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.

In the hour of darkness and peril and need

I recited the poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” to myself while walking across campus last week. 

A few hours earlier, I’d cancelled the seminar that I’d been slated to cohost two days later. In a few hours, I’d cancel the rest of the seminars in the series. Undergraduates would begin vacating their dorms within a day. Labs would shut down, and postdocs would receive instructions to work from home.

I memorized “Paul Revere’s Ride” after moving to Cambridge, following tradition: As a research assistant at Lancaster University in the UK, I memorized e. e. cummings’s “anyone lived in a pretty how town.” At Caltech, I memorized “Kubla Khan.” Another home called for another poem. “Paul Revere’s Ride” brooked no competition: Campus’s red bricks run into Boston, where Revere’s story began during the 1700s. 

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who lived a few blocks from Harvard, composed the poem. It centers on the British assault against the American colonies, at Lexington and Concord, on the eve of the Revolutionary War. A patriot learned of the British troops’ movements one night. He communicated the information to faraway colleagues by hanging lamps in a church’s belfry. His colleagues rode throughout the night, to “spread the alarm / through every Middlesex village and farm.” The riders included Paul Revere, a Boston silversmith.

The Boston-area bricks share their color with Harvard’s crest, crimson. So do the protrusions on the coronavirus’s surface in colored pictures. 

Screen Shot 2020-03-13 at 6.40.04 PM

I couldn’t have designed a virus to suit Harvard’s website better.

The yard that I was crossing was about to “de-densify,” the red-brick buildings were about to empty, and my home was about to lock its doors. I’d watch regulations multiply, emails keep pace, and masks appear. Revere’s messenger friend, too, stood back and observed his home:

he climbed to the tower of the church,
Up the wooden stairs, with stealthy tread,
To the belfry-chamber overhead, [ . . . ]
By the trembling ladder, steep and tall,
To the highest window in the wall,
Where he paused to listen and look down
A moment on the roofs of the town,
And the moonlight flowing over all.

I commiserated also with Revere, waiting on tenterhooks for his message:

Meanwhile, impatient to mount and ride,
Booted and spurred, with a heavy stride,
On the opposite shore walked Paul Revere.
Now he patted his horse’s side,
Now gazed on the landscape far and near,
Then impetuous stamped the earth,
And turned and tightened his saddle-girth…

The lamps ended the wait, and Revere rode off. His mission carried a sense of urgency, yet led him to serenity that I hadn’t expected:

He has left the village and mounted the steep,
And beneath him, tranquil and broad and deep,
Is the Mystic, meeting the ocean tides…

The poem’s final stanza kicks. Its message carries as much relevance to the 21st century as Longfellow, writing about the 1700s during the 1800s, could have dreamed:

So through the night rode Paul Revere;
And so through the night went his cry of alarm
To every Middlesex village and farm,—
A cry of defiance, and not of fear,
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo forevermore!
For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere.

Reciting poetry clears my head. I can recite on autopilot, while processing other information or admiring my surroundings. But the poem usually wins my attention at last. The rhythm and rhyme sweep me along, narrowing my focus. Reciting “Paul Revere’s Ride” takes me 5-10 minutes. After finishing that morning, I repeated the poem, and began repeating it again, until arriving at my institute on the edge of Harvard’s campus.

Isolation can benefit theorists. Many of us need quiet to study, capture proofs, and disentangle ideas. Many of us need collaboration; but email, Skype, Google hangouts, and Zoom connect us. Many of us share and gain ideas through travel; but I can forfeit a  little car sickness, air turbulence, and waiting in lines. Many of us need results from experimentalist collaborators, but experimental results often take long to gather in the absence of pandemics. Many of us are introverts who enjoy a little self-isolation.


April is National Poetry Month in the United States. I often celebrate by intertwining physics with poetry in my April blog post. Next month, though, I’ll have other news to report. Besides, my walk demonstrated, we need poetry now. 

Paul Revere found tranquility on the eve of a storm. Maybe, when the night clears and doors reopen, science born of the quiet will flood journals. Aren’t we fortunate, as physicists, to lead lives steeped in a kind of poetry?

Sense, sensibility, and superconductors

Jonathan Monroe disagreed with his PhD supervisor—with respect. They needed to measure a superconducting qubit, a tiny circuit in which current can flow forever. The qubit emits light, which carries information about the qubit’s state. Jonathan and Kater intensify the light using an amplifier. They’d fabricated many amplifiers, but none had worked. Jonathan suggested changing their strategy—with a politeness to which Emily Post couldn’t have objected. Jonathan’s supervisor, Kater Murch, suggested repeating the protocol they’d performed many times.

“That’s the definition of insanity,” Kater admitted, “but I think experiment needs to involve some of that.”

I watched the exchange via Skype, with more interest than I’d have watched the Oscars with. Someday, I hope, I’ll be able to weigh in on such a debate, despite working as a theorist. Someday, I’ll have partnered with enough experimentalists to develop insight.

I’m partnering with Jonathan and Kater on an experiment that coauthors and I proposed in a paper blogged about here. The experiment centers on an uncertainty relation, an inequality of the sort immortalized by Werner Heisenberg in 1927. Uncertainty relations imply that, if you measure a quantum particle’s position, the particle’s momentum ceases to have a well-defined value. If you measure the momentum, the particle ceases to have a well-defined position. Our uncertainty relation involves weak measurements. Weakly measuring a particle’s position doesn’t disturb the momentum much and vice versa. We can interpret the uncertainty in information-processing terms, because we cast the inequality in terms of entropies. Entropies, described here, are functions that quantify how efficiently we can process information, such as by compressing data. Jonathan and Kater are checking our inequality, and exploring its implications, with a superconducting qubit.

With chip

I had too little experience to side with Jonathan or with Kater. So I watched, and I contemplated how their opinions would sound if expressed about theory. Do I try one strategy again and again, hoping to change my results without changing my approach? 

At the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, Masters students had to swallow half-a-year of course material in weeks. I questioned whether I’d ever understand some of the material. But some of that material resurfaced during my PhD. Again, I attended lectures about Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Again, I worked problems about observers in free-fall. Again, I calculated covariant derivatives. The material sank in. I decided never to question, again, whether I could understand a concept. I might not understand a concept today, or tomorrow, or next week. But if I dedicate enough time and effort, I chose to believe, I’ll learn.

My decision rested on experience and on classes, taught by educational psychologists, that I’d taken in college. I’d studied how brains change during learning and how breaks enhance the changes. Sense, I thought, underlay my decision—though expecting outcomes to change, while strategies remain static, sounds insane.

Old cover

Does sense underlie Kater’s suggestion, likened to insanity, to keep fabricating amplifiers as before? He’s expressed cynicism many times during our collaboration: Experiment needs to involve some insanity. The experiment probably won’t work for a long time. Plenty more things will likely break. 

Jonathan and I agree with him. Experiments have a reputation for breaking, and Kater has a reputation for knowing experiments. Yet Jonathan—with professionalism and politeness—remains optimistic that other methods will prevail, that we’ll meet our goals early. I hope that Jonathan remains optimistic, and I fancy that Kater hopes, too. He prophesies gloom with a quarter of a smile, and his record speaks against him: A few months ago, I met a theorist who’d collaborated with Kater years before. The theorist marveled at the speed with which Kater had operated. A theorist would propose an experiment, and boom—the proposal would work.

Sea monsters

Perhaps luck smiled upon the implementation. But luck dovetails with the sense that underlies Kater’s opinion: Experiments involve factors that you can’t control. Implement a protocol once, and it might fail because the temperature has risen too high. Implement the protocol again, and it might fail because a truck drove by your building, vibrating the tabletop. Implement the protocol again, and it might fail because you bumped into a knob. Implement the protocol a fourth time, and it might succeed. If you repeat a protocol many times, your environment might change, changing your results.

Sense underlies also Jonathan’s objections to Kater’s opinions. We boost our chances of succeeding if we keep trying. We derive energy to keep trying from creativity and optimism. So rebelling against our PhD supervisors’ sense is sensible. I wondered, watching the Skype conversation, whether Kater the student had objected to prophesies of doom as Jonathan did. 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. Science thrives on the soberness and the irreverence.

Green cover

Who won Jonathan and Kater’s argument? Both, I think. Last week, they reported having fabricated amplifiers that work. The lab followed a protocol similar to their old one, but with more conscientiousness. 

I’m looking forward to watching who wins the debate about how long the rest of the experiment takes. Either way, check out Jonathan’s talk about our experiment if you attend the American Physical Society’s March Meeting. Jonathan will speak on Thursday, March 5, at 12:03, in room 106. Also, keep an eye out for our paper—which will debut once Jonathan coaxes the amplifier into synching with his qubit.

On the merits of flatworm reproduction

On my right sat a quantum engineer. She was facing a melanoma specialist who works at a medical school. Leftward of us sat a networks expert, a flatworm enthusiast, and a condensed-matter theorist.

Farther down sat a woman who slices up mouse brains. 

Welcome to “Coherent Spins in Biology,” a conference that took place at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) this past December. Two southern Californians organized the workshop: Clarice Aiello heads UCLA’s Quantum Biology Tech lab. Thorsten Ritz, of the University of California, Irvine, cofounded a branch of quantum biology.

Clarice logo

Quantum biology served as the conference’s backdrop. According to conventional wisdom, quantum phenomena can’t influence biology significantly: Biological systems have high temperatures, many particles, and fluids. Quantum phenomena, such as entanglement (a relationship that quantum particles can share), die quickly under such conditions.

Yet perhaps some survive. Quantum biologists search for biological systems that might use quantum resources. Then, they model and measure the uses and resources. Three settings (at least) have held out promise during the past few decades: avian navigation, photosynthesis, and olfaction. You can read about them in this book, cowritten by a conference participant for the general public. I’ll give you a taste (or a possibly quantum smell?) by sketching the avian-navigation proposal, developed by Thorsten and colleagues.

Bird + flower

Birds migrate southward during the autumn and northward during the spring. How do they know where to fly? At least partially by sensing the Earth’s magnetic field, which leads compass needles to point northward. How do birds sense the field?

Possibly with a protein called “cryptochrome.” A photon (a particle of light) could knock an electron out of part of the protein and into another part. Each part would have one electron that lacked a partner. The electrons would share entanglement. One electron would interact with the Earth’s magnetic field differently than its partner, because its surroundings would differ. (Experts: The electrons would form a radical pair. One electron would neighbor different atoms than the other, so the electron would experience a different local magnetic field. The discrepancy would change the relative phase between the electrons’ spins.) The discrepancy could affect the rate at which the chemical system could undergo certain reactions. Which reactions occur could snowball into large and larger effects, eventually signaling the brain about where the bird should fly.

Angry bird

Quantum mechanics and life rank amongst the universe’s mysteries. How could a young researcher resist the combination? A postdoc warned me away, one lunchtime at the start of my PhD. Quantum biology had enjoyed attention several years earlier, he said, but noise the obscured experimental data. Controversy marred the field.

I ate lunch with that postdoc in 2013. Interest in quantum biology is reviving, as evidenced in the conference. Two reasons suggested themselves: new technologies and new research avenues. For example, Thorsten described the disabling and deletion of genes that code for cryptochrome. Such studies require years’ more work but might illuminate whether cryptochrome affects navigation.

Open door

The keynote speaker, Harvard’s Misha Lukin, illustrated new technologies and new research avenues. Misha’s lab has diamonds that contain quantum defects, which serve as artificial atoms. The defects sense tiny magnetic fields and temperatures. Misha’s group applies these quantum sensors to biology problems.

For example, different cells in an embryo divide at different times. Imagine reversing the order in which the cells divide. Would the reversal harm the organism? You could find out by manipulating the temperatures in different parts of the embryo: Temperature controls the rate at which cells divide.

Misha’s team injected nanoscale diamonds into a worm embryo. (See this paper for a related study.) The diamonds reported the temperature at various points in the worm. This information guided experimentalists who heated the embryo with lasers.

The manipulated embryos grew into fairly normal adults. But their cells, and their descendants’ cells, cycled through the stages of life slowly. This study exemplified, to me, one of the most meaningful opportunities for quantum physicists interested in biology: to develop technologies and analyses that can answer biology questions.


I mentioned, in an earlier blog post, another avenue emerging in quantum biology: Physicist Matthew Fisher proposed a mechanism by which entanglement might enhance coordinated neuron firing. My collaborator Elizabeth Crosson and I analyzed how the molecules in Matthew’s proposal—Posner clusters—could process quantum information. The field of Posner quantum biology had a population of about two, when Elizabeth and I entered, and I wondered whether anyone would join us.

The conference helped resolve my uncertainty. Three speakers (including me) presented work based on Matthew’s; two other participants were tilling the Posner soil; and another speaker mentioned Matthew’s proposal. The other two Posner talks related data from three experiments. The experimentalists haven’t finished their papers, so I won’t share details. But stay tuned.

Posner 2

Posner molecule (image by Swift et al.)

Clarice and Thorsten’s conference reminded me of a conference I’d participated in at the end of my PhD: Last month, I moonlighted as a quantum biologist. In 2017, I moonlighted as a quantum-gravity theorist. Two years earlier, I’d been dreaming about black holes and space-time. At UCLA, I was finishing the first paper I’ve coauthored with biophysicists. What a toolkit quantum information theory and thermodynamics provide, that it can unite such disparate fields. 

The contrast—on top of what I learned at UCLA—filled my mind for weeks. And reminded me of the description of asexual reproduction that we heard from the conference’s flatworm enthusiast. According to Western Michigan University’s Wendy Beane, a flatworm “glues its butt down, pops its head off, and grows a new one. Y’know. As one does.” 

I hope I never flinch from popping my head off and growing a new one—on my quantum-information-thermodynamics spine—whenever new science calls for figuring out.


With thanks to Clarice, Thorsten, and UCLA for their invitation and hospitality.

An equation fit for a novel

Archana Kamal was hunting for an apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She was moving MIT, to work as a postdoc in physics. The first apartment she toured had housed John Updike, during his undergraduate career at Harvard. No other apartment could compete; Archana signed the lease.

The apartment occupied the basement of a red-brick building covered in vines. The rooms spanned no more than 350 square feet. Yet her window opened onto the neighbors’ garden, whose leaves she tracked across the seasons. And Archana cohabited with history.

Apartment photos

She’s now studying the universe’s history, as an assistant professor of physics at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. The cosmic microwave background (CMB) pervades the universe. The CMB consists of electromagnetic radiation, or light. Light has particle-like properties and wavelike properties. The wavelike properties include wavelength, the distance between successive peaks. Long-wavelength light includes red light, infrared light, and radio waves. Short-wavelength light includes blue light, ultraviolet light, and X-rays. Light of one wavelength and light of another wavelength are said to belong to different modes.


Does the CMB have nonclassical properties, impossible to predict with classical physics but (perhaps) predictable with quantum theory? The CMB does according to the theory of inflation. According to the theory, during a short time interval after the Big Bang, the universe expanded very quickly: Spacetime stretched. Inflation explains features of our universe, though we don’t know what mechanism would have effected the expansion.

According to inflation, around the Big Bang time, all the light in the universe crowded together. The photons (particles of light) interacted, entangling (developing strong quantum correlations). Spacetime then expanded, and the photons separated. But they might retain entanglement.

Detecting that putative entanglement poses challenges. For instance, the particles that you’d need to measure could produce a signal too weak to observe. Cosmologists have been scratching their heads about how to observe nonclassicality in the CMB. One team—Nishant Agarwal at UMass Lowell and Sarah Shandera at Pennsylvania State University—turned to Archana for help.

A sky full of stars

Archana studies the theory of open quantum systems, quantum systems that interact with their environments. She thinks most about systems such as superconducting qubits, tiny circuits with which labs are building quantum computers. But the visible universe constitutes an open quantum system.

We can see only part of the universe—or, rather, only part of what we believe is the whole universe. Why? We can see only stuff that’s emitted light that has reached us, and light has had only so long to travel. But the visible universe interacts (we believe) with stuff we haven’t seen. For instance, according to the theory of inflation, that rapid expansion stretched some light modes’ wavelengths. Those wavelengths grew longer than the visible universe. We can’t see those modes’ peak-to-peak variations or otherwise observe the modes, often called “frozen.” But the frozen modes act as an environment that exchanges information and energy with the visible universe.

We describe an open quantum system’s evolution with a quantum master equation, which I blogged about four-and-a-half years ago. Archana and collaborators constructed a quantum master equation for the visible universe. The frozen modes, they found, retain memories of the visible universe. (Experts: the bath is non-Markovian.) Next, they need to solve the equation. Then, they’ll try to use their solution to identify quantum observables that could reveal nonclassicality in the CMB.

Frozen modes

Frozen modes

Archana’s project caught my fancy for two reasons. First, when I visited her in October, I was collaborating on a related project. My coauthors and I were concocting a scheme for detecting nonclassical correlations in many-particle systems by measuring large-scale properties. Our paper debuted last month. It might—with thought and a dash of craziness—be applied to detect nonclassicality in the CMB. Archana’s explanation improved my understanding of our scheme’s potential. 

Second, Archana and collaborators formulated a quantum master equation for the visible universe. A quantum master equation for the visible universe. The phrase sounded romantic to me.1 It merited a coauthor who’d seized on an apartment lived in by a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist. 

Archana’s cosmology and Updike stories reminded me of one reason why I appreciate living in the Boston area: History envelops us here. Last month, while walking to a grocery, I found a sign that marks the building in which the poet e. e. cummings was born. My walking partner then generously tolerated a recitation of cummings’s “anyone lived in a pretty how town.” History enriches our lives—and some of it might contain entanglement.


1It might sound like gobbledygook to you, if I’ve botched my explanations of the terminology.

With thanks to Archana and the UMass Lowell Department of Physics and Applied Physics for their hospitality and seminar invitation.

The paper that begged for a theme song

A year ago, the “I’m a little teapot” song kept playing in my head.

I was finishing a collaboration with David Limmer, a theoretical chemist at the University of California Berkeley. David studies quantum and classical systems far from equilibrium, including how these systems exchange energy and information with their environments. Example systems include photoisomers.

A photoisomer is a molecular switch. These switches appear across nature and technologies. We have photoisomers in our eyes, and experimentalists have used photoisomers to boost solar-fuel storage. A photoisomer has two functional groups, or collections of bonded atoms, attached to a central axis. 


Your average-Joe photoisomer spends much of its life in equilibrium, exchanging heat with room-temperature surroundings. The molecule has the shape above, called the cis configuration. Imagine shining a laser or sunlight on the photoisomer. The molecule can absorb a photon, or particle of light, gaining energy. The energized switch has the opportunity to switch: One chemical group can rotate downward. The molecule will occupy its trans configuration.


The molecule now has more energy than it had while equilibrium, albeit less energy than it had right after absorbing the photon. The molecule can remain in this condition for a decent amount of time. (Experts: The molecule occupies a metastable state.) That is, the molecule can store sunlight. For that reason, experimentalists at Harvard and MIT attached photoisomers to graphene nanotubules, improving the nanotubules’ storage of solar fuel.

Teapot 1

With what probability does a photoisomer switch upon absorbing a photon? This question has resisted easy answering, because photoisomers prove difficult to model: They’re small, quantum, and far from equilibrium. People have progressed by making assumptions, but such assumptions can lack justifications or violate physical principles. David wanted to derive a simple, general bound—of the sort in which thermodynamicists specialize—on a photoisomer’s switching probability.

He had a hunch as to how he could derive such a bound. I’ve blogged, many times, about thermodynamic resource theories. Thermodynamic resource theories are simple models, developed in quantum information theory, for exchanges of heat, particles, information, and more. These models involve few assumptions: the conservation of energy, quantum theory, and, to some extent, the existence of a large environment (Markovianity). With such a model, David suspected, he might derive his bound.

Teapot 2

I knew nothing about photoisomers when I met David, but I knew about thermodynamic resource theories. I’d contributed to their development, to the theorems that have piled up in the resource-theory corner of quantum information theory. Then, the corner had given me claustrophobia. Those theorems felt so formal, abstract, and idealized. Formal, abstract theory has drawn me ever since I started studying physics in college. But did resource theories model physical reality? Could they impact science beyond our corner of quantum information theory? Did resource theories matter?

I called for connecting thermodynamic resource theories to physical reality four years ago, in a paper that begins with an embarrassing story about me. Resource theorists began designing experiments whose results should agree with our theorems. Theorists also tried to improve the accuracy with which resource theories model experimentalists’ limitations. See David’s and my paper for a list of these achievements. They delighted me, as a step toward the broadening of resource theories’ usefulness. 

Like any first step, this step pointed toward opportunities. Experiments designed to test our theorems essentially test quantum mechanics. Scientists have tested quantum mechanics for decades; we needn’t test it much more. Such experimental proposals can push experimentalists to hone their abilities, but I hoped that the community could accomplish more. We should be able to apply resource theories to answer questions cultivated in other fields, such as condensed matter and chemistry. We should be useful to scientists outside our corner of quantum information.

Teapot 3

David’s idea lit me up like photons on a solar-fuel-storage device. He taught me about photoisomers, I taught him about resource theories, and we derived his bound. Our proof relies on the “second laws of thermodynamics.” These abstract resource-theory results generalize the second law of thermodynamics, which helps us understand why time flows in only one direction. We checked our bound against numerical simulations (experts: of Lindbladian evolution). Our bound is fairly tight if the photoisomer has a low probability of absorbing a photon, as in the Harvard-MIT experiment. 

Experts: We also quantified the photoisomer’s coherences relative to the energy eigenbasis. Coherences can’t boost the switching probability, we concluded. But, en route to this conclusion, we found that the molecule is a natural realization of a quantum clock. Our quantum-clock modeling extends to general dissipative Landau-Zener transitions, prevalent across condensed matter and chemistry.

Teapot 4

As I worked on our paper one day, a jingle unfolded in my head. I recognized the tune first: “I’m a little teapot.” I hadn’t sung that much since kindergarten, I realized. Lyrics suggested themselves: 

I’m a little isomer
with two hands.
Here is my cis pose;
here is my trans.

Stand me in the sunlight;
watch me spin.
I’ll keep solar
energy in!

The song lodged itself in my head for weeks. But if you have to pay an earworm to collaborate with David, do.

The quantum steampunker by Massachusetts Bay

Every spring, a portal opens between Waltham, Massachusetts and another universe. 

The other universe has a Watch City dual to Waltham, known for its watch factories. The cities throw a festival to which explorers, inventors, and tourists flock. Top hats, goggles, leather vests, bustles, and lace-up boots dot the crowds. You can find pet octopodes, human-machine hybrids, and devices for bending space and time. Steam powers everything.

Watch City

Watch City Steampunk Festival

So I learned thanks to Maxim Olshanyi, a professor of physics at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He hosted my colloquium, “Quantum steampunk: Quantum information meets thermodynamics,” earlier this month. Maxim, I discovered, has more steampunk experience than I. He digs up century-old designs for radios, builds the radios, and improves upon the designs. He exhibits his creations at the Watch City Steampunk Festival.

Maxim photo

Maxim Olshanyi

I never would have guessed that Maxim moonlights with steampunkers. But his hobby makes sense: Maxim has transformed our understanding of quantum integrability.

Integrability is to thermalization as Watch City is to Waltham. A bowl of baked beans thermalizes when taken outside in Boston in October: Heat dissipates into the air. After half-an-hour, large-scale properties bear little imprint of their initial conditions: The beans could have begun at 112ºF or 99º or 120º. Either way, the beans have cooled.

Integrable systems avoid thermalizing; more of their late-time properties reflect early times. Why? We can understand through an example, an integrable system whose particles don’t interact with each other (whose particles are noninteracting fermions). The dynamics conserve the particles’ momenta. Consider growing the system by adding particles. The number of conserved quantities grows as the system size. The conserved quantities retain memories of the initial conditions.

Imagine preparing an integrable system, analogously to preparing a bowl of baked beans, and letting it sit for a long time. Will the system equilibrate, or settle down to, a state predictable with a simple rule? We might expect not. Obeying the same simple rule would cause different integrable systems to come to resemble each other. Integrable systems seem unlikely to homogenize, since each system retains much information about its initial conditions.

Boston baked beans

Maxim and collaborators exploded this expectation. Integrable systems do relax to simple equilibrium states, which the physicists called the generalized Gibbs ensemble (GGE). Josiah Willard Gibbs cofounded statistical mechanics during the 1800s. He predicted the state to which nonintegrable systems, like baked beans in autumnal Boston, equilibrate. Gibbs’s theory governs classical systems, like baked beans, as does the GGE theory. But also quantum systems equilibrate to the GGE, and Gibbs’s conclusions translate into quantum theory with few adjustments. So I’ll explain in quantum terms.

Consider quantum baked beans that exchange heat with a temperature-T environment. Let \hat{H} denote the system’s Hamiltonian, which basically represents the beans’ energy. The beans equilibrate to a quantum Gibbs state, e^{ - \hat{H} / ( k_{\rm B} T ) } / Z. The k_{\rm B} denotes Boltzmann’s constant, a fundamental constant of nature. The partition function Z enables the quantum state to obey probability theory (normalizes the state).

Maxim and friends modeled their generalized Gibbs ensemble on the Gibbs state. Let \hat{I}_m denote a quantum integrable system’s m^{\rm th} conserved quantity. This system equilibrates to e^{ - \sum_m \lambda_m \hat{I}_m } / Z_{\rm GGE}. The Z_{\rm GGE} normalizes the state. The intensive parameters \lambda_m’s serve analogously to temperature and depend on the conserved quantities’ values. Maxim and friends predicted this state using information theory formalized by Ed Jaynes. Inventing the GGE, they unlocked a slew of predictions about integrable quantum systems. 


A radio built by Maxim. According to him, “The invention was to replace a diode with a diode bridge, in a crystal radio, thus gaining a factor of two in the output power.”

I define quantum steampunk as the intersection of quantum theory, especially quantum information theory, with thermodynamics, and the application of this intersection across science. Maxim has used information theory to cofound a branch of quantum statistical mechanics. Little wonder that he exhibits homemade radios at the Watch City Steampunk Festival. He also holds a license to drive steam engines and used to have my postdoc position. I appreciate having older cousins to look up to. Here’s hoping that I become half the quantum steampunker that I found by Massachusetts Bay.

With thanks to Maxim and the rest of the University of Massachusetts Boston Department of Physics for their hospitality.

The next Watch City Steampunk Festival takes place on May 9, 2020. Contact me if you’d attend a quantum-steampunk meetup!

Yes, seasoned scientists do extraordinary science.

Imagine that you earned tenure and your field’s acclaim decades ago. Perhaps you received a Nobel Prize. Perhaps you’re directing an institute for science that you helped invent. Do you still do science? Does mentoring youngsters, advising the government, raising funds, disentangling logistics, presenting keynote addresses at conferences, chairing committees, and hosting visitors dominate the time you dedicate to science? Or do you dabble, attend seminars, and read, following progress without spearheading it?

People have asked whether my colleagues do science when weighed down with laurels. The end of August illustrates my answer.

At the end of August, I participated in the eighth Conference on Quantum Information and Quantum Control (CQIQC) at Toronto’s Fields Institute. CQIQC bestows laurels called “the John Stewart Bell Prize” on quantum-information scientists. John Stewart Bell revolutionized our understanding of entanglement, strong correlations that quantum particles can share and that power quantum computing. Aephraim Steinberg, vice-chair of the selection committee, bestowed this year’s award. The award, he emphasized, recognizes achievements accrued during the past six years. This year’s co-winners have been leading quantum information theory for decades. But the past six years earned the winners their prize.


Peter Zoller co-helms IQOQI in Innsbruck. (You can probably guess what the acronym stands for. Hint: The name contains “Quantum” and “Institute.”) Ignacio Cirac is a director of the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics near Munich. Both winners presented recent work about quantum many-body physics at the conference. You can watch videos of their talks here.

Peter discussed how a lab in Austria and a lab across the world can check whether they’ve prepared the same quantum state. One lab might have trapped ions, while the other has ultracold atoms. The experimentalists might not know which states they’ve prepared, and the experimentalists might have prepared the states at different times. Create multiple copies of the states, Peter recommended, measure the copies randomly, and play mathematical tricks to calculate correlations.

Ignacio expounded upon how to simulate particle physics on a quantum computer formed from ultracold atoms trapped by lasers. For expert readers: Simulate matter fields with fermionic atoms and gauge fields with bosonic atoms. Give the optical lattice the field theory’s symmetries. Translate the field theory’s Lagrangian into Hamiltonian language using Kogut and Susskind’s prescription. 

Laurels 1

Even before August, I’d collected an arsenal of seasoned scientists who continue to revolutionize their fields. Frank Wilczek shared a physics Nobel Prize for theory undertaken during the 1970s. He and colleagues helped explain matter’s stability: They clarified how close-together quarks (subatomic particles) fail to attract each other, though quarks draw together when far apart. Why stop after cofounding one subfield of physics? Frank spawned another in 2012. He proposed the concept of a time crystal, which is like table salt, except extended across time instead of across space. Experimentalists realized a variation on Frank’s prediction in 2018, and time crystals have exploded across the scientific literature.1

Rudy Marcus is 96 years old. He received a chemistry Nobel Prize, for elucidating how electrons hop between molecules during reactions, in 1992. I took a nonequilibrium-statistical-mechanics course from Rudy four years ago. Ever since, whenever I’ve seen him, he’s asked for the news in quantum information theory. Rudy’s research group operates at Caltech, and you won’t find “Emeritus” in the title on his webpage.

My PhD supervisor, John Preskill, received tenure at Caltech for particle-physics research performed before 1990. You might expect the rest of his career to form an afterthought. But he helped establish quantum computing, starting in the mid-1990s. During the past few years, he co-midwifed the subfield of holographic quantum information theory, which concerns black holes, chaos, and the unification of quantum theory with general relativity. Watching a subfield emerge during my PhD left a mark like a tree on a bicyclist (or would have, if such a mark could uplift instead of injure). John hasn’t helped create subfields only by garnering resources and encouraging youngsters. Several papers by John and collaborators—about topological quantum matter, black holes, quantum error correction, and more—have transformed swaths of physics during the past 15 years. Nor does John stamp his name on many papers: Most publications by members of his group don’t list him as a coauthor.

Laurels 2

Do my colleagues do science after laurels pile up on them? The answer sounds to me, in many cases, more like a roar than like a “yes.” Much science done by senior scientists inspires no less than the science that established them. Beyond their results, their enthusiasm inspires. Never mind receiving a Bell Prize. Here’s to working toward deserving a Bell Prize every six years.


With thanks to the Fields Institute, the University of Toronto, Daniel F. V. James, Aephraim Steinberg, and the rest of the conference committee for their invitation and hospitality.

You can find videos of all the conference’s talks here. My talk is shown here

1To scientists, I recommend this Physics Today perspective on time crystals. Few articles have awed and inspired me during the past year as much as this review did. 

Quantum conflict resolution

If only my coauthors and I had quarreled.

I was working with Tony Bartolotta, a PhD student in theoretical physics at Caltech, and Jason Pollack, a postdoc in cosmology at the University of British Columbia. They acted as the souls of consideration. We missed out on dozens of opportunities to bicker—about the paper’s focus, who undertook which tasks, which journal to submit to, and more. Bickering would have spiced up the story behind our paper, because the paper concerns disagreement.

Quantum observables can disagree. Observables are measurable properties, such as position and momentum. Suppose that you’ve measured a quantum particle’s position and obtained an outcome x. If you measure the position immediately afterward, you’ll obtain x again. Suppose that, instead of measuring the position again, you measure the momentum. All the possible outcomes have equal probabilities of obtaining. You can’t predict the outcome.

The particle’s position can have a well-defined value, or the momentum can have a well-defined value, but the observables can’t have well-defined values simultaneously. Furthermore, if you measure the position, you randomize the outcome of a momentum measurement. Position and momentum disagree.


How should we quantify the disagreement of two quantum observables, \hat{A} and \hat{B}? The question splits physicists into two camps. Pure quantum information (QI) theorists use uncertainty relations, whereas condensed-matter and high-energy physicists prefer out-of-time-ordered correlators. Let’s meet the camps in turn.

Heisenberg intuited an uncertainty relation that Robertson formalized during the 1920s,

\Delta \hat{A} \, \Delta \hat{B} \geq \frac{1}{i \hbar} \langle [\hat{A}, \hat{B}] \rangle.

Imagine preparing a quantum state | \psi \rangle and measuring \hat{A}, then repeating this protocol in many trials. Each trial has some probability p_a of yielding the outcome a. Different trials will yield different a’s. We quantify the spread in a values with the standard deviation \Delta \hat{A} = \sqrt{ \langle \psi | \hat{A}^2 | \psi \rangle - \langle \psi | \hat{A} | \psi \rangle^2 }. We define \Delta \hat{B} analogously. \hbar denotes Planck’s constant, a number that characterizes our universe as the electron’s mass does. 

[\hat{A}, \hat{B}] denotes the observables’ commutator. The numbers that we use in daily life commute: 7 \times 5 = 5 \times 7. Quantum numbers, or operators, represent \hat{A} and \hat{B}. Operators don’t necessarily commute. The commutator [\hat{A}, \hat{B}] = \hat{A} \hat{B} - \hat{B} \hat{A} represents how little \hat{A} and \hat{B} resemble 7 and 5. 

Robertson’s uncertainty relation means, “If you can predict an \hat{A} measurement’s outcome precisely, you can’t predict a \hat{B} measurement’s outcome precisely, and vice versa. The uncertainties must multiply to at least some number. The number depends on how much \hat{A} fails to commute with \hat{B}.” The higher an uncertainty bound (the greater the inequality’s right-hand side), the more the operators disagree.


Heisenberg and Robertson explored operator disagreement during the 1920s. They wouldn’t have seen eye to eye with today’s QI theorists. For instance, QI theorists consider how we can apply quantum phenomena, such as operator disagreement, to information processing. Information processing includes cryptography. Quantum cryptography benefits from operator disagreement: An eavesdropper must observe, or measure, a message. The eavesdropper’s measurement of one observable can “disturb” a disagreeing observable. The message’s sender and intended recipient can detect the disturbance and so detect the eavesdropper.

How efficiently can one perform an information-processing task? The answer usually depends on an entropy H, a property of quantum states and of probability distributions. Uncertainty relations cry out for recasting in terms of entropies. So QI theorists have devised entropic uncertainty relations, such as

H (\hat{A}) + H( \hat{B} ) \geq - \log c. \qquad (^*)

The entropy H( \hat{A} ) quantifies the difficulty of predicting the outcome a of an \hat{A} measurement. H( \hat{B} ) is defined analogously. c is called the overlap. It quantifies your ability to predict what happens if you prepare your system with a well-defined \hat{A} value, then measure \hat{B}. For further analysis, check out this paper. Entropic uncertainty relations have blossomed within QI theory over the past few years. 


Pure QI theorists, we’ve seen, quantify operator disagreement with entropic uncertainty relations. Physicists at the intersection of condensed matter and high-energy physics prefer out-of-time-ordered correlators (OTOCs). I’ve blogged about OTOCs so many times, Quantum Frontiers regulars will be able to guess the next two paragraphs. 

Consider a quantum many-body system, such as a chain of qubits. Imagine poking one end of the system, such as by flipping the first qubit upside-down. Let the operator \hat{W} represent the poke. Suppose that the system evolves chaotically for a time t afterward, the qubits interacting. Information about the poke spreads through many-body entanglement, or scrambles.

Spin chain

Imagine measuring an observable \hat{V} of a few qubits far from the \hat{W} qubits. A little information about \hat{W} migrates into the \hat{V} qubits. But measuring \hat{V} reveals almost nothing about \hat{W}, because most of the information about \hat{W} has spread across the system. \hat{V} disagrees with \hat{W}, in a sense. Actually, \hat{V} disagrees with \hat{W}(t). The (t) represents the time evolution.

The OTOC’s smallness reflects how much \hat{W}(t) disagrees with \hat{V} at any instant t. At early times t \gtrsim 0, the operators agree, and the OTOC \approx 1. At late times, the operators disagree loads, and the OTOC \approx 0.


Different camps of physicists, we’ve seen, quantify operator disagreement with different measures: Today’s pure QI theorists use entropic uncertainty relations. Condensed-matter and high-energy physicists use OTOCs. Trust physicists to disagree about what “quantum operator disagreement” means.

I want peace on Earth. I conjectured, in 2016 or so, that one could reconcile the two notions of quantum operator disagreement. One must be able to prove an entropic uncertainty relation for scrambling, wouldn’t you think?

You might try substituting \hat{W}(t) for the \hat{A} in Ineq. {(^*)}, and \hat{V} for the \hat{B}. You’d expect the uncertainty bound to tighten—the inequality’s right-hand side to grow—when the system scrambles. Scrambling—the condensed-matter and high-energy-physics notion of disagreement—would coincide with a high uncertainty bound—the pure-QI-theory notion of disagreement. The two notions of operator disagreement would agree. But the bound I’ve described doesn’t reflect scrambling. Nor do similar bounds that I tried constructing. I banged my head against the problem for about a year.


The sky brightened when Jason and Tony developed an interest in the conjecture. Their energy and conversation enabled us to prove an entropic uncertainty relation for scrambling, published this month.1 We tested the relation in computer simulations of a qubit chain. Our bound tightens when the system scrambles, as expected: The uncertainty relation reflects the same operator disagreement as the OTOC. We reconciled two notions of quantum operator disagreement.

As Quantum Frontiers regulars will anticipate, our uncertainty relation involves weak measurements and quasiprobability distributions: I’ve been studying their roles in scrambling over the past three years, with colleagues for whose collaborations I have the utmost gratitude. I’m grateful to have collaborated with Tony and Jason. Harmony helps when you’re tackling (quantum operator) disagreement—even if squabbling would spice up your paper’s backstory.


1Thanks to Communications Physics for publishing the paper. For pedagogical formatting, read the arXiv version. 

What distinguishes quantum thermodynamics from quantum statistical mechanics?

Yoram Alhassid asked the question at the end of my Yale Quantum Institute colloquium last February. I knew two facts about Yoram: (1) He belongs to Yale’s theoretical-physics faculty. (2) His PhD thesis’s title—“On the Information Theoretic Approach to Nuclear Reactions”—ranks among my three favorites.1 

Over the past few months, I’ve grown to know Yoram better. He had reason to ask about quantum statistical mechanics, because his research stands up to its ears in the field. If forced to synopsize quantum statistical mechanics in five words, I’d say, “study of many-particle quantum systems.” Examples include gases of ultracold atoms. If given another five words, I’d add, “Calculate and use partition functions.” A partition function is a measure of the number of states, or configurations, accessible to the system. Calculate a system’s partition function, and you can calculate the system’s average energy, the average number of particles in the system, how the system responds to magnetic fields, etc.

Line in the sand

My colloquium concerned quantum thermodynamics, which I’ve blogged about many times. So I should have been able to distinguish quantum thermodynamics from its neighbors. But the answer I gave Yoram didn’t satisfy me. I mulled over the exchange for a few weeks, then emailed Yoram a 502-word essay. The exercise grew my appreciation for the question and my understanding of my field. 

An adaptation of the email appears below. The adaptation should suit readers who’ve majored in physics, but don’t worry if you haven’t. Bits of what distinguishes quantum thermodynamics from quantum statistical mechanics should come across to everyone—as should, I hope, the value of question-and-answer sessions:

One distinction is a return to the operational approach of 19th-century thermodynamics. Thermodynamicists such as Sadi Carnot wanted to know how effectively engines could operate. Their practical questions led to fundamental insights, such as the Carnot bound on an engine’s efficiency. Similarly, quantum thermodynamicists often ask, “How can this state serve as a resource in thermodynamic tasks?” This approach helps us identify what distinguishes quantum theory from classical mechanics.

For example, quantum thermodynamicists found an advantage in charging batteries via nonlocal operations. Another example is the “MBL-mobile” that I designed with collaborators. Many-body localization (MBL), we found, can enhance an engine’s reliability and scalability. 

Asking, “How can this state serve as a resource?” leads quantum thermodynamicists to design quantum engines, ratchets, batteries, etc. We analyze how these devices can outperform classical analogues, identifying which aspects of quantum theory power the outperformance. This question and these tasks contrast with the questions and tasks of many non-quantum-thermodynamicists who use statistical mechanics. They often calculate response functions and (e.g., ground-state) properties of Hamiltonians.

These goals of characterizing what nonclassicality is and what it can achieve in thermodynamic contexts resemble upshots of quantum computing and cryptography. As a 21st-century quantum information scientist, I understand what makes quantum theory quantum partially by understanding which problems quantum computers can solve efficiently and classical computers can’t. Similarly, I understand what makes quantum theory quantum partially by understanding how much more work you can extract from a singlet \frac{1}{ \sqrt{2} } ( | 0 1 \rangle - |1 0 \rangle ) (a maximally entangled state of two qubits) than from a product state in which the reduced states have the same forms as in the singlet, \frac{1}{2} ( | 0 \rangle \langle 0 | + | 1 \rangle \langle 1 | ).

As quantum thermodynamics shares its operational approach with quantum information theory, quantum thermodynamicists use mathematical tools developed in quantum information theory. An example consists of generalized entropies. Entropies quantify the optimal efficiency with which we can perform information-processing and thermodynamic tasks, such as data compression and work extraction.

Most statistical-mechanics researchers use just the Shannon and von Neumann entropies, H_{\rm Sh} and H_{\rm vN}, and perhaps the occasional relative entropy. These entropies quantify optimal efficiencies in large-system limits, e.g., as the number of messages compressed approaches infinity and in the thermodynamic limit.

Other entropic quantities have been defined and explored over the past two decades, in quantum and classical information theory. These entropies quantify the optimal efficiencies with which tasks can be performed (i) if the number of systems processed or the number of trials is arbitrary, (ii) if the systems processed share correlations, (iii) in the presence of “quantum side information” (if the system being used as a resource is entangled with another system, to which an agent has access), or (iv) if you can tolerate some probability \varepsilon that you fail to accomplish your task. Instead of limiting ourselves to H_{\rm Sh} and H_{\rm vN}, we use also “\varepsilon-smoothed entropies,” Rényi divergences, hypothesis-testing entropies, conditional entropies, etc.

Another hallmark of quantum thermodynamics is results’ generality and simplicity. Thermodynamics characterizes a system with a few macroscopic observables, such as temperature, volume, and particle number. The simplicity of some quantum thermodynamics served a chemist collaborator and me, as explained in the introduction of https://arxiv.org/abs/1811.06551.

Yoram’s question reminded me of one reason why, as an undergrad, I adored studying physics in a liberal-arts college. I ate dinner and took walks with students majoring in economics, German studies, and Middle Eastern languages. They described their challenges, which I analyzed with the physics mindset that I was acquiring. We then compared our approaches. Encountering other disciplines’ perspectives helped me recognize what tools I was developing as a budding physicist. How can we know our corner of the world without stepping outside it and viewing it as part of a landscape?


1The title epitomizes clarity and simplicity. And I have trouble resisting anything advertised as “the information-theoretic approach to such-and-such.”

The importance of being open

Barcelona refused to stay indoors this May.

Merchandise spilled outside shops onto the streets, restaurateurs parked diners under trees, and ice-cream cones begged to be eaten on park benches. People thronged the streets, markets filled public squares, and the scents of flowers wafted from vendors’ stalls. I couldn’t blame the city. Its sunshine could have drawn Merlin out of his crystal cave. Insofar as a city lives, Barcelona epitomized a quotation by thermodynamicist Ilya Prigogine: “The main character of any living system is openness.”

Prigogine (1917–2003), who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry, had brought me to Barcelona. I was honored to receive, at the Joint European Thermodynamics Conference (JETC) there, the Ilya Prigogine Prize for a thermodynamics PhD thesis. The JETC convenes and awards the prize biennially; the last conference had taken place in Budapest. Barcelona suited the legacy of a thermodynamicist who illuminated open systems.


The conference center. Not bad, eh?

Ilya Prigogine began his life in Russia, grew up partially in Germany, settled in Brussels, and worked at American universities. His nobelprize.org biography reveals a mind open to many influences and disciplines: Before entering university, his “interest was more focused on history and archaeology, not to mention music, especially piano.” Yet Prigogine pursued chemistry. 

He helped extend thermodynamics outside equilibrium. Thermodynamics is the study of energy, order, and time’s arrow in terms of large-scale properties, such as temperature, pressure, and volume. Many physicists think that thermodynamics describes only equilibrium. Equilibrium is a state of matter in which (1) large-scale properties remain mostly constant and (2) stuff (matter, energy, electric charge, etc.) doesn’t flow in any particular direction much. Apple pies reach equilibrium upon cooling on a countertop. When I’ve described my research as involving nonequilibrium thermodynamics, some colleagues have asked whether I’ve used an oxymoron. But “nonequilibrium thermodynamics” appears in Prigogine’s Nobel Lecture. 

Prigogine photo

Ilya Prigogine

Another Nobel laureate, Lars Onsager, helped extend thermodynamics a little outside equilibrium. He imagined poking a system gently, as by putting a pie on a lukewarm stovetop or a magnet in a weak magnetic field. (Experts: Onsager studied the linear-response regime.) You can read about his work in my blog post “Long live Yale’s cemetery.” Systems poked slightly out of equilibrium tend to return to equilibrium: Equilibrium is stable. Systems flung far from equilibrium, as Prigogine showed, can behave differently. 

A system can stay far from equilibrium by interacting with other systems. Imagine placing an apple pie atop a blistering stove. Heat will flow from the stove through the pie into the air. The pie will stay out of equilibrium due to interactions with what we call a “hot reservoir” (the stove) and a “cold reservoir” (the air). Systems (like pies) that interact with other systems (like stoves and air), we call “open.”

You and I are open: We inhale air, ingest food and drink, expel waste, and radiate heat. Matter and energy flow through us; we remain far from equilibrium. A bumper sticker in my high-school chemistry classroom encapsulated our status: “Old chemists don’t die. They come to equilibrium.” We remain far from equilibrium—alive—because our environment provides food and absorbs heat. If I’m an apple pie, the yogurt that I ate at breakfast serves as my stovetop, and the living room in which I breakfasted serves as the air above the stove. We live because of our interactions with our environments, because we’re open. Hence Prigogine’s claim, “The main character of any living system is openness.”

Apple pie

The author

JETC 2019 fostered openness. The conference sessions spanned length scales and mass scales, from quantum thermodynamics to biophysics to gravitation. One could arrive as an expert in cell membranes and learn about astrophysics.

I remain grateful for the prize-selection committee’s openness. The topics of earlier winning theses include desalination, colloidal suspensions, and falling liquid films. If you tipped those topics into a tube, swirled them around, and capped the tube with a kaleidoscope glass, you might glimpse my thesis’s topic, quantum steampunk. Also, of the nine foregoing Prigogine Prize winners, only one had earned his PhD in the US. I’m grateful for the JETC’s consideration of something completely different.

When Prigogine said, “openness,” he referred to exchanges of energy and mass. Humans can exhibit openness also to ideas. The JETC honored Prigogine’s legacy in more ways than one. Here’s hoping I live up to their example.


Outside La Sagrada Familia