here’s what I learned about the species experimentalus quanticus.

1) They can run experiments remotely when a pandemic shuts down campus: A year ago, when universities closed and cities locked down, I feared that our project would grind to a halt. But Jonathan twiddled knobs and read dials via his computer, and Kater popped into the lab for the occasional fixer-upper. Jonathan even continued his experiment from another state, upon moving to Texas to join his parents. And here we theorists boast of being able to do our science almost anywhere.

2) They speak with one less layer of abstraction than I: We often discussed, for instance, the thing used to measure the qubit. I’d call the thing “the detector.” Jonathan would call it “the cavity mode,” referring to the light that interacts with the qubit, which sits in a box, or cavity. I’d say “poh-tay-toe”; they’d say “poh-tah-toe”; but I’m glad we didn’t call the whole thing off.

Fred Astaire: “Detector.”
Ginger Rogers: “Cavity mode.”

3) Experiments take longer than expected—even if you expect them to take longer than estimated: Kater and I hatched the plan for this project during June 2018. The experiment would take a few months, Kater estimated. It terminated last summer.

4) How they explain their data: Usually in terms of decoherence, the qubit’s leaking of quantum information into its environment. For instance, to check that the setup worked properly, Jonathan ran a simple test that ended with a measurement. (Experts: He prepared a \sigma_z eigenstate, performed a Hadamard gate, and measured \sigma_z.) The measurement should have had a 50% chance of yielding +1 and a 50% chance of yield -1. But the -1 outcome dominated the trials. Why? Decoherence pushed the qubit toward toward -1. (Amplitude damping dominated the noise.)

5) Seeing one’s theoretical proposal turn into an experiment feels satisfying: Due to point (3), among other considerations, experiments aren’t cheap. The lab’s willingness to invest in the idea I’d developed with other theorists was heartening. Furthermore, the experiment pushed us to uncover more theory—for example, how tight the uncertainty bound could grow.

After getting to know an anole, I’d release it into our backyard and bid it adieu.1 So has Kater moved on to experimenting with topology, and Jonathan has progressed toward graduation. But more visitors are wriggling in the Butterfly Net of Theory-Experiment Collaboration. Stay tuned.

1Except for the anole I accidentally killed, by keeping it in the tank for too long. But let’s not talk about that.

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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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