Quantum estuary

Tourism websites proclaim, “There’s beautiful…and then there’s Santa Barbara.” I can’t accuse them of hyperbole, after living in Santa Barbara for several months. Santa Barbara’s beauty manifests in its whitewashed buildings, capped with red tiles; in the glint of sunlight on ocean wave; and in the pockets of tranquility enfolded in meadows and copses. An example lies about an hour’s walk from the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics (KITP), where I spent the late summer and early fall: an estuary. According to National Geographic, “[a]n estuary is an area where a freshwater river or stream meets the ocean.” The meeting of freshwater and saltwater echoed the meeting of disciplines at the KITP.

The KITP fosters science as a nature reserve fosters an ecosystem. Every year, the institute hosts several programs, each centered on one scientific topic. A program lasts a few weeks or months, during which scientists visit from across the world. We present our perspectives on the program topic, identify intersections of interests, collaborate, and exclaim over the ocean views afforded by our offices.

Not a bad office view, eh?

From August to October, the KITP hosted two programs about energy and information. The first program was called “Energy and Information Transport in Non-Equilibrium Quantum Systems,” or “Information,” for short. The second program was called “Non-Equilibrium Universality: From Classical to Quantum and Back,” or “Universality.” The programs’ topics and participant lists overlapped, so the KITP merged “Information” and “Universality” to form “Infoversality.” Don’t ask me which program served as the saltwater and which as the fresh.

But the mingling of minds ran deeper. Much of “Information” centered on quantum many-body physics, the study of behaviors emergent in collections of quantum particles. But the program introduced many-body quantum physicists to quantum thermodynamics and vice versa. (Quantum thermodynamicists re-envision thermodynamics, the Victorian science of energy, for quantum, small, information-processing, and far-from-equilibrium systems.) Furthermore, quantum thermodynamicists co-led the program and presented research at it. Months ago, someone advertised the program in the quantum-thermodynamics Facebook group as an activity geared toward group members. 

The ocean of many-body physics was to meet the river of quantum thermodynamics, and I was thrilled as a trout swimming near a hiker who’s discovered cracker crumbs in her pocket. 

A few of us live in this estuary, marrying quantum thermodynamics and many-body physics. I waded into the waters in 2016, by codesigning an engine (the star of Victorian thermodynamics) formed from a quantum material (studied in many-body physics). We can use tools from one field to solve problems in the other, draw inspiration from one to design questions in the other, and otherwise do what the United States Food and Drug Administration recently announced that we can do with COVID19 vaccines: mix and match.

It isn’t easy being interdisciplinary, so I wondered how this estuary would fare when semi-institutionalized in a program. I collected observations like seashells—some elegantly molded, some liable to cut a pedestrian’s foot, and some both.

Across the street from the KITP.

A sand dollar washed up early in the program, as I ate lunch with a handful of many-body physicists. An experimentalist had just presented a virtual talk about nanoscale clocks, which grew from studies of autonomous quantum clocks. The latter run on their own, without needing any external system to wind or otherwise control them. You’d want such clocks if building quantum engines, computers, or drones that operate remotely. Clocks measure time, time complements energy mathematically in physics, and thermodynamics is the study of energy; so autonomous quantum clocks have taken root in quantum thermodynamics. So I found myself explaining autonomous quantum clocks over sandwiches. My fellow diners expressed interest alongside confusion.

A scallop shell, sporting multiple edges, washed up later in the program: Many-body physicists requested an introduction to quantum thermodynamics. I complied one afternoon, at a chalkboard in the KITP’s outdoor courtyard. The discussion lasted for an hour, whereas most such conversations lasted for two. But three participants peppered me with questions over the coming weeks.

A conch shell surfaced, whispering when held to an ear. One program participant, a member of one community, had believed the advertising that had portrayed the program as intended for his cohort. The portrayal didn’t match reality, to him, and he’d have preferred to dive more deeply into his own field.

I dove into a collaboration with other KITPists—a many-body project inspired by quantum thermodynamics. Keep an eye out for a paper and a dedicated blog post.

A conference talk served as a polished shell, reflecting light almost as a mirror. The talk centered on erasure, a process that unites thermodynamics with information processing: Imagine performing computations in math class. You need blank paper (or the neurological equivalent) on which to scribble. Upon computing a great deal, you have to erase the paper—to reset it to a clean state. Erasing calls for rubbing an eraser across the paper and so for expending energy. This conclusion extends beyond math class and paper: To compute—or otherwise process information—for a long time, we have to erase information-storage systems and so to expend energy. This conclusion renders erasure sacred to us thermodynamicists who study information processing. Erasure litters our papers, conferences, and conversations.

Erasure’s energy cost trades off with time: The more time you can spend on erasure, the less energy you need.1 The conference talk explored this tradeoff, absorbing the quantum thermodynamicist in me. A many-body physicist asked, at the end of the talk, why we were discussing erasure. What quantum thermodynamicists took for granted, he hadn’t heard of. He reflected back at our community an image of ourselves from an outsider’s perspective. The truest mirror might not be the flattest and least clouded.

The author, wearing a KITP hat, not far from either estuary—natural or quantum.

Plants and crustaceans, mammals and birds, grow in estuaries. Call me a bent-nosed clam, but I prefer a quantum estuary to all other environments. Congratulations to the scientists who helped create a quantum estuary this summer and fall, and I look forward to the harvest.

1The least amount of energy that erasure can cost, on average over trials, is called Landauer’s bound. You’d pay this bound’s worth of energy if you erased infinitely slowly.

This entry was posted in News, Real science, Reflections 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.

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