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.

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

Quantum information in quantum cognition

Some research topics, says conventional wisdom, a physics PhD student shouldn’t touch with an iron-tipped medieval lance: sinkholes in the foundations of quantum theory. Problems so hard, you’d have a snowball’s chance of achieving progress. Problems so obscure, you’d have a snowball’s chance of convincing anyone to care about progress. Whether quantum physics could influence cognition much.

Quantum physics influences cognition insofar as (i) quantum physics prevents atoms from imploding and (ii) implosion inhabits atoms from contributing to cognition. But most physicists believe that useful entanglement can’t survive in brains. Entanglement consists of correlations shareable by quantum systems and stronger than any achievable by classical systems. Useful entanglement dies quickly in hot, wet, random environments. 

Brains form such environments. Imagine injecting entangled molecules A and B into someone’s brain. Water, ions, and other particles would bombard the molecules. The higher the temperature, the heavier the bombardment. The bombardiers would entangle with the molecules via electric and magnetic fields. Each molecule can share only so much entanglement. The more A entangled with the environment, the less A could remain entangled with B. A would come to share a tiny amount of entanglement with each of many particles. Such tiny amounts couldn’t accomplish much. So quantum physics seems unlikely to affect cognition significantly.


Do not touch.

Yet my PhD advisor, John Preskill, encouraged me to consider whether the possibility interested me.

Try some completely different research, he said. Take a risk. If it doesn’t pan out, fine. People don’t expect much of grad students, anyway. Have you seen Matthew Fisher’s paper about quantum cognition? 

Matthew Fisher is a theoretical physicist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has plaudits out the wazoo, many for his work on superconductors. A few years ago, Matthew developed an interest in biochemistry. He knew that most physicists doubt whether quantum physics could affect cognition much. But suppose that it could, he thought. How could it? Matthew reverse-engineered a mechanism, in a paper published by Annals of Physics in 2015.

A PhD student shouldn’t touch such research with a ten-foot radio antenna, says conventional wisdom. But I trust John Preskill in a way in which I trust no one else on Earth.

I’ll look at the paper, I said.


Matthew proposed that quantum physics could influence cognition as follows. Experimentalists have performed quantum computation using one hot, wet, random system: that of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR). NMR is the process that underlies magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a technique used to image people’s brains. A common NMR system consists of high-temperature liquid molecules. The molecules consists of atoms whose nuclei have quantum properties called spin. The nuclear spins encode quantum information (QI).

Nuclear spins, Matthew reasoned, might store QI in our brains. He catalogued the threats that could damage the QI. Hydrogen ions, he concluded, would threaten the QI most. They could entangle with (decohere) the spins via dipole-dipole interactions.

How can a spin avoid the threats? First, by having a quantum number s = 1/2. Such a quantum number zeroes out the nuclei’s electric quadrupole moments. Electric-quadrupole interactions can’t decohere such spins. Which biologically prevalent atoms have s = 1/2 nuclear spins? Phosphorus and hydrogen. Hydrogen suffers from other vulnerabilities, so phosphorus nuclear spins store QI in Matthew’s story. The spins serve as qubits, or quantum bits.

How can a phosphorus spin avoid entangling with other spins via magnetic dipole-dipole interactions? Such interactions depend on the spins’ orientations relative to their positions. Suppose that the phosphorus occupies a small molecule that tumbles in biofluids. The nucleus’s position changes randomly. The interaction can average out over tumbles.

The molecule contains atoms other than phosphorus. Those atoms have nuclei whose spins can interact with the phosphorus spins, unless every threatening spin has a quantum number s = 0. Which biologically prevalent atoms have s = 0 nuclear spins? Oxygen and calcium. The phosphorus should therefore occupy a molecule with oxygen and calcium.

Matthew designed this molecule to block decoherence. Then, he found the molecule in the scientific literature. The structure, {\rm Ca}_9 ({\rm PO}_4)_6, is called a Posner cluster or a Posner molecule. I’ll call it a Posner, for short. Posners appear to exist in simulated biofluids, fluids created to mimic the fluids in us. Posners are believed to exist in us and might participate in bone formation. According to Matthew’s estimates, Posners might protect phosphorus nuclear spins for up to 1-10 days.

Posner 2

Posner molecule (image courtesy of Swift et al.)

How can Posners influence cognition? Matthew proposed the following story.

Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is a molecule that fuels biochemical reactions. “Triphosphate” means “containing three phosphate ions.” Phosphate ({\rm PO}_4^{3-}) consists of one phosphorus atom and three oxygen atoms. Two of an ATP molecule’s phosphates can break off while remaining joined to each other.

The phosphate pair can drift until encountering an enzyme called pyrophosphatase. The enzyme can break the pair into independent phosphates. Matthew, with Leo Radzihovsky, conjectured that, as the pair breaks, the phosphorus nuclear spins are projected onto a singlet. This state, represented by \frac{1}{ \sqrt{2} } ( | \uparrow \downarrow \rangle - | \downarrow \uparrow \rangle ), is maximally entangled. 

Imagine many entangled phosphates in a biofluid. Six phosphates can join nine calcium ions to form a Posner molecule. The Posner can share up to six singlets with other Posners. Clouds of entangled Posners can form.

One clump of Posners can enter one neuron while another clump enters another neuron. The protein VGLUT, or BNPI, sits in cell membranes and has the potential to ferry Posners in. The neurons will share entanglement. Imagine two Posners, P and Q, approaching each other in a neuron N. Quantum-chemistry calculations suggest that the Posners can bind together. Suppose that P shares entanglement with a Posner P’ in a neuron N’, while Q shares entanglement with a Posner Q’ in N’. The entanglement, with the binding of P to Q, can raise the probability that P’ binds to Q’.

Bound-together Posners will move slowly, having to push much water out of the way. Hydrogen and magnesium ions can latch onto the slow molecules easily. The Posners’ negatively charged phosphates will attract the {\rm H}^+ and {\rm Mg}^{2+} as the phosphates attract the Posner’s {\rm Ca}^{2+}. The hydrogen and magnesium can dislodge the calcium, breaking apart the Posners. Calcium will flood neurons N and N’. Calcium floods a neuron’s axion terminal (the end of the neuron) when an electrical signal reaches the axion. The flood induces the neuron to release neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that travel to the next neuron, inducing it to fire. So entanglement between phosphorus nuclear spins in Posner molecules might stimulate coordinated neuron firing.


Does Matthew’s story play out in the body? We can’t know till running experiments and analyzing the results. Experiments have begun: Last year, the Heising-Simons Foundation granted Matthew and collaborators $1.2 million to test the proposal.

Suppose that Matthew conjectures correctly, John challenged me, or correctly enough. Posner molecules store QI. Quantum systems can process information in ways in which classical systems, like laptops, can’t. How adroitly can Posners process QI?

I threw away my iron-tipped medieval lance in year five of my PhD. I left Caltech for a five-month fellowship, bent on returning with a paper with which to answer John. I did, and Annals of Physics published the paper this month.

Digest image

I had the fortune to interest Elizabeth Crosson in the project. Elizabeth, now an assistant professor at the University of New Mexico, was working as a postdoc in John’s group. Both of us are theorists who specialize in QI theory. But our backgrounds, skills, and specialties differ. We complemented each other while sharing a doggedness that kept us emailing, GChatting, and Google-hangout-ing at all hours.

Elizabeth and I translated Matthew’s biochemistry into the mathematical language of QI theory. We dissected Matthew’s narrative into a sequence of biochemical steps. We ascertained how each step would transform the QI encoded in the phosphorus nuclei. Each transformation, we represented with a piece of math and with a circuit-diagram element. (Circuit-diagram elements are pictures strung together to form circuits that run algorithms.) The set of transformations, we called Posner operations.

Imagine that you can perform Posner operations, by preparing molecules, trying to bind them together, etc. What QI-processing tasks can you perform? Elizabeth and I found applications to quantum communication, quantum error detection, and quantum computation. Our results rest on the assumption—possibly inaccurate—that Matthew conjectures correctly. Furthermore, we characterized what Posners could achieve if controlled. Randomness, rather than control, would direct Posners in biofluids. But what can happen in principle offers a starting point.

First, QI can be teleported from one Posner to another, while suffering noise.1 This noisy teleportation doubles as superdense coding: A trit is a random variable that assumes one of three possible values. A bit is a random variable that assumes one of two possible values. You can teleport a trit from one Posner to another effectively, while transmitting a bit directly, with help from entanglement. 


Second, Matthew argued that Posners’ structures protect QI. Scientists have developed quantum error-correcting and -detecting codes to protect QI. Can Posners implement such codes, in our model? Yes: Elizabeth and I (with help from erstwhile Caltech postdoc Fernando Pastawski) developed a quantum error-detection code accessible to Posners. One Posner encodes a logical qutrit, the quantum version of a trit. The code detects any error that slams any of the Posner’s six qubits.

Third, how complicated an entangled state can Posner operations prepare? A powerful one, we found: Suppose that you can measure this state locally, such that earlier measurements’ outcomes affect which measurements you perform later. You can perform any quantum computation. That is, Posner operations can prepare a state that fuels universal measurement-based quantum computation.

Finally, Elizabeth and I quantified effects of entanglement on the rate at which Posners bind together. Imagine preparing two Posners, P and P’, that share entanglement only with other particles. If the Posners approach each other with the right orientation, they have a 33.6% chance of binding, in our model. Now, suppose that every qubit in P is maximally entangled with a qubit in P’. The binding probability can rise to 100%.


Elizabeth and I recast as a quantum circuit a biochemical process discussed in Matthew Fisher’s 2015 paper.

I feared that other scientists would pooh-pooh our work as crazy. To my surprise, enthusiasm flooded in. Colleagues cheered the risk on a challenge in an emerging field that perks up our ears. Besides, Elizabeth’s and my work is far from crazy. We don’t assert that quantum physics affects cognition. We imagine that Matthew conjectures correctly, acknowledging that he might not, and explore his proposal’s implications. Being neither biochemists nor experimentalists, we restrict our claims to QI theory.

Maybe Posners can’t protect coherence for long enough. Would inaccuracy of Matthew’s beach our whale of research? No. Posners prompted us to propose ideas and questions within QI theory. For instance, our quantum circuits illustrate interactions (unitary gates, to experts) interspersed with measurements implemented by the binding of Posners. The circuits partially motivated a subfield that emerged last summer and is picking up speed: Consider interspersing random unitary gates with measurements. The unitaries tend to entangle qubits, whereas the measurements disentangle. Which influence wins? Does the system undergo a phase transition from “mostly entangled” to “mostly unentangled” at some measurement frequency? Researchers from Santa Barbara to Colorado; MIT; Oxford; Lancaster, UK; Berkeley; Stanford; and Princeton have taken up the challenge.  

A physics PhD student, conventional wisdom says, shouldn’t touch quantum cognition with a Swiss guard’s halberd. I’m glad I reached out: I learned much, contributed to science, and had an adventure. Besides, if anyone disapproves of daring, I can blame John Preskill.


Annals of Physics published “Quantum information in the Posner model of quantum cognition” here. You can find the arXiv version here and can watch a talk about our paper here. 

1Experts: The noise arises because, if two Posners bind, they effectively undergo a measurement. This measurement transforms a subspace of the two-Posner Hilbert space as a coarse-grained Bell measurement. A Bell measurement yields one of four possible outcomes, or two bits. Discarding one of the bits amounts to coarse-graining the outcome. Quantum teleportation involves a Bell measurement. Coarse-graining the measurement introduces noise into the teleportation.

Long live Yale’s cemetery

Call me morbid, but, the moment I arrived at Yale, I couldn’t wait to visit the graveyard.

I visited campus last February, to present the Yale Quantum Institute (YQI) Colloquium. The YQI occupies a building whose stone exterior honors Yale’s Gothic architecture and whose sleekness defies it. The YQI has theory and experiments, seminars and colloquia, error-correcting codes and small-scale quantum computers, mugs and laptop bumper stickers. Those assets would have drawn me like honey. But my host, Steve Girvin, piled molasses, fudge, and cookie dough on top: “you should definitely reserve some time to go visit Josiah Willard Gibbs, Jr., Lars Onsager, and John Kirkwood in the Grove Street Cemetery.”


Gibbs, Onsager, and Kirkwood pioneered statistical mechanics. Statistical mechanics is the physics of many-particle systems, energy, efficiency, and entropy, a measure of order. Statistical mechanics helps us understand why time flows in only one direction. As a colleague reminded me at a conference about entropy, “You are young. But you will grow old and die.” That conference featured a field trip to a cemetery at the University of Cambridge. My next entropy-centric conference took place next to a cemetery in Banff, Canada. A quantum-thermodynamics conference included a tour of an Oxford graveyard.1 (That conference reincarnated in Santa Barbara last June, but I found no cemeteries nearby. No wonder I haven’t blogged about it.) Why shouldn’t a quantum-thermodynamics colloquium lead to the Grove Street Cemetery?


Home of the Yale Quantum Institute

The Grove Street Cemetery lies a few blocks from the YQI. I walked from the latter to the former on a morning whose sunshine spoke more of springtime than of February. At one entrance stood a gatehouse that looked older than many of the cemetery’s residents.

“Can you tell me where to find Josiah Willard Gibbs?” I asked the gatekeepers. They handed me a map, traced routes on it, and dispatched me from their lodge. Snow had fallen the previous evening but was losing its battle against the sunshine. I sloshed to a pathway labeled “Locust,” waded along Locust until passing Myrtle, and splashed back and forth until a name caught my eye: “Gibbs.” 


One entrance of the Grove Street Cemetery

Josiah Willard Gibbs stamped his name across statistical mechanics during the 1800s. Imagine a gas in a box, a system that illustrates much of statistical mechanics. Suppose that the gas exchanges heat with a temperature-T bath through the box’s walls. After exchanging heat for a long time, the gas reaches thermal equilibrium: Large-scale properties, such as the gas’s energy, quit changing much. Imagine measuring the gas’s energy. What probability does the measurement have of outputting E? The Gibbs distribution provides the answer, e^{ - E / (k_{\rm B} T) } / Z. The k_{\rm B} denotes Boltzmann’s constant, a fundamental constant of nature. The Z denotes a partition function, which ensures that the probabilities sum to one.

Gibbs lent his name to more than probabilities. A function of probabilities, the Gibbs entropy, prefigured information theory. Entropy features in the Gibbs free energy, which dictates how much work certain thermodynamic systems can perform. A thermodynamic system has many properties, such as temperature and pressure. How many can you control? The answer follows from the Gibbs-Duheim relation. You’ll be able to follow the Gibbs walk, a Yale alumnus tells me, once construction on Yale’s physical-sciences complex ends.

Gibbs 1

Back I sloshed along Locust Lane. Turning left onto Myrtle, then right onto Cedar, led to a tree that sheltered two tombstones. They looked like buddies about to throw their arms around each other and smile for a photo. The lefthand tombstone reported four degrees, eight service positions, and three scientific honors of John Gamble Kirkwood. The righthand tombstone belonged to Lars Onsager:


[ . . . ]


Onsager extended thermodynamics beyond equilibrium. Imagine gently poking one property of a thermodynamic system. For example, recall the gas in a box. Imagine connecting one end of the box to a temperature-T bath and the other end to a bath at a slightly higher temperature, T' \gtrsim T. You’ll have poked the system’s temperature out of equilibrium. Heat will flow from the hotter bath to the colder bath. Particles carry the heat, energy of motion. Suppose that the particles have electric charges. An electric current will flow because of the temperature difference. Similarly, heat can flow because of an electric potential difference, or a pressure difference, and so on. You can cause a thermodynamic system’s elbow to itch, Onsager showed, by tickling the system’s ankle.

To Onsager’s left lay John Kirkwood. Kirkwood had defined a quasiprobability distribution in 1933. Quasiprobabilities resemble probabilities but can assume negative and nonreal values. These behaviors can signal nonclassical physics, such as the ability to outperform classical computers. I generalized Kirkwood’s quasiprobability with collaborators. Our generalized quasiprobability describes quantum chaos, thermalization, and the spread of information through entanglement. Applying the quasiprobability across theory and experiments has occupied me for two-and-a-half years. Rarely has a tombstone pleased anyone as much as Kirkwood’s tickled me.

Kirkwood and Onsager

The Grove Street Cemetery opened my morning with a whiff of rosemary. The evening closed with a shot of adrenaline. I met with four undergrad women who were taking Steve Girvin’s course, an advanced introduction to physics. I should have left the conversation bled of energy: Since visiting the cemetery, I’d held six discussions with nine people. But energy can flow backward. The students asked how I’d come to postdoc at Harvard; I asked what they might major in. They described the research they hoped to explore; I explained how I’d constructed my research program. They asked if I’d had to work as hard as they to understand physics; I confessed that I might have had to work harder.

I left the YQI content, that night. Such a future deserves its past; and such a past, its future.


With thanks to Steve Girvin, Florian Carle, and the Yale Quantum Institute for their hospitality.

1Thermodynamics is a physical theory that emerges from statistical mechanics.

“A theorist I can actually talk with”

Haunted mansions have ghosts, football teams have mascots, and labs have in-house theorists. I found myself posing as a lab’s theorist at Caltech. The gig began when Oskar Painter, a Caltech experimentalist, emailed that he’d read my first paper about quantum chaos. Would I discuss the paper with the group?

Oskar’s lab was building superconducting qubits, tiny circuits in which charge can flow forever. The lab aimed to control scores of qubits, to develop a quantum many-body system. Entanglement—strong correlations that quantum systems can sustain and everyday systems can’t—would spread throughout the qubits. The system could realize phases of matter—like many-particle quantum chaos—off-limits to most materials.

How could Oskar’s lab characterize the entanglement, the entanglement’s spread, and the phases? Expert readers will suggest measuring an entropy, a gauge of how much information this part of the system holds about that part. But experimentalists have had trouble measuring entropies. Besides, one measurement can’t capture many-body entanglement; such entanglement involves too many intricacies. Oskar was searching for arrows to add to his lab’s measurement quiver.


In-house theorist?

I’d proposed a protocol for measuring a characterization of many-body entanglement, quantum chaos, and thermalization—a property called “the out-of-time-ordered correlator.” The protocol appealed to Oskar. But practicalities limit quantum many-body experiments: The more qubits your system contains, the more the system can contact its environment, like stray particles. The stronger the interactions, the more the environment entangles with the qubits, and the less the qubits entangle with each other. Quantum information leaks from the qubits into their surroundings; what happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas. Would imperfections mar my protocol?

I didn’t know. But I knew someone who could help us find out.

Justin Dressel works at Chapman University as a physics professor. He’s received the highest praise that I’ve heard any experimentalist give a theorist: “He’s a theorist I can actually talk to.” With other collaborators, Justin and I simplified my scheme for measuring out-of-time-ordered correlators. Justin knew what superconducting-qubit experimentalists could achieve, and he’d been helping them reach for more.

How about, I asked Justin, we simulate our protocol on a computer? We’d code up virtual superconducting qubits, program in interactions with the environment, run our measurement scheme, and assess the results’ noisiness. Justin had the tools to simulate the qubits, but he lacked the time. 

Know any postdocs or students who’d take an interest? I asked.


Chapman University’s former science center. Don’t you wish you spent winters in California?

José Raúl González Alonso has a smile like a welcome sign and a coffee cup glued to one hand. He was moving to Chapman University to work as a Grand Challenges Postdoctoral Fellow. José had built simulations, and he jumped at the chance to study quantum chaos.

José confirmed Oskar’s fear and other simulators’ findings: The environment threatens measurements of the out-of-time-ordered correlator. Suppose that you measure this correlator at each of many instants, you plot the correlator against time, and you see the correlator drop. If you’ve isolated your qubits from their environment, we can expect them to carry many-body entanglement. Golden. But the correlator can drop if, instead, the environment is harassing your qubits. You can misdiagnose leaking as many-body entanglement.

OTOC plots

Our triumvirate identified a solution. Justin and I had discovered another characterization of quantum chaos and many-body entanglement: a quasiprobability, a quantum generalization of a probability.  

The quasiprobability contains more information about the entanglement than the out-of-time-ordered-correlator does. José simulated measurements of the quasiprobability. The quasiprobability, he found, behaves one way when the qubits entangle independently of their environment and behaves another way when the qubits leak. You can measure the quasiprobability to decide whether to trust your out-of-time-ordered-correlator measurement or to isolate your qubits better. The quasiprobability enables us to avoid false positives.

Physical Review Letters published our paper last month. Working with Justin and José deepened my appetite for translating between the abstract and the concrete, for proving abstractions as a theorist’s theorist and realizing them experimentally as a lab’s theorist. Maybe, someday, I’ll earn the tag “a theorist I can actually talk with” from an experimentalist. For now, at least I serve better than a football-team mascot.