This Video Of Scientists Splitting An Electron Will Shock You

by Jorge Cham.

Ok, this is where things get weird. If quantum computers, femtometer motions or laser alligators weren’t enough, let’s throw in fractionalized electrons, topological surfaces and strings that go to the end of time.

To be honest, the idea that an electron can’t be split hadn’t even occurred to me before my conversation with Gil and Jason. And yet, this goes back to the very essence of the word Quantum: there’s a minimum size to everything. For electrical charge, that minimum is the electron.

Or so we thought! According to my friend, Wikipedia, the discovery of the Fractional Quantum Hall Effect in the 1980’s showed that you can form quasi-particles (or “bubbles” as Gil and Jason explain in the video) that carry 1/3 of an electron charge under certain 2D conditions. The 1998 Nobel Prize was awarded for this discovery, although, ironically, they had to split it in three (two for the experimentalists who found it and one for the theorist that explained it).


Typically, I leave a lot out of the final video. The conversation I recorded with Jason and Gil lasted several hours and yet the final product is only five minutes long. One aspect that we talked a lot about but that I did not include in the video above (you watched it already, right?), is the idea of “More is Different”. Here is audio of Jason explaining what it is using birds as an example:


source: Click below to hear the audio.

This is the idea of “emergent properties”: that when you combine lots of something together, you don’t just get what’s inside, you get something new. Something different. I think this is a good analogy for IQIM itself, or any such grouping of researchers under one banner. Sure, technically, each person can do great research on their own, but mix them together in one soup and more interesting things can happen that you didn’t expect.

The IQIM Family:


Well, I hope you’ve been enjoying these videos and blog entries. I was going to title this blog post, “The Mysteries Are Just Piling Up” or “Quantum Knots”, but then I looked at the pageviews for all the other blog posts I made:


I guess the title of your blog post matters. So, if this video didn’t shock you, I hope at least it 1/3 shocked you.

Watch the fourth installment of this series:

Jorge Cham is the creator of Piled Higher and Deeper (


Featuring: Gil Refael and Jason Alicea
Recorded and animated by Jorge Cham

Funding provided by the National Science Foundation and the Betty and Gordon Moore Foundation.

A Quantum Adventure

by Jorge Cham

How do you make something that has never existed before?

I often get suggestions for comics I should draw, which I welcome because A) I like to think of PHD Comics as a global collaborative effort and B) after 17 years, I’m almost out of ideas. This particular suggestion came from Chen-Lung Hung, a postdoc in Physics at Caltech:

PANEL 1 – Ask a scientist: “What motivates you to do the research you do?”

PANEL 2 – What people expect them to answer: “This can lead to real-life applications such as A, B, C, D, etc.”

PANEL 3 – How a real scientist would answer: “Because it’s cool.”


Ok, granted, the punchline needs work. Chen-Lung also asked me to make it clear that his research has important real-life applications, should someone from NSF, who funds his work, happen to be reading this blog.

Chen-Lung’s work with Prof. Jeff Kimble of Caltech’s IQIM is the subject of the third installment in our animated series of explanations of Quantum concepts and devices.

“The problem with atoms,” Prof. Kimble said at one point during our 3-4 hour conversation, “is that they exist in three dimensional space.” I didn’t know that was a problem (unless you expect them to exist in more than 3 dimensions), but Jeff explained that it means it’s very hard to control Quantum systems because the world is wide open, and information can leak and be corrupted from any direction. After a entire academic career making breakthroughs with one type of Quantum System, he’s now directing his group towards a new, experimental type which they believe has more potential for building devices with many Quantum Objects. As Jeff says in the video, “It’s a privilege to be able to explore.”


Shaping light, trapping atoms, alligator waveguides… The goal, Jeff and Chen-lung explained, is to make systems that are “surprising.” Not surprisingly, it was really hard to draw this video. How do you depict something that has never existed before? And more importantly, do you draw alligators differently from crocodiles? (Did you know alligators only exist in two places in the world: the Southern part of the United States, and in China?).


Hopefully, those of you watching will get some understanding of some key Quantum concepts and what it takes to build and manipulate Quantum systems, but to be honest, I make these videos because I think the work is really cool.

Jeff and Chen-Lung: thanks for taking us along on this adventure of yours, the privilege is all ours.

Watch the third installment of this series:

Jorge Cham is the creator of Piled Higher and Deeper (


Featuring: Jeff Kimble and Chen-Lung Hung
Animated by Jorge Cham

Produced in Partnership with the Institute for Quantum Information and Matter ( at Caltech with funding provided by the National Science Foundation and the Betty and Gordon Moore Foundation.

The Most Awesome Animation About Quantum Computers You Will Ever See

by Jorge Cham

You might think the title is a little exaggerated, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned from Theoretical Physicists so far, it’s to be bold with my conjectures about reality.

Welcome to the second installment of our series of animations about Quantum Information! After an auspicious start describing doing the impossible, this week we take a step back to talk in general terms about what makes the Quantum World different and how these differences can be used to build Quantum Computers.

In this video, I interviewed John Preskill and Spiros Michalakis. John is the co-Director of the Institute for Quantum Information and Matter. He’s known for many things, including making (and winning) bets with Stephen Hawking. Spiros hails from Greece, and probably never thought he’d see himself drawn in a Faustian devil outfit in the name of science (although, he’s so motivated about outreach, he’d probably do it).


In preparation to make this video, I thought I’d do what any serious writer would do to exhaustively research a complex topic like this: read the Wikipedia page and call it a day. But then, while visiting the local library with my son, I stumbled upon a small section of books about Quantum Physics aimed at a general audience.

I thought, “Great! I’ll read these books and learn that way!” When I opened the books, though, they were mostly all text. I’m not against text, but when you’re a busy* cartoonist on a deadline trying to learn one of the most complex topics humans have ever devised, a few figures would help. On the other hand, fewer graphics mean more job security for busy cartoonists, so I can’t really complain. (*=Not really).


In particular, I started to read “The Quantum Story: A History in 40 Moments” by Jim Baggott. First, telling a story in 40 moments sounds a lot like telling a story with comics, and second, I thought it would be great to learn about these concepts from the point of view of how they came up with them. So, I eagerly opened the book and here is what it says in the Preface:

“Nobody really understands how Quantum Theory actually works.”

“Niels Bohr claimed that anybody who is not shocked by the theory has not understood it… Richard Feynman went further: he claimed that nobody understands it.”

One page in, and it’s already telling me to give up.

It’s a fascinating read, I highly recommend the book. Baggott makes the claim that,

“The reality of Scientific Endeavor is profoundly messy, often illogical, deeply emotional, and driven by the individual personalities involved as they sleepwalk their way to a temporary scientific truth.”

I’m glad this history was recorded. I hope in a way that these videos help record a quantum of the developing story, as we humans try to create pockets of quantum weirdness that can scale up. As John says in the video, it is very exciting.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to sleepwalk back to bed.


Watch the second installment of this series:

Jorge Cham is the creator of Piled Higher and Deeper (


Featuring: John Preskill and Spiros Michalakis

Produced in Partnership with the Institute for Quantum Information and Matter ( at Caltech with funding provided by the National Science Foundation.

Animation Assistance: Meg Rosenburg
Transcription: Noel Dilworth

Quantum Matter Animated!

by Jorge Cham

What does it mean for something to be Quantum? I have to confess, I don’t know. My Ph.D was in Robotics and Kinematics, so my neurons are deeply trained to think in terms of classical dynamics. I asked my siblings (two engineers and one architect) what comes to mind for them when they hear the word Quantum, what they remember from college physics, and here is what they said:

– “Quantum Leap!” (the late 80’s TV show)

– “Quantum of Solace!” (the James Bond movie which, incidentally, was filmed in my home country of Panama, even though the movie was set in Bolivia)

– “I don’t remember anything I learned in college”

– “Light acting as a particle instead of a wave?”

The third answer came from my sister, who went to MIT. The fourth came from my brother, who went to Stanford (+1 point for Stanford!).

Screen Shot 2013-06-11 at 12.15.21 AM

I also asked my spouse what comes to mind for her. She said, “Quantum Computing: it’s the next big advance in computers. Transistors the size of atoms.” Clearly, I married someone smarter than me (she also went to Stanford). When I asked if she knew how they worked, she said, “I don’t know how it works.” She also said, “Quantum is related to how time moves more slowly as you approach the speed of light, right?” Nice try, but that’s Relativity (-1 point for Stanford!).

I think the word Quantum has a special power in our collective consciousness. It’s used to convey science-iness, technology, the weirdness of the Physical world. If you Google “Quantum”, most of the top hits are for technology companies that have nothing to do with Quantum Physics (including Quantum Fishing Tackles. I suppose that half the time, you pull up a dead fish).

It’s one of those words that a lot of people have heard of, but very few really understand what it means. Which is why I was excited when Spiros Michalakis and IQIM approached me to produce a series of animations that explore and explain Quantum Information and Matter. Like my previous videos (The Higgs Boson, Dark Matter, Exoplanets), I’d have the chance to interview experts in this field and use their expertise and their voices to learn and to help others learn what amazing things lie just around the corner, beyond our classical understanding of the Universe.

Screen Shot 2013-06-11 at 12.16.55 AM

This will be a big Leap for me (I’m trying to avoid the obvious pun), and a journey of exploration. The first installment goes live today, and you can watch it below. Like Schrödinger’s box, I don’t know what we’ll discover with these videos, but I know there are exciting possibilities inside. This is also going to be a BIG challenge. Understanding and putting Quantum concepts in visual form will be hard. I mean, Hair-pulling hard. Fortunately, I’ve discovered there’s a remedy for that.

Screen Shot 2013-06-11 at 12.17.20 AM

Watch the first installment of this series:

Jorge Cham is the creator of Piled Higher and Deeper (


Featuring: Amir Safavi-Naeini and Oskar Painter

Produced in Partnership with the Institute for Quantum Information and Matter ( at Caltech with funding provided by the National Science Foundation.

Transcription: Noel Dilworth
Thanks to: Spiros Michalakis, John Preskill and Bert Painter