Zoe Saldana Answers the Quantum Call


Stephen Hawking & Zoe Saldana try to save Simon Pegg’s cat

Watch Quantum Is Calling with Zoe Saldana, Stephen Hawking, Keanu Reeves, Paul Rudd, Simon Pegg, and John Cho. 

We are on the verge of a quantum revolution. Like in the days of the space race, technology has brought an impossibly distant frontier to our doorstep. Just over 17 years ago Michael Crichton wrote a parallel universe-hopping adventure, Timeline, whose fundamental transportation technology required the advent of quantum computing – a concept that was still only theoretical at the time. Today, IBM’s five-quantum bit (or qubit) array is at the fingertips of anyone within reach of the cloud. Google is building a fifty-qubit array. Microsoft is bankrolling a brain trust that will build a quantum computer based on topological qubits. Intel is investing $50 million on spin qubit technology. The UK has announced a £270 million program, and the EU a €1 billion program, to develop quantum technologies. And even more quantum circuits are on the way; the equivalent of competing classes of space shuttles. Only these crafts aren’t meant to travel through space, or even time. They travel through the complete unknown. Qubits fluctuate between the infinite universes of possibility, their quantum states based inherently on uncertainty. And the best way to harness that seemingly unlimited computing power, and take the first steps into the quantum frontier, is through the elusive concept of entanglement.


So then, the quantum crafts are ready; the standby lights on their consoles blinking in a steady yellow cadence. What we’re missing are the curiosity-driven pilots willing to grapple with the uncertain and unpredictable.

The quantum mechanics property of entanglement was discovered by Albert Einstein, Boris Podolsky, and Nathan Rosen and soon after described in a famous 1935 paper. Einstein called it “spooky action at a distance.” Virtually all of his contemporaries, including Edwin Schrödinger who coined the term “entanglement”, and the entire subsequent generation of physicists would struggle with this paradox. Although their struggles would be necessary to arrive at this particular moment in time, this precipice, their collective and prodigious minds were, and remain to be, handcuffed by training and experiences rooted in a classical understanding of the laws of nature – derived from phenomena that can be seen or felt, either directly or indirectly. Quantum entanglement, on the other hand, presents a puzzle of a fundamentally abstract nature.


Paul Rudd & Stephen Hawking chatting it up

When Paul Rudd defeated Stephen Hawking in a game of quantum chess – a game built from the ground up with a quantum mechanical set of moves leveraging superposition and entanglement – our intent was to suggest that an entirely new generation of physicists can emerge with an intuitive understanding of entanglement, even before having to dip their toes in mathematics.

Language, Young Lady

Following up on Anyone Can Quantum, the challenges were to (1) further introduce and elaborate on quantum entanglement and (2) reach a wider audience, particularly women. Coming from a writer’s perspective, my primary concern was to make the abstract concept of entanglement somehow relatable. Popular stories, at their most basic, are told through interactions between people in relationships. Only through relational interactions can characters be challenged enough to affect a change in behavior, and as a result support a theme. Early story concepts evolved from the idea that any interaction with entanglement would result in a primary problem of miscommunication. Entanglement, in any form approaching personification, would be fully alien and incomprehensible. Language then, I decided, would become the fabric by which we could create a set of interactions between a human and entanglement.


Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) & Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) in Arrival

This particular dynamic was tackled in the recent movie Arrival. There, the fictional linguist Dr. Louise Banks is tasked with translating the coffee-ring-stain sign language of a visiting alien civilization before one of the world’s many nervous armies attacks them and causes an intergalactic incident. In the process of decoding the dense script, the controversial Sapir-Whorf theory is brought up introducing the idea that language shapes the way people think. While this theory may or may not hold snow, I am still impressed with the notion that a shared, specific, and descriptive language is necessary to collaborate and innovate. This impression is supported by my own experience in molecular and cell biology research in which communicating new findings always requires expending a tremendous amount of energy crafting a new and appropriate set of terms, or in other words, an expansion of the language.

Marvel To The Rescue


The Tesseract & Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy

To drive their building, multi-threaded Infinity Stones storyline, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has been fortuitously bold in broaching quantum physics concepts and attempting to ground them in real science, taking advantage of the contacts available through the Science & Entertainment Exchange. Through these consultations, movies like Thor and Ant-Man have already delivered to a wide and diverse audience complex concepts such as Einstein-Rosen bridges (wormholes) and the Quantum Realm.

The Ant-Man consultation, in particular, resulted in a relationship between IQIM’s own Spyridon Michalakis (aka Spiros) and Ant-Man himself, Paul Rudd. This relationship was not only responsible for Anyone Can Quantum, but it was also the reason why Spiros was invited to be a panelist at the Silicon Valley Comic Con earlier this year, where he was interviewed by science journalist Zuberoa “Zube” Marcos of the global press outfit, El Pais, a woman who would end up playing a central role in getting Quantum Is Calling off the ground.

So the language of quantum physics was being slowly introduced to a wider, global population thanks to the Marvel films. It occurred to us that we had the opportunity to explain some of the physics concepts brought up by the MCU through the lens of quantum physics, and entanglement in particular. The one element of the MCU storylines that was most attractive to us was the Tesseract and its encased Space Stone. It was the first of the Infinity Stones introduced (in Captain America: The First Avenger) and the one that drove the plot of The Avengers, culminating in the creation of a wormhole over Manhattan. For Spiros, the solution was simple: In order to create wormholes, the exotic matter comprising the Space Stone would likely have to exploit entanglement, as described in a conjecture, dubbed “ER=EPR”, published by Leonard Susskind and Juan Maldacena in 2013.


The USS Enterprise (NCC-1701) in the Star Trek TOS episode “The Immunity Syndrome”

Finding Our Star

The remaining challenge was to find the right actress to deliver the new story. The earliest version of our story (back in June, 2016) was based on the crew of the Starship Enterprise encountering an alien creature that was the embodiment of entanglement (a.k.a The Flying Spaghetti Monster), a creature that attempted communication with Earthlings by reciting sound bytes originating from past Earth radio transmissions. In this story iteration, Chief communications officer Uhura would have used her skills to translate the monster’s message amidst rising tension (just like in Arrival).


Zoe Saldana as Lt. Nyota Uhura

In the subsequent revisions to the story we had to simplify the script and winnow down the cast. We opted to lean on Zoe Saldana’s Uhura. Her character could take on the role of captain, communications officer, and engineer. Zoe was already widely known across multiple sci-fi franchises featuring aliens (namely Star Trek, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Avatar) and her characters have had to speak in or translate those languages.

Zoe = Script

But before approaching Zoe Saldana – and at that point in time, we had no idea how to go about that – we needed to complete a script. Two other incredible resources were available to us: the voices of Dr. Hawking and Keanu Reeves; and we had to make all three work together in a unique comedy – one that did not squander the involvement of either voice, but also served to elevate the role of Zoe.

Even in the first version of the story it was my intent to have Keanu Reeves provide the voice for entanglement, expressed through the most alien sounding languages I could imagine. To compress the story to fit our budget we were forced to narrow the list of languages to two, and I chose Dothraki and Navajo. The role of Keanu’s character was to test, recruit, and ultimately invite Zoe Saldana to enter and experience entanglement in the Quantum Realm. Dr. Stephen Hawking would be the reluctant guide that helps Zoe interpret the confusing clues embedded within the Dothraki and Navajo to arrive at the ER=EPR conjecture.

As for the riddle itself, I chose to use two poems from Through the Looking Glass (and What Alice Found There), The Walrus and The Carpenter as well as Haddock’s Eyes, as the reference material, so that those savvy enough to solve even half the riddle on their own would have a further clue pointing them to the final answer.


Simon Pegg’s cat, Schrodinger (not his actual cat)

The disappearance of Simon’s cat, Schrödinger, had a tripartite function of (a) presenting an inciting incident that urged Zoe to subject herself to the puzzle-solving trial, which we called the Riddle of the Tesseract, (b) to demonstrate the risk of touching the Tesseract and the gravity of her climactic choice, and (c) invoking Schrödinger’s famous thought experiment to present the idea that, in the Quantum Realm, the cat and Zoe are both dead and alive, an uncertainty.

The story was done. And it looked good on paper. But the script was just a piece of paper unless we got Zoe Saldana to sign on.


Zuberoa Marcos

Zoe = Zube

For weeks, Spiros worked all of his connections only to come up empty. It wasn’t until he mentioned our holy quest to Zube (from El Pais and Silicon Valley Comic Con) during an unrelated Skype session that he had the first glimmer of hope, even kismet. Zube had been working on arranging an interview with Zoe for months, an interview that would be taking place three days later in Atlanta. Without even a second thought, Spiros purchased a plane ticket and was on his way to Atlanta two days later. Watching the interview take place, he heard Zoe answer one of Zube’s question about what kind of technology interested her the most. It was the transporter, the teleportation machine used by the crew of the Enterprise to shift matter to and from surfaces of alien planets. This was precisely the kind of technology we were interested in describing at a quantum level! Realizing this was the opening we needed, Zube nodded over to Spiros and made the introductions.

It turns out Zoe had been fascinated by science fiction since her early childhood, being particularly obsessed with Frank Herbert’s Dune. Moreover, she was interested in playing the role of our lead character. In the weeks that followed, communication proceeded through managers in an attempt to nail down a filming date.


Mariel, Zoe, and Cicely Saldana

The Dangers of Miscommunication

I probably don’t need to remind you that Zoe Saldana is a core component of three gigantic franchises. That means tight schedules, press conferences, and international travel. Ultimately Zoe said that her travel commitments wouldn’t allow her to film our short. It was back to square one. We were dead in the water. The script was just a piece of paper.

However, for some reason, Spiros and Zube were not willing to concede. Zube found out about Zoe Saldana’s production company Cinestar and got in contact with coordinator Diego Gonzalez, to set up a lunch meeting. At lunch, Diego informed Zube and Spiros that Zoe really wanted to do this, but her team was under the impression that filming for our short video had to take place the week Star Trek: Beyond was to be released (Zoe was arguably busier than the POTUS during that week). Spiros informed Cinestar that we would accommodate whatever date Zoe could be available. Having that hurdle removed paved the way for a concrete film date to be set, October 25th. And now the real work began.


Simon Pegg in Shaun of the Dead

Finding Common Language

We had set the story inside Simon Pegg’s house and the script included voice-over dialogue for the superstar, but we had yet to even contact Simon. We had written in a part with Paul Rudd on a voicemail message. And we had also included a sixth character that would knock on the door and force Zoe to make her big decision. On top of that I had incorporated Dothraki and Navajo versions of century-old poems that had yet to be translated into those two languages. While Spiros worked on chasing down the talent, I nervously attempted to make contact with experts in the two languages.


David J. Peterson

I remember watching a video of Prof. David J. Peterson, creator of the Dothraki language for HBO’s Game of Thrones, speaking at Google about the process of crafting the language. Some unknown courage surfaced and I hunted down contact information for the famous linguist. I found an old website of his, an email address, and sent and inquiry at about midnight pacific standard time on October 14th, the day before my birthday. Within 45 minutes David had responded with interest in helping out. I was floored. And I couldn’t help geeking out. But more importantly this meant we would have the most accurate translation humanly possible. And when one is working on behalf of Caltech you definitely feel the pressure to be above reproach, or unsullied ;).


Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Wheeler, a pumpkin, a highlighter & my left arm

Finding a Navajo translator was comparatively difficult. A couple days after receiving Dr. Peterson’s email, I was in Scottsdale, AZ with my brother. I had previously scheduled the trip so that I could be in attendance at a book-signing featuring two of my favorite authors, as a birthday gift to myself. The event was held at the Poisoned Pen bookstore where many other local authors would regularly hold book-signings. While I was geeking out over meeting my favorite writing duo, as well as over my recent interaction with David Peterson, I was also stressed by the pressure to come through on an authentic Navajo translation. My brother urged me to ask the proprietors of the Poisoned Pen for any leads. And wouldn’t you know it, they had recently hosted a book-signing for the author of a Code Talkers book, and she was local. A morning of emails led to Jennifer Wheeler. We had struck gold. Jennifer had recently overseen Navajo translations of Star Wars: A New Hope and Finding Nemo, complete with voice-overs. There was probably nobody more qualified in the world.


Keanu Reeves as Ted “Theodore” Logan in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure

So it turns out that Navajo is a much more difficult language to translate and speak than I had anticipated. For instance, there are over a hundred vowel sounds. So even though the translation was in good hands, I would be imposing on Keanu Reeves one of the greatest vocal challenges he would ever undertake. Eventually I arranged to have Jennifer on hand during Keanu’s voice recording. Here’s what he had to record (phonetically):

Tsee /da / a / ko / ho / di / say / tsaa, / a / nee / di

aɫ / tso / n’ / shay / ch’aa / go

Echo Papa Romeo / do / do / chxih / da

Bi / nee / yay / bi / zhay / ho / lo / nee / bay / do / bish / go.


Alex Winter & Zoe Saldana hard at work

Filming Day

After months of planning and weeks of script revisions, filming finally happened at an opulent, palatial residence in the Hollywood Hills (big props to Shaun Maguire and Liana Kadisha for securing the location). Six cats. Three trainers. Lights. Cameras. Zube. Zoe Saldana actually showed up! Along with her sisters, Cinestar, and even John Cho! Spiros had gotten assurances from Simon Pegg that he would lend his name and golden voice so we were able to use the ridiculous “Simon’s Peggs” wood sign that we had crafted just for the shoot. Within a few busy hours we were wrapped. All the cats and props were packed and back in LA traffic, where we all seem to exist more often than not. Now the story was left to the fate of editing and post-production.


In Post

Unlike the circumstances involved with Anyone Can Quantum, for which there was a fast approaching debut date, Spiros and myself actually had time to be an active part of the post-production process. Alex Winter, Trouper Productions, and STITCH graciously involved us through virtually every step.

One thing that became quite apparent through the edits was the lack of a strong conclusion. Zoe’s story was designed to be somewhat open-ended. Although her character arc was meant to reach a conclusion with the decision to enter the Quantum Realm, it was clear that the short still needed a clear resolution.


What Seraph looks like as code in the Matrix Reloaded

Through much debate and workshopping, Spiros and I finally arrived at bookend scenes that took advantage of Keanu Reeve’s emblematic representation of, and inescapable entanglement with, The Matrix. Our ultimate goal is to create stories that reflect the quantum nature of the universe, the underlying quantum code that is the fabric from which all things emerge, exist, and interact. So, in a way, The Matrix wasn’t that far off.

Language Is Fluid

LIQUi|> (“liquid”), or Language-Integrated Quantum Operations, is an architecture, programming language, and tools suite designed for quantum computing that is being developed by the Microsoft team at Quantum Architectures and Computation Group (or QuArC). Admittedly taking a few liberties, on Spiros’s advice I used actual LIQUi|> commands to create a short script that established a gate (or data structure) that I called Alice (which is meant to represent Zoe and her location), created an entanglement between Alice and the Tesseract, then teleported the Tesseract to Alice. You’ll notice that the visual and sound effects are ripped right from The Matrix.

This set up the possibility of adapting Neo’s famous monologue (from the end of the original Matrix) so we could hint that Zoe was somewhere adrift within the quantum code that defines the Quantum Realm. Yes, both Spiros and I were in the studio when Keanu recorded those lines (along with his lines in Dothraki and Navajo). Have I mentioned geeking out yet? An accompanying sequence of matrix code, or digital rain, had to be constructed that could accommodate examples of entanglement-related formulas. As you might have guessed, the equations highlighted in the digital rain at the end of the short are real, most of which came from this paper on emergent space (of which Spiros is a co-author).


Keanu Reeves & Keanu

Listen To Your Friend Keanu Reeves. He’s A Cool Dude.

With only a few days left before our debut date, Simon Pegg, Stephen Hawking and Paul Rudd all came through with their voice-over samples. Everything was then stitched together and the color correction, sound balancing, and visual effects were baked into the final video and phew. Finally, and impossibly, through the collaboration of a small army of unique individuals, the script had become a short movie. And hopefully it has become something unique, funny, and inspiring, especially to any young women (and men) who may be harboring an interest in, or a doubt preventing them from, delving into the quantum realm.

Toward a Coherent US Government Strategy for QIS

In an upbeat  recent post, Spiros reported some encouraging news about quantum information science from the US National Science and Technology Council. Today I’ll chime in with some further perspective and background.

report-cover-2The Interagency Working Group on Quantum Information Science (IWG on QIS), which began its work in late 2014, was charged “to assess Federal programs in QIS, monitor the state of the field, provide a forum for interagency coordination and collaboration, and engage in strategic planning of Federal QIS activities and investments.”  The IWG recently released a  well-crafted report, Advancing Quantum Information Science: National Challenges and Opportunities. The report recommends that “quantum information science be considered a priority for Federal coordination and investment.”

All the major US government agencies supporting QIS were represented on the IWG, which was co-chaired by officials from DOE, NSF, and NIST:

  • Steve Binkley, who heads the Advanced Scientific Computing Research (ASCR) program in the Department of Energy Office of Science,
  • Denise Caldwell, who directs the Physics Division of the National Science Foundation,
  • Carl Williams, Deputy Director of the Physical Measurement Laboratory at the National Institute for Standards and Technology.

Denise and Carl have been effective supporters of QIS over many years of government service. Steve has recently emerged as another eloquent advocate for the field’s promise and importance.

At our request, the three co-chairs fielded questions about the report, with the understanding that their responses would be broadly disseminated. Their comments reinforced the message of the report — that all cognizant agencies favor a “coherent, all-of-government approach to QIS.”

Science funding in the US differs from elsewhere in the world. QIS is a prime example — for over 20 years, various US government agencies, each with its own mission, goals, and culture, have had a stake in QIS research. By providing more options for supporting innovative ideas, the existence of diverse autonomous funding agencies can be a blessing. But it can also be bewildering for scientists seeking support, and it poses challenges for formulating and executing effective national science policy. It’s significant that many different agencies worked together in the IWG, and were able to align with a shared vision.

“I think that everybody in the group has the same goals,” Denise told us. “The nation has a tremendous opportunity here. This is a terrifically important field for all of us involved, and we all want to see it succeed.” Carl added, “All of us believe that this is an area in which the US must be competitive, it is very important for both scientific and technological reasons … The differences [among agencies] are minor.”

Asked about the timing of the IWG and its report, Carl noted the recent trend toward “emerging niche applications” of QIS such as quantum sensors, and Denise remarked that government agencies are responding to a plea from industry for a cross-disciplinary work force broadly trained in QIS. At the same time, Denise emphasized, the IWG recognizes that “there are still many open basic science questions that are important for this field, and we need to focus investment onto these basic science questions, as well as look at investments or opportunities that lead into the first applications.”

DOE’s FY2017 budget request includes $10M to fund a new QIS research program, coordinated with NIST and NSF. Steve explained the thinking behind that request:  “There are problems in the physical science space, spanned by DOE Office of Science programs, where quantum computation would be a useful a tool. This is the time to start making investments in that area.” Asked about the longer term commitment of DOE to QIS research, Steve was cautious. “What it will grow into over time is hard to tell — we’re right at the beginning.”

What can the rest of us in the QIS community do to amplify the impact of the report? Carl advised: “All of us should continue getting the excitement of the field out there, [and point to] the potential long term payoffs,  whether they be in searches for dark matter or building better clocks or better GPS systems or better sensors. Making everybody aware of all the potential is good for our economy, for our country, and for all of us.”

Taking an even longer view, Denise reminded us that effective advocacy for QIS can get young people “excited about a field they can work in, where they can get jobs, where they can pursue science — that can be critically important.  If we all think back to our own beginning careers, at some point in time we got excited about science. And so whatever one can do to excite the next generation about science and technology, with the hope of bringing them into studying and developing careers in this field, to me this is tremendously valuable. ”

All of us in the quantum information science community owe a debt to the IWG for their hard work and eloquent report, and to the agencies they represent for their vision and support. And we are all fortunate to be participating in the early stages of a new quantum revolution. As the IWG report makes clear, the best is yet to come.

Quantum Supremacy: The US gets serious

If you have been paying any attention to the news on quantum computing and the evolution of industrial and national efforts towards realizing a scalable, fault-tolerant quantum computer that can tackle problems intractable to current supercomputing capabilities, then you know that something big is stirring throughout the quantum world.

More than 15 years ago, Microsoft decided to jump into the quantum computing business betting big on topological quantum computing as the next big thing. The new website of Microsoft’s Station Q shows that keeping a low profile is no longer an option. This is a sentiment that Google clearly shared, when back in 2013, they decided to promote their new partnership with NASA Ames and D-Wave, known as the Quantum A.I. Lab, through a YouTube video that went viral (disclosure: they do own Youtube.) In fact, IQIM worked with Google at the time to get kids excited about the quantum world by developing qCraft, a mod introducing quantum physics into the world of Minecraft. Then, a few months ago, IBM unveiled the quantum experience website, which captured the public’s imagination by offering a do-it-yourself opportunity to run an algorithm on a 5-qubit quantum chip in the cloud.

But, looking at the opportunities for investment in academic groups working on quantum computing, companies like Microsoft were/are investing heavily in experimental labs across the pond, such as Leo Kowenhoven’s group at TU Delft and Charlie Marcus’ group in Copenhagen, with smaller investments here in the US. This may just reflect the fact that the best efforts to build topological qubits are in Europe, but it still begs the question why a fantastic idea like topologically protected majorana zero modes, by Yale University’s Nick Read and Dmitry Green, which inspired the now famous Majorana wire paper by Alexei Kitaev when he was a researcher at Microsoft’s Redmond research lab, and whose transition from theory to experiment took off with contributions from Maryland and IQIM researchers, was outsourced to European labs for experimental verification and further development. The one example of a large investment in a US academic research group has been Google’s hiring of John Martinis away from UCSB. In fact, John and I met a couple of years ago to discuss investment into his superconducting quantum computing efforts, because government funding for academic efforts to actually build a quantum computer was lacking. China was investing, Canada was investing, Europe went a little crazy, but the US was relying on visionary agencies like IARPA, DARPA and the NSF to foot the bill (without which Physics Frontiers Centers like IQIM wouldn’t be around). In short, there was no top-down policy directive to focus national attention and inter-agency Federal funding on winning the quantum supremacy race.

Until now.

The National Science and Technology Council, which is chaired by the President of the United States and “is the principal means within the executive branch to coordinate science and technology policy across the diverse entities that make up the Federal research and development enterprise”, just released the following report:

Advancing Quantum Information Science: National Challenges and Opportunities

The White House blog post does a good job at describing the high-level view of what the report is about and what the policy recommendations are. There is mention of quantum sensors and metrology, of the promise of quantum computing to material science and basic science, and they even go into the exciting connections between quantum error-correcting codes and emergent spacetime, by IQIM’s Pastawski, et al.

But the big news is that the report recommends significant and sustained investment in Quantum Information Science. The blog post reports that the administration intends “to engage academia, industry, and government in the upcoming months to … exchange views on key needs and opportunities, and consider how to maintain vibrant and robust national ecosystems for QIS research and development and for high-performance computing.”

Personally, I am excited to see how the fierce competition at the academic, industrial and now international level will lead to a race for quantum supremacy. The rivals are all worthy of respect, especially because they are vying for supremacy not just over each other, but over a problem so big and so interesting, that anyone’s success is everyone’s success. After all, anyone can quantum, and if things go according to plan, we will soon have the first generation of kids trained on hourofquantum.com (it doesn’t exist yet), as well as hourofcode.com. Until then, quantum chess and qCraft will have to do.

LIGO: Playing the long game, and winning big!

Wow. What a day! And what a story!

Kip Thorne in 1972, around the time MTW was completed.

Kip Thorne in 1972, around the time MTW was completed.

It is hard for me to believe, but I have been on the Caltech faculty for nearly a third of a century. And when I arrived in 1983, interferometric detection of gravitational waves was already a hot topic of discussion here. At Kip Thorne’s urging, Ron Drever had been recruited to Caltech and was building the 40-meter prototype interferometer (which is still operating as a testbed for future detection technologies). Kip and his colleagues, spurred by Vladimir Braginsky’s insights, had for several years been actively studying the fundamental limits of quantum measurement precision, and how these might impact the search for gravitational waves.

I decided to bone up a bit on the subject, so naturally I pulled down from my shelf the “telephone book” — Misner, Thorne, and Wheeler’s mammoth Gravitationand browsed Chapter 37 (Detection of Gravitational Wave), for which Kip had been the lead author. The chapter brimmed over with enthusiasm for the subject, but to my surprise interferometers were hardly mentioned. Instead the emphasis was on mechanical bar detectors. These had been pioneered by Joseph Weber, whose efforts in the 1960s had first aroused Kip’s interest in detecting gravitational waves, and by Braginsky.

I sought Kip out for an explanation, and with characteristic clarity and patience he told how his views had evolved. He had realized in the 1970s that a strain sensitivity of order 10^{-21} would be needed for a good chance at detection, and after many discussions with colleagues like Drever, Braginsky, and Rai Weiss, he had decided that kind of sensitivity would not be achievable with foreseeable technology using bars.

Ron Drever, who built Caltech's 40-meter prototype interferometer in the 1980s.

Ron Drever, who built Caltech’s 40-meter prototype interferometer in the 1980s.

We talked about what would be needed — a kilometer scale detector capable of sensing displacements of 10^{-18} meters. I laughed. As he had many times by then, Kip told why this goal was not completely crazy, if there is enough light in an interferometer, which bounces back and forth many times as a waveform passes. Immediately after the discussion ended I went to my desk and did some crude calculations. The numbers kind of worked, but I shook my head, unconvinced. This was going to be a huge undertaking. Success seemed unlikely. Poor Kip!

I’ve never been involved in LIGO, but Kip and I remained friends, and every now and then he would give me the inside scoop on the latest developments (most memorably while walking the streets of London for hours on a beautiful spring evening in 1991). From afar I followed the forced partnership between Caltech and MIT that was forged in the 1980s, and the painful transition from a small project under the leadership of Drever-Thorne-Weiss (great scientists but lacking much needed management expertise) to a large collaboration under a succession of strong leaders, all based at Caltech.

Vladimir Braginsky, who realized that quantum effects constrain gravitational wave detectors.

Vladimir Braginsky, who realized that quantum effects limit the sensitivity of  gravitational wave detectors.

During 1994-95, I co-chaired a committee formulating a long-range plan for Caltech physics, and we spent more time talking about LIGO than any other issue. Part of our concern was whether a small institution like Caltech could absorb such a large project, which was growing explosively and straining Institute resources. And we also worried about whether LIGO would ultimately succeed. But our biggest worry of all was different — could Caltech remain at the forefront of gravitational wave research so that if and when LIGO hit paydirt we would reap the scientific benefits?

A lot has changed since then. After searching for years we made two crucial new faculty appointments: theorist Yanbei Chen (2007), who provided seminal ideas for improving sensitivity, and experimentalist Rana Adhikari (2006), a magician at the black art of making an interferometer really work. Alan Weinstein transitioned from high energy physics to become a leader of LIGO data analysis. We established a world-class numerical relativity group, now led by Mark Scheel. Staff scientists like Stan Whitcomb also had an essential role, as did longtime Project Manager Gary Sanders. LIGO Directors Robbie Vogt, Barry Barish, Jay Marx, and now Dave Reitze have provided effective and much needed leadership.

Rai Weiss, around the time he conceived LIGO in an amazing 1972 paper.

Rai Weiss, around the time he conceived LIGO in an amazing 1972 paper.

My closest connection to LIGO arose during the 1998-99 academic year, when Kip asked me to participate in a “QND reading group” he organized. (QND stands for Quantum Non-Demolition, Braginsky’s term for measurements that surpass the naïve quantum limits on measurement precision.) At that time we envisioned that Advanced LIGO would turn on in 2008, yet there were still many questions about how it would achieve the sensitivity required to ensure detection. I took part enthusiastically, and learned a lot, but never contributed any ideas of enduring value. The discussions that year did have positive outcomes, however; leading for example to a seminal paper by Kimble, Levin, Matsko, Thorne, and Vyatchanin on improving precision through squeezing of light. By the end of the year I had gained a much better appreciation of the strength of the LIGO team, and had accepted that Advanced LIGO might actually work!

I once asked Vladimir Braginsky why he spent years working on bar detectors for gravitational waves, while at the same time realizing that fundamental limits on quantum measurement would make successful detection very unlikely. Why wasn’t he trying to build an interferometer already in the 1970s? Braginsky loved to be asked questions like this, and his answer was a long story, told with many dramatic flourishes. The short answer is that he viewed interferometric detection of gravitational waves as too ambitious. A bar detector was something he could build in his lab, while an interferometer of the appropriate scale would be a long-term project involving a much larger, technically diverse team.

Joe Weber, who audaciously believed gravitational waves can be detected on earth.

Joe Weber, whose audacious belief that gravitational waves are detectable on earth inspired Kip Thorne and many others.

Kip’s chapter in MTW ends with section 37.10 (“Looking toward the future”) which concludes with this juicy quote (written almost 45 years ago):

“The technical difficulties to be surmounted in constructing such detectors are enormous. But physicists are ingenious; and with the impetus provided by Joseph Weber’s pioneering work, and with the support of a broad lay public sincerely interested in pioneering in science, all obstacles will surely be overcome.”

That’s what we call vision, folks. You might also call it cockeyed optimism, but without optimism great things would never happen.

Optimism alone is not enough. For something like the detection of gravitational waves, we needed technical ingenuity, wise leadership, lots and lots of persistence, the will to overcome adversity, and ultimately the efforts of hundreds of hard working, talented scientists and engineers. Not to mention the courage displayed by the National Science Foundation in supporting such a risky project for decades.

I have never been prouder than I am today to be part of the Caltech family.

Wouldn’t you like to know what’s going on in my mind?

I suppose most theoretical physicists who (like me) are comfortably past the age of 60 worry about their susceptibility to “crazy-old-guy syndrome.” (Sorry for the sexism, but all the victims of this malady I know are guys.) It can be sad when a formerly great scientist falls far out of the mainstream and seems to be spouting nonsense.

Matthew Fisher is only 55, but reluctance to be seen as a crazy old guy might partially explain why he has kept pretty quiet about his passionate pursuit of neuroscience over the past three years. That changed two months ago when he posted a paper on the arXiv about Quantum Cognition.

Neuroscience has a very seductive pull, because it is at once very accessible and very inaccessible. While a theoretical physicist might think and write about a brane even without having or seeing a brane, everybody’s got a brain (some scarecrows excepted). On the other hand, while it’s not too hard to write down and study the equations that describe a brane, it is not at all easy to write down the equations for a brain, let alone solve them. The brain is fascinating because we know so little about it. And … how can anyone with a healthy appreciation for Gödel’s Theorem not be intrigued by the very idea of a brain that thinks about itself?

(Almost) everybody's got a brain.

(Almost) everybody’s got a brain.

The idea that quantum effects could have an important role in brain function is not new, but is routinely dismissed as wildly implausible. Matthew Fisher begs to differ. And those who read his paper (as I hope many will) are bound to conclude: This old guy’s not so crazy. He may be onto something. At least he’s raising some very interesting questions.

My appreciation for Matthew and his paper was heightened further this Wednesday, when Matthew stopped by Caltech for a lunch-time seminar and one of my interminable dinner-time group meetings. I don’t know whether my brain is performing quantum information processing (and neither does Matthew), but just the thought that it might be is lighting me up like a zebrafish.

Following Matthew, let’s take a deep breath and ask ourselves: What would need to be true for quantum information processing to be important in the brain? Presumably we would need ways to (1) store quantum information for a long time, (2) transport quantum information, (3) create entanglement, and (4) have entanglement influence the firing of neurons. After a three-year quest, Matthew has interesting things to say about all of these issues. For details, you should read the paper.

Matthew argues that the only plausible repositories for quantum information in the brain are the Phosphorus-31 nuclear spins in phosphate ions. Because these nuclei are spin-1/2, they have no electric quadrupole moments and hence corresponding long coherence times — of order a second. That may not be long enough, but phosphate ions can be bound with calcium ions into objects called Posner clusters, each containing six P-31 nuclei. The phosphorus nuclei in Posner clusters might have coherence times greatly enhanced by motional narrowing, perhaps as long as weeks or even longer.

Where energy is being consumed in a cell, ATP sometimes releases diphosphate ions (what biochemists call pyrophosphate), which are later broken into two separate phosphate ions, each with a single P-31 qubit. Matthew argues that the breakup of the diphosphate, catalyzed by a suitable enzyme, will occur at an enhanced rate when these two P-31 qubits are in a spin singlet rather than a spin triplet. The reason is that the enzyme has to grab ahold of the diphosphate molecule and stop its rotation in order to break it apart, which is much easier when the molecule has even rather than odd orbital angular momentum; therefore due to Fermi statistics the spin state of the P-31 nuclei must be antisymmetric. Thus wherever ATP is consumed there is a plentiful source of entangled qubit pairs.

If the phosphate molecules remain unbound, this entanglement will decay in about a second, but it is a different story if the phosphate ions group together quickly enough into Posner clusters, allowing the entanglement to survive for a much longer time. If the two members of an entangled qubit pair are snatched up by different Posner clusters, the clusters may then be transported into different cells, distributing the entanglement over relatively long distances.

(a) Two entangled Posner clusters. Each dot is a P-31 nuclear spin, and each dashed line represents a singlet pair. (b) Many entangled Posner clusters. [From the paper]

(a) Two entangled Posner clusters. Each dot is a P-31 nuclear spin, and each dashed line represents a singlet pair. (b) Many entangled Posner clusters. [From Fisher 2015]

What causes a neuron to fire is a complicated story that I won’t attempt to wade into. Suffice it to say that part of the story may involve the chemical binding of a pair of Posner clusters which then melt if the environment is sufficiently acidic, releasing calcium ions and phosphate ions which enhance the firing. The melting rate depends on the spin state of the six P-31 nuclei within the cluster, so that entanglement between clusters in different cells may induce nonlocal correlations among different neurons, which could be quite complex if entanglement is widely distributed.

This scenario raises more questions than it answers, but these are definitely scientific questions inviting further investigation and experimental exploration. One thing that is far from clear at this stage is whether such quantum correlations among neurons (if they exist at all) would be easy to simulate with a classical computer. Even if that turns out to be so, these potential quantum effects involving many neurons could be fabulously interesting. IQIM’s mission is to reach for transformative quantum science, particularly approaches that take advantage of synergies between different fields of study. This topic certainly qualifies.* It’s going to be great fun to see where it leads.

If you are a young and ambitious scientist, you may be contemplating the dilemma: Should I pursue quantum physics or neuroscience? Maybe, just maybe, the right answer is: Both.

*Matthew is the only member of the IQIM faculty who is not a Caltech professor, though he once was.

Kitaev, Moore, Read share Dirac Medal!

Since its founding 30 years ago, the Dirac Medal has been one of the most prestigious honors in theoretical physics. Particle theorists and string theorists have claimed most of the medals, but occasionally other fields break through, as when Haldane, Kane, and Zhang shared the 2012 Dirac Medal for their pioneering work on topological insulators. I was excited to learn today that the 2015 Dirac Medal has been awarded to Alexei Kitaev, Greg Moore, and Nick Read “for their interdisciplinary contributions which introduced  concepts of conformal field theory and non-abelian quasiparticle statistics in condensed matter systems and  applications of these ideas to quantum computation.”

Left to right: Alexei Kitaev, Greg Moore and Nicholas Read.

Left to right: Alexei Kitaev, Greg Moore, and Nick Read.

I have written before about the exciting day in April 1997 when Alesha and I met, and I heard for the first time about the thrilling concept of a topological quantum computer. I’ll take the liberty of drawing a quote from that post, which seems particularly relevant today:

Over coffee at the Red Door Cafe that afternoon, we bonded over our shared admiration for a visionary paper by Greg Moore and Nick Read about non-abelian anyons in fractional quantum Hall systems, though neither of us fully understood the paper (and I still don’t). Maybe, we mused together, non-abelian anyons are not just a theorist’s dream … It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

As all physics students know, fundamental particles in three spatial dimensions come in two varieties, bosons and fermions, but in two spatial dimensions more exotic possibilities abound, dubbed “anyons” by Wilczek. Anyons have an exotic spin, a fraction of an electron’s spin, and corresponding exotic statistics — when one anyon is carried around another, their quantum state picks up a nontrivial topological phase. (I had some fun discussions with Frank Wilczek in 1981 as he was developing the theory of anyons. In some of his writings Frank has kindly credited me for suggesting to him that a robust spin-statistics connection should hold in two dimensions, so that fractional spin is necessarily accompanied by fractional statistics. The truth is that my understanding of this point was murky at best back then.) Not long after Wilczek’s paper, Bert Halperin recognized the relevance of anyons to the strange fractional quantum Hall states that had recently been discovered; these support particle-like objects carrying a fraction of the electron’s electric charge, which Halperin recognized to be anyons.

Non-abelian anyons are even more exotic. In a system with many widely separated non-abelian anyons, there are a vast number of different ways for the particles to “fuse” together, giving rise to many possible quantum states, all of which are in principle distinguishable but in practice are hard to tell apart. Furthermore, by “braiding” the anyons (performing a sequence of particle exchanges, so the world lines of the anyons trace out a braid in three-dimensional spacetime), this state can be manipulated, coherently processing the quantum information encoded in the system.

Others (including me) had mused about non-abelian anyons before Moore and Read came along, but no one had proposed a plausible story for how such exotic objects would arise in a realistic laboratory setting. As collaborators, Moore and Read complemented one another perfectly. Greg was, and is, one of the world’s leading experts on conformal field theory. Nick was, and is, one of the world’s leading experts on the fractional quantum Hall effect. Together, they realized that one of the already known fractional quantum Hall states (at filling factor 5/2) is a good candidate for a topological phase supporting non-abelian anyons. This was an inspired guess, most likely correct, though we still don’t have smoking gun experimental evidence 25 years later. Their paper is a magical and rare combination of mathematical sophistication with brilliant intuition.

Alexei arrived at his ideas about non-abelian anyons coming from a different direction, though I suspect he drew inspiration from the earlier deep contributions of Moore and Read. He was trying to imagine a physical system that could store and process a quantum state reliably. Normally quantum systems are very fragile — just looking at the system alters its state. To prevent a quantum computer from making errors, we need to isolate the information processed by the computer from the environment. A system of non-abelian anyons has just the right properties to make this possible; it carries lots of information, but the environment can’t read (or damage) that information when it looks at the particles one at a time. That’s because the information is not encoded in the individual particles, but instead in subtle collective properties shared by many particles at once.

Alexei and I had inspiring discussions about topological quantum computing when we first met at Caltech in April 1997, which continued at a meeting in Torino, Italy that summer, where we shared a bedroom. I was usually asleep by the time he came to bed, because he was staying up late, typing his paper.

Alexei did not think it important to publish his now renowned 1997 paper in a journal — he was content for the paper to be accessible on the arXiv. But after a few years I started to get worried … in my eyes Alexei was becoming an increasingly likely Nobel Prize candidate. Would it cause a problem if his most famous paper had never been published? Just to be safe, I arranged for it to appear in Annals of Physics in 2003, where I was on the editorial board at the time. Frank Wilczek, then the editor, was delighted by this submission, which has definitely boosted the journal’s impact factor! (“Fault-tolerant quantum computation by anyons” has 2633 citations as of today, according to Google Scholar.) Nobelists are ineligible for the Dirac Medal, but some past medalists have proceeded to greater glory. It could happen again, right?

Alesha and I have now been close friends and collaborators for 18 years, but I have actually known Greg and Nick even longer. I taught at Harvard for a few years in the early 1980s, at a time when an amazingly talented crew of physics graduate students roamed the halls, of whom Andy Cohen, Jacques Distler, Ben Grinstein, David Kaplan, Aneesh Manohar, Ann Nelson, and Phil Nelson among others all made indelible impressions. But there was something special about Greg. The word that comes to mind is intensity. Few students exhibit as much drive and passion for physics as Greg did in those days. He’s calmer now, but still pretty intense. I met Nick a few years later when we tried to recruit him to the Caltech faculty. Luring him to southern California turned out to be a lost cause because he didn’t know how to drive a car. I suppose he’s learned by now?* Whenever I’ve spoken to Nick in the years since then, I’ve always been dazzled by his clarity of thought.

Non-abelian anyons are at a pivotal stage, with lots of experimental hints supporting their existence, but still no ironclad evidence. I feel confident this will change in the next few years. These are exciting times!

And guess what? This occasion gives me another opportunity to dust off one of my poems!

Anyon, Anyon

Anyon, anyon, where do you roam?
Braid for a while before you go home.

Though you’re condemned just to slide on a table,
A life in 2D also means that you’re able
To be of a type neither Fermi nor Bose
And to know left from right — that’s a kick, I suppose.

You and your buddy were made in a pair
Then wandered around, braiding here, braiding there.
You’ll fuse back together when braiding is through
We’ll bid you adieu as you vanish from view.

Alexei exhibits a knack for persuading
That someday we’ll crunch quantum data by braiding,
With quantum states hidden where no one can see,
Protected from damage through top-ology.

Anyon, anyon, where do you roam?
Braid for a while, before you go home.

*Note added: Nick confirms, “Yes, I’ve had a driving license since 1992, and a car since 1994!”

A detective with a quantum helper

Have you ever wanted to be incredibly perceptive and make far-reaching deductions about people? I have always been fascinated by spy stories, and how the main character in them notices tiny details of his surroundings to navigate life-or-death situations. This skill seems out of reach for us normal people; you have to be “a high-functioning sociopath” to memorize all existing data on behavior, clothes choices and forensic science. Of course I’m referring to:
Small details help Sherlock figure out what did the woman do to meet such a sad end
Yet in the not too distant future, a computer may help you become a brilliant detective (or a scheming villain) yourself! The first step is noticing the details, which is known in machine learning as the classification task. Here is a pioneering work that somewhat resembles the above picture, only it’s done by a computer:
A computer spits out a sentence (read down) describing what's in the picture. Work by Stanford group.

The task for the computer here was to produce a verbal description of the image. There are thousands of words in the vocabulary, and a computer has to try them in different combinations to make a sensible sentence. There is no way a computer can be given an exhaustive list of correct sentences with examples of images for each. That kind of list would be a database bigger than the earth (as one can see just by counting the number of combinations). So to train the computer to use language like in a picture above, one only possesses a limited set of examples – maybe a few thousand pictures with descriptions. Yet we as humans are capable of learning from just seeing a few examples, by noticing the repeating patterns. So the computer can do the same! The score next to each word above is an estimate based on those few thousand examples of how relevant is the word “tennis” or “woman” to what’s in the box on the image. The algorithm produces possible sentences, scores them, and then selects the sentence with the highest total score.

Once the classification task is done, one needs to use all the collected information to make a prediction – as Sherlock is able to point out the most probable motive in the first picture, we also want to predict a piece of very personal information: we’d like to know how to start up a conversation with that tennis player.

Humans are actually good at classification tasks: with luck, we can notice and type in our cellphone all the details the predictor will need, like brand of clothing, hair color, height… though computers recently became better than humans at facial expression recognition, so we don’t have to trust ourselves on that anymore. Finally, when all the data is collected, most humans will still say only generic advice to you on conversation starters. Which means we are very bad at prediction tasks. We don’t notice the hidden dependencies between brand of clothes and sense of humor. But such information may not hide from the all-seeing eye of the machine learning algorithm! So expect your cellphones to give you dating advice within 10 years… 

Now how do quantum computers come into play? Well if you look at your search results, they are still pretty irrelevant most of the time. Imagine you used them as conversation starters – you’ll embarrass yourself 9 out of 10 times! To make this better, a certain company needs more memory and processing power. Yet most advanced deep learning routines remain out of reach, just because there are exponentially many hidden dependencies one would need to try and reject before the algorithm finds the right predictor. So a certain company turns to us, quantum computing people, as we deal with exponentially hard problems notoriously well! And indeed, quantum algorithms make some of the machine learning routines exponentially faster – see this Quantum Machine Learning article, as well as a talk by Seth Lloyd for technical details. Some anonymous stock trader is already trying to intimidate their fellow quants (quantitative analysts) by calling the top trading system “Quantum machine learning”. I think we should appreciate his sense of humor and invest into his algorithm as soon as Quantiacs.com opens such functionality. Or we could invest in Teagan from Caltech – her code recently won the futures contest on the same website.