Institute for Quantum Information and Matter (IQIM) and Walter Burke Institute for Theoretical Physics
California Institute of Technology, Pasadena CA 91125, USA, Earth1
November 7, 2021 (COP26 Day 8)
If a quantum field is replaced with lower complexity versions of itself, the field systematically falls apart into ever smaller pieces. Rather than permeating all of space, the entanglement—a unique form of correlations tying together the quantum world—abruptly vanishes2. Where once there was global connection now devolves into fragments. If the biological fields of our planet are replaced with lower-complexity versions of themselves, analogous collapse ensues. The natural world requires and celebrates complexity.
Humans have a fascinating relationship with nature’s complexity—they love it when they understand it, and tend to destroy it when they don’t: Maxwellian demons reducing complexity rather than entropy, with the reduction scaling inversely with insight. This is most often not malicious at the beginning; we enjoy understanding how things work and modifying them to our desires. If we don’t understand something, an effective way to learn is to simplify it, dissect and put it back together, sometimes with fewer pieces so the purpose and importance of each piece can be deduced. As we become comfortable with the basic elements, embellishments can be added. This is how elaborate modern technology has been developed; this is how discoveries in abstract mathematics are made; this is how symphonies are composed. While valuable for developments of human creation, this perspective is dangerous when applied to societal structures that now glorify the simple homogeneous monoculture, both of the Earth and of its inhabitants.
Naïvely, uncontrollable pursuit of understanding and quickly adaptable manipulation skills, along with systematic analysis and pattern recognition capabilities to deduce large-scale and long-time trends, are logical characteristics to incorporate in an intellectually-powerful-but-otherwise-non-remarkable species within your ecosystem. Such a species would be able to recognize the occasional imbalance in nature and to provide a slight rectifying tilt. Not only could they do so, but they are designed to enjoy it! “The pleasure of finding things out” followed by the satisfaction of influencing the world external.
The naïvety of this suggested ecological role for humans overlooks the reality that our society is increasingly being driven by forces programmed to incentivize actions knowingly contrary to personal, community, and planetary best interests. Though we tend to try to put things back together, the process is often slow and filled with hubris for control. Analogous to the qubit becoming a natural tool for entanglement restoration, we reintroduce locally extirpated phenomena and species as restricted tools of ecosystem recovery: from natural airflow that better dissipates pathogens, to beavers gracefully orchestrating water distribution and the construction of entire ecosystems, to wolves creating trophic cascades that erupt in species diversity and even stabilize geographic features of the land, to earthworms aerating the soil, recycling nutrients, and supporting the diverse microbial life enveloping the Earth3. Nature is full of astoundingly fascinating examples of collaboratively created cycles, thoroughly intertwining the lives of species throughout the taxonomic ranks. Though the above naïvety identifies one theoretically plausible respectable function of the human species, we have yet to mature into any truly valuable ecological role. If humans suddenly disappeared, would any (non-domesticated) species be interested in fighting for our reintroduction? Or would there simply be…relief?
It is not a winning strategy for our understanding4 to be a necessary condition for “allowing” natural processes to occur. Though humans have become devastatingly linear creatures5, we fuel a vicious cycle of destruction, appreciation, and monetized mono-restoration. Dangerously, our efficiency in step-one often breaks this cycle, too. From free-flowing rivers to the communication networks of mycorrhizal fungi in old-growth forests, we are losing vital information of healthy ecosystems faster than they can be appreciated. How will we know what actions help to restore nature when we have lost all examples of her complex beauty? What will we do when she is gone?
As I modify my life to reflect growing concerns, the following perspective is important:
Changing the system, not perfecting our own lives, is the point. “Hypocrisy” is the price of admission in this battle. –Bill McKibben [NYT, 2016]
I will keep riding my bike for primary transportation (fun, healthy, and responsible!), adding plants to my diet (tasty, healthy, and responsible!), and showering by the light pollution through my bathroom window. I do these things not with the illusion that they are impactful, but to keep stoked an internal fire focused on brainstorming ways that a quantum physicist/musician could convince the powerful humans to make decisions that reprogram our society to calm, rather than cause, the storms spiraling our planet out of balance.
Results (so far):
Quantum physicists have been forced to realize for decades how ignoring the structure of nature can leave you struggling exponentially far from your goals. The way that nature processes information is fundamentally different than the way that we currently do…and her techniques are often exponentially superior. In the same way that we are turning to nature for solutions in simulating the quantum world, so too must we turn to nature for solutions in planetary stability. We are not going to technologically innovate ourselves out of this problem—nature has a multi-million-year head start in her R&D investments. While there are absolutely technologies (both quantum and classical) that may make the transition more rapid and comfortable, if technological solutions worked, we would have innovated ourselves out of this predicament a half-century ago when oil companies with planetary-sized spheres of influence were well-informed of the situation.
Right now, we are being asked by the Earth, still relatively kindly, to stop; to stop haphazardly taking apart her cyclic and entangled systems; to let nature heal the reductive wounds caused by our curiosity and by the endless extraction of our growth economy incompatible with a finite planet; to relish when her healthy wholeness leads to a complexity that boggles our minds; to provide planetary reprieve with a global performance of John Cage’s silent composition, 4’33”, hopefully temporally dilated; to actively stand aside. While we do so, we can peacefully ponder and reframe the vision of what our lives on this Earth should be.
In the quantum community, we have already developed the necessary mentality. We daily envision a more natural way of interacting with the world. This vision has successfully been passed through multiple generations of researchers—communicable inspiration being an essential ingredient for developments that began a century ago and may take a century more to come to full fruition. In one case, we must break from a past driven by exploitation, developed in a time when the fallacy of infinite resources was a functional approximation. In the other case, we must create an entirely new programming language built on the laws of quantum mechanics and must develop unprecedented levels of precision control necessary to compute with nature’s quantum bits. One of these challenges should be easier than the other.
In artistic performance, learning a new piece can feel like learning a new way of living. To engrain and genuinely express a new perspective, it can be helpful to work at multiple levels of abstraction. This assures that all sides of your being—intellectual, emotional, linguistic, kinesthetic, etc.—are evenly integrated, optimized for an honest portrayal of the artistic vision. In the context of planetary fragmentation decimating ecosystem coherence, quantum information provides one such valuable abstraction.
We have a story to tell that parallels, from the quantum world, our current planetary challenges. Our story is one of past destructive reduction and an ongoing pursuit of redemption reintroducing fundamental pieces of nature back into our calculations. Quantum physicists have already been through the exponentially diminished darkness and are joyously engaged in creating a future where nature’s complexities are respected and honored. We have turned phenomena famously lamented for their tortuously tangled interpretations into cherished and invaluable resources capable of achieving far more than their simplified predecessors. This endeavor is requiring (and achieving!) extensive global coordination and institutional support from local to federal levels.
Our community has learned to celebrate the complexity of the natural world. To share that vision is something important we can do. In this context, quantum physicists are natural “complexity therapists”. As society rewilds the land and reconnects our lives to nature, we can help usher in an era of corporately treasuring the invaluable resources of diverse and complex natural processes, not only for computational advantage but for the survival of all remaining life.
1. Affiliation provided for context. The views and opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of Caltech or affiliated institutes. ↩
2. The following reflections accompany recent research quantifying entanglement in the scalar field vacuum . ↩
3. Fun Fact: Ancient Egypt imposed a death penalty for tampering with the Earth Worms! ↩
4. and subsequent ability to secure legislative/judicial protections ↩
5. e.g., plastic, million-year oil and ground water resources consumed in a generation, carcass removal (both plant and animal) systematically depleting nutrients from ecosystems that have specific mechanisms for nutrient retention and reintegration, etc. ↩