A peek inside Northrop Grumman’s subatomic endeavors

As the weather turns colder and we trade outdoor pools for pumpkin spice and then Christmas carols, perhaps you’re longing for summer’s warmth. For me, it is not just warmth I yearn for: This past summer, I worked as a physics intern at Northrop Grumman. With the internship came invaluable lessons and long-lasting friendships formed in a unique environment that leverages quantum computing in industry.

More on that in a bit. First, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Jade LeSchack, and I am an undergraduate physics major at the University of Maryland, College Park. I interact with Dr. Nicole Yunger Halpern’s group and founded the Undergraduate Quantum Association at UMD, a student organization for those interested in quantum science and technology. 

Undergraduate Quantum Association Vice President, Sondos Quqandi (right), and me hosting the quantum track of the Bitcamp hackathon

Back to Northrop Grumman. Northrop Grumman’s work as a defense contractor has led them to join the global effort to harness the power of quantum computing through their transformational-computing department, which is where I worked. Northrop Grumman is approaching quantum computing via proprietary superconducting technology. Superconductors are special types of conductors that can carry electric current with zero resistance when cooled to very low temperatures. We’re talking one hundred times colder than outer space. Superconducting electronics are brought to almost-absolute-zero temperatures using a dilution refrigerator, a machine that, frankly, looks closer to a golden chandelier than an appliance for storing your perishables.

An example of the inside of a dilution refrigerator

I directly worked with these golden chandeliers for one week during my internship. This week entailed shadowing staff physicists and was my favorite week of the internship. I shadowed Dr. Amber McCreary as she ran experiments with the dilution fridges and collected data. Amber explained all the steps of her experiments and answered my numerous questions.

Working in the transformational-computing unit, I had physicists from a variety of backgrounds at my disposal. These physicists hailed from across the country — with quite a few from my university — and were welcoming and willing to show me the ropes. The structure of the transformational-computing department was unlike what I have seen with academia since the department is product-oriented. Some staff manned a dilution fridge, while others managed products stemming from the superconductor research.

Outside this week in the lab, I worked on my chosen, six-week-long project: restructuring part of the transformational-computing codebase. Many transformational-computing experiments require curve fitting which is finding the curve of best fit through a set of data points. Pre-written algorithms can perform curve-fitting for certain equations such as polynomial equations, but it is harder for more-complicated equations. I worked with a fellow intern named Thomas, and our job was to tackle these more-complicated equations. Although I never saw the dilution fridges again, I gained many programming skills and improved programs for the transformation-computing department. 

The internship was not all work and no play. The memories I made and connections I forged will last much longer than the ten weeks in which they were founded. Besides the general laughs, there were three happy surprises I’d like to share. The first was lunch-time ultimate frisbee. I play ultimate frisbee on the University of Maryland women’s club team, and when my manager mentioned there was a group at Northrop Grumman who played during the week, I jumped on the chance to join. 

The second happy surprise involved a frozen treat. On a particularly long day of work, my peers and I scoured a storage closet in the office on an office-supplies raid. What we found instead of supplies was an ice-cream churner. Since the COVID lock-down, a hobby of mine that I have avidly practiced has been ice-cream making. A rediscovered ice-cream churner plus an experienced ice-cream maker brought three ice-cream days for the office. Naturally, they were huge successes! 

And last, I won an Emmy. 

Me winning an Emmy

Well, not quite.

I was shocked when, after a team lunch, my manager turned to the intern team and nonchalantly said, “Let’s go see if the Emmy is available.” I was perplexed but intrigued, and my manager explained that Northrop Grumman had won an Emmy for science in advancing cinematic technology. And it turned out that the Emmy was available for photographs! We were all excited; this was probably the only time we would hold a coveted cinema award reserved for the red carpet.

Not only did I contribute to Northrop Grumman’s quantum efforts, but I also played ultimate frisbee and held an Emmy. Interning at Northrop Grumman was a wonderful opportunity that has left me with new quantum knowledge and fond memories. 

The spirit of relativity

One of the most immersive steampunk novels I’ve read winks at an experiment performed in a university I visited this month. The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, by Natasha Pulley, features a budding scientist named Grace Carrow. Grace attends Oxford as one of its few women students during the 1880s. To access the university’s Bodleian Library without an escort, she masquerades as male. The librarian grouses over her request.

“‘The American Journal of  Science – whatever do you want that for?’” As the novel points out, “The only books more difficult to get hold of than little American journals were first copies of [Isaac Newton’s masterpiece] Principia, which were chained to the desks.”

As a practitioner of quantum steampunk, I relish slipping back to this stage of intellectual history. The United States remained an infant, to centuries-old European countries. They looked down upon the US as an intellectual—as well as partially a literal—wilderness.1 Yet potential was budding, as Grace realized. She was studying an American experiment that paved the path for Einstein’s special theory of relativity.

How does light travel? Most influences propagate through media. For instance, ocean waves propagate in water. Sound propagates in air. The Victorians surmised that light similarly travels through a medium, which they called the luminiferous aether. Nobody, however, had detected the aether.

Albert A. Michelson and Edward W. Morley squared up to the task in 1887. Michelson, brought up in a Prussian immigrant family, worked as a professor at the Case School of Applied Science in Cleveland, Ohio. Morley taught chemistry at Western Reserve University, which shared its campus with the recent upstart Case. The two schools later merged to form Case Western Reserve University, which I visited this month.

We can intuit Michelson and Morley’s experiment by imagining two passengers on a (steam-driven, if you please) locomotive: Audrey and Baxter. Say that Audrey walks straight across the aisle, from one window to another. In the same time interval, and at the same speed relative to the train, Baxter walks down the aisle, from row to row of seats. The train carries both passengers in the direction in which Baxter walks.

The Audrey and Baxter drawings (not to scale) are by Todd Cahill.

Baxter travels farther than Audrey, as the figures below show. Covering a greater distance in the same time, he travels more quickly.

Relative lengths of Audrey’s and Baxter’s displacements (top and bottom, respectively)

Replace each passenger with a beam of light, and replace the train with the aether. (The aether, Michelson and Morley reasoned, was moving relative to their lab as a train moves relative to the countryside. The reason was, the aether filled space and the Earth was moving through space. The Earth was moving through the aether, so the lab was moving through the aether, so the aether was moving relative to the lab.)

The scientists measured how quickly the “Audrey” beam of light traveled relative to the “Baxter” beam. The measurement relied on an apparatus that now bears the name of one of the experimentalists: the Michelson interferometer. To the scientists’ surprise, the Audrey beam traveled just as quickly as the Baxter beam. The aether didn’t carry either beam along as a train carries a passenger. Light can travel in a vacuum, without any need for a medium.

Exhibit set up in Case Western Reserve’s physics department to illustrate the Michelson-Morley experiment rather more articulately than my sketch above does

The American Physical Society, among other sources, calls Michelson and Morley’s collaboration “what might be regarded as the most famous failed experiment to date.” The experiment provided the first rigorous evidence that the aether doesn’t exist and that, no matter how you measure light’s speed, you’ll only ever observe one value for it (if you measure it accurately). Einstein’s special theory of relativity provided a theoretical underpinning for these observations in 1905. The theory provides predictions about two observers—such as Audrey and Baxter—who are moving relative to each other. As long as they aren’t accelerating, they agree about all physical laws, including the speed of light.

Morley garnered accolades across the rest of his decades-long appointment at Western Reserve University. Michelson quarreled with his university’s administration and eventually resettled at the University of Chicago. In 1907, he received the first Nobel Prize awarded to any American for physics. The citation highlighted “his optical precision instruments and the spectroscopic and metrological investigations carried out with their aid.”

Today, both scientists enjoy renown across Case Western Reserve University. Their names grace the sit-down restaurant in the multipurpose center, as well as a dormitory and a chemistry building. A fountain on the quad salutes their experiment. And stories about a symposium held in 1987—the experiment’s centennial—echo through the physics building. 

But Michelson and Morley’s spirit most suffuses the population. During my visit, I had the privilege and pleasure of dining with members of WiPAC, the university’s Women in Physics and Astronomy Club. A more curious, energetic group, I’ve rarely seen. Grace Carrow would find kindred spirits there.

With thanks to Harsh Mathur (pictured above), Patricia Princehouse, and Glenn Starkman, for their hospitality, as well as to the Case Western Reserve Department of Physics, the Institute for the Science of Origins, and the Gundzik Endowment.

Aside: If you visit Cleveland, visit its art museum! As Quantum Frontiers regulars know, I have a soft spot for ancient near-Eastern and ancient Egyptian art. I was impressed by the Cleveland Museum of Art’s artifacts from the reign of pharaoh Amenhotep III and the museum’s reliefs of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti. Also, boasting a statue of Gudea (a ruler of the ancient city-state of Lagash) and a relief from the palace of Assyrian kind Ashurnasirpal II, the museum is worth its ancient-near-Eastern salt.

1Not that Oxford enjoyed scientific renown during the Victorian era. As Cecil Rhodes—creator of the Rhodes Scholarship—opined then, “Wherever you turn your eye—except in science—an Oxford man is at the top of the tree.”

Announcing the quantum-steampunk short-story contest!

The year I started studying calculus, I took the helm of my high school’s literary magazine. Throughout the next two years, the editorial board flooded campus with poetry—and poetry contests. We papered the halls with flyers, built displays in the library, celebrated National Poetry Month, and jerked students awake at morning assembly (hitherto known as the quiet kid you’d consult if you didn’t understand the homework, I turned out to have a sense of humor and a stage presence suited to quoting from that venerated poet Dr. Seuss.1 Who’d’ve thought?). A record number of contest entries resulted.

That limb of my life atrophied in college. My college—a stereotypical liberal-arts affair complete with red bricks—boasted a literary magazine. But it also boasted English and comparative-literature majors. They didn’t need me, I reasoned. The sun ought to set on my days of engineering creative-writing contests.

I’m delighted to be eating my words, in announcing the Quantum-Steampunk Short-Story Contest.

From Pinterest

The Maryland Quantum-Thermodynamics Hub is running the contest this academic year. I’ve argued that quantum thermodynamics—my field of research—resembles the literary and artistic genre of steampunk. Steampunk stories combine Victorian settings and sensibilities with futuristic technologies, such as dirigibles and automata. Quantum technologies are cutting-edge and futuristic, whereas thermodynamics—the study of energy—developed during the 1800s. Inspired by the first steam engines, thermodynamics needs retooling for quantum settings. That retooling is quantum thermodynamics—or, if you’re feeling whimsical (as every physicist should), quantum steampunk.

The contest opens this October and closes on January 15, 2023. Everyone aged 13 or over may enter a story, written in English, of up to 3,000 words. Minimal knowledge of quantum theory is required; if you’ve heard of Schrödinger’s cat, superpositions, or quantum uncertainty, you can pull out your typewriter and start punching away. 

Entries must satisfy two requirements: First, stories must be written in a steampunk style, including by taking place at least partially during the 1800s. Transport us to Meiji Japan; La Belle Époque in Paris; gritty, smoky Manchester; or a camp of immigrants unfurling a railroad across the American west. Feel free to set your story partially in the future; time machines are welcome.

Second, each entry must feature at least one quantum technology, real or imagined. Real and under-construction quantum technologies include quantum computers, communication networks, cryptographic systems, sensors, thermometers, and clocks. Experimentalists have realized quantum engines, batteries, refrigerators, and teleportation, too. Surprise us with your imagined quantum technologies (and inspire our next research-grant proposals).

In an upgrade from my high-school days, we’ll be awarding $4,500 worth of Visa gift certificates. The grand prize entails $1,500. Entries can also win in categories to be finalized during the judging process; I anticipate labels such as Quantum Technology We’d Most Like to Have, Most Badass Steampunk Hero/ine, Best Student Submission, and People’s Choice Award.

Our judges run the gamut from writers to quantum physicists. Judge Ken Liu‘s latest novel peered out from a window of my local bookstore last month. He’s won Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards—the topmost three prizes that pop up if you google “science-fiction awards.” Appropriately for a quantum-steampunk contest, Ken has pioneered the genre of silkpunk, “a technology aesthetic based on a science fictional elaboration of traditions of engineering in East Asia’s classical antiquity.” 

Emily Brandchaft Mitchell is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Maryland. She’s authored a novel and published short stories in numerous venues. Louisa Gilder wrote one of the New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2009, The Age of Entanglement. In it, she imagines conversations through which scientists came to understand the core of this year’s Nobel Prize in physics. Jeffrey Bub is a philosopher of physics and a Distinguished University Professor Emeritus at the University of Maryland. He’s also published graphic novels about special relativity and quantum physics with his artist daughter. 

Patrick Warfield, a musicologist, serves as the Associate Dean for Arts and Programming at the University of Maryland. (“Programming” as in “activities,” rather than as in “writing code,” the meaning I encounter more often.) Spiros Michalakis is a quantum mathematician and the director of Caltech’s quantum outreach program. You may know him as a scientific consultant for Marvel Comics films.

Walter E. Lawrence III is a theoretical quantum physicist and a Professor Emeritus at Dartmouth College. As department chair, he helped me carve out a niche for myself in physics as an undergrad. Jack Harris, an experimental quantum physicist, holds a professorship at Yale. His office there contains artwork that features dragons.

University of Maryland undergraduate Hannah Kim designed the ad above. She and Jade LeSchack, founder of the university’s Undergraduate Quantum Association, round out the contest’s leadership team. We’re standing by for your submissions through—until the quantum internet exists—the hub’s website. Send us something to dream on.

1Come to think of it, Seuss helped me prepare for a career in physics. He coined the terms wumbus and nerd; my PhD advisor invented NISQ, the name for a category of quantum devices. NISQ now has its own Wikipedia page, as does nerd

If I could do science like Spider-Man

A few Saturdays ago, I traveled home from a summer school at which I’d been lecturing in Sweden. Around 8:30 AM, before the taxi arrived, I settled into an armchair in my hotel room and refereed a manuscript from a colleague. After reaching the airport, I read an experimental proposal for measuring a quantity that colleagues and I had defined. I drafted an article for New Scientist on my trans-Atlantic flight, composed several emails, and provided feedback about a student’s results (we’d need more data). Around 8 PM Swedish time, I felt satisfyingly exhausted—and about ten hours of travel remained. So I switched on Finnair’s entertainment system and navigated to Spider-Man: No Way Home.

I found much to delight. Actor Alfred Molina plays the supervillain Doc Ock with charisma and verve that I hadn’t expected from a tentacled murderer. Playing on our heartstrings, Willem Dafoe imbues the supervillain Norman Osborn with frailty and humanity. Three characters (I won’t say which, for the spoiler-sensitive) exhibit a playful chemistry. To the writers who thought to bring the trio together, I tip my hat. I tip my hat also to the special-effects coders who sweated over reconciling Spider-Man’s swoops and leaps with the laws of mechanics.

I’m not a physicist to pick bones with films for breaking physical laws. You want to imagine a Mirror Dimension controlled by a flying erstwhile surgeon? Go for it. Falling into a vat of electrical eels endows you with the power to control electricity? Why not. Films like Spider-Man’s aren’t intended to portray physical laws accurately; they’re intended to portray people and relationships meaningfully. So I raised nary an eyebrow at characters’ zipping between universes (although I had trouble buying teenage New Yorkers who called adults “sir” and “ma’am”).

Anyway, no hard feelings about the portrayal of scientific laws. The portrayal of the scientific process, though, entertained me even more than Dr. Strange’s trademark facetiousness. In one scene, twelfth grader Peter Parker (Spider-Man’s alter-ego) commandeers a high-school lab with two buddies. In a fraction of a night, the trio concocts cures for four supervillains whose evil stems from physical, chemical, and biological accidents (e.g., falling into the aforementioned vat of electric eels).1 And they succeed. In a few hours. Without test subjects or even, as far as we could see, samples of their would-be test subjects. Without undergoing several thousand iterations of trying out their cures, failing, and tweaking their formulae—or even undergoing one iteration.

I once collaborated with an experimentalist renowned for his facility with superconducting qubits. He’d worked with a panjandrum of physics years before—a panjandrum who later reminisced to me, “A theorist would propose an experiment, [this experimentalist would tackle the proposal,] and boom—the proposal would work.” Yet even this experimentalist’s team invested a year in an experiment that he’d predicted would take a month.

Worse, the observatory LIGO detected gravitational waves in 2016 after starting to take data in 2002…after beginning its life during the 1960s.2 

Recalling the toil I’d undertaken all day—and only as a theorist, not even as an experimentalist charged with taking data through the night—I thought, I want to be like Spider-Man. Specifically, I want to do science like Spider-Man. Never mind shooting webs out of my wrists or swooping through the air. Never mind buddies in the Avengers, a Greek-statue physique, or high-tech Spandex. I want to try out a radical new idea and have it work. On the first try. Four times in a row on the same day. 

Daydreaming in the next airport (and awake past my bedtime), I imagined what a theorist could accomplish with Spider-Man’s scientific superpowers. I could calculate any integral…write code free of bugs on the first try3…prove general theorems in a single appendix!

Too few hours later, I woke up at home, jet-lagged but free of bites from radioactive calculators. I got up, breakfasted, showered, and settled down to work. Because that’s what scientists do—work. Long and hard, including when those around us are dozing or bartering frequent-flyer miles, such that the satisfaction of discoveries is well-earned. I have to go edit a paper now, but, if you have the time, I recommend watching the latest Spider-Man movie. It’s a feast of fantasy.

1And from psychological disorders, but the therapy needed to cure those would doom any blockbuster.

2You might complain that comparing Peter Parker’s labwork with LIGO’s is unfair. LIGO required the construction of large, high-tech facilities; Parker had only to cure a lizard-man of his reptilian traits and so on. But Tony Stark built a particle accelerator in his basement within a few hours, in Iron Man; and superheroes are all of a piece, as far as their scientific exploits are concerned.

3Except for spiders?

Quantum connections

We were seated in the open-air back of a boat, motoring around the Stockholm archipelago. The Swedish colors fluttered above our heads; the occasional speedboat zipped past, rocking us in its wake; and wildflowers dotted the bank on either side. Suddenly, a wood-trimmed boat glided by, and the captain waved from his perch.

The gesture surprised me. If I were in a vehicle of the sort most familiar to me—a car—I wouldn’t wave to other drivers. In a tram, I wouldn’t wave to passengers on a parallel track. Granted, trams and cars are closed, whereas boats can be open-air. But even as a pedestrian in a downtown crossing, I wouldn’t wave to everyone I passed. Yet, as boat after boat pulled alongside us, we received salutation after salutation.

The outing marked the midpoint of the Quantum Connections summer school. Physicists Frank Wilczek, Antti Niemi, and colleagues coordinate the school, which draws students and lecturers from across the globe. Although sponsored by Stockholm University, the school takes place at a century-old villa whose name I wish I could pronounce: Högberga Gård. The villa nestles atop a cliff on an island in the archipelago. We ventured off the island after a week of lectures.

Charlie Marcus lectured about materials formed from superconductors and semiconductors; John Martinis, about superconducting qubits; Jianwei Pan, about quantum advantages; and others, about symmetries, particle statistics, and more. Feeling like an ant among giants, I lectured about quantum thermodynamics. Two other lectures linked quantum physics with gravity—and in a way you might not expect. I appreciated the opportunity to reconnect with the lecturer: Igor Pikovski.

Cruising around Stockholm

Igor doesn’t know it, but he’s one of the reasons why I joined the Harvard-Smithsonian Institute for Theoretical Atomic, Molecular, and Optical Physics (ITAMP) as an ITAMP Postdoctoral Fellow in 2018. He’d held the fellowship beginning a few years before, and he’d earned a reputation for kindness and consideration. Also, his research struck me as some of the most fulfilling that one could undertake.

If you’ve heard about the intersection of quantum physics and gravity, you’ve probably heard of approaches other than Igor’s. For instance, physicists are trying to construct a theory of quantum gravity, which would describe black holes and the universe’s origin. Such a “theory of everything” would reduce to Einstein’s general theory of relativity when applied to planets and would reduce to quantum theory when applied to atoms. In another example, physicists leverage quantum technologies to observe properties of gravity. Such technologies enabled the observatory LIGO to register gravitational waves—ripples in space-time. 

Igor and his colleagues pursue a different goal: to observe phenomena whose explanations depend on quantum theory and on gravity.

In his lectures, Igor illustrated with an experiment first performed in 1975. The experiment relies on what happens if you jump: You gain energy associated with resisting the Earth’s gravitational pull—gravitational potential energy. A quantum object’s energy determines how the object’s quantum state changes in time. The experimentalists applied this fact to a beam of neutrons. 

They put the beam in a superposition of two locations: closer to the Earth’s surface and farther away. The closer component changed in time in one way, and the farther component changed another way. After a while, the scientists recombined the components. The two interfered with each other similarly to the waves created by two raindrops falling near each other on a puddle. The interference evidenced gravity’s effect on the neutrons’ quantum state.

Summer-school venue. I’d easily say it’s gorgeous but not easily pronounce its name.

The experimentalists approximated gravity as dominated by the Earth alone. But other masses can influence the gravitational field noticeably. What if you put a mass in a superposition of different locations? What would happen to space-time?

Or imagine two quantum particles too far apart to interact with each other significantly. Could a gravitational field entangle the particles by carrying quantum correlations from one to the other?

Physicists including Igor ponder these questions…and then ponder how experimentalists could test their predictions. The more an object influences gravity, the more massive the object tends to be, and the more easily the object tends to decohere—to spill the quantum information that it holds into its surroundings.

The “gravity-quantum interface,” as Igor entitled his lectures, epitomizes what I hoped to study in college, as a high-school student entranced by physics, math, and philosophy. What’s more curious and puzzling than superpositions, entanglement, and space-time? What’s more fundamental than quantum theory and gravity? Little wonder that connecting them inspires wonder.

But we humans are suckers for connections. I appreciated the opportunity to reconnect with a colleague during the summer school. Boaters on the Stockholm archipelago waved to our cohort as they passed. And who knows—gravitational influences may even have rippled between the boats, entangling us a little.

Requisite physicist-visiting-Stockholm photo

With thanks to the summer-school organizers, including Pouya Peighami and Elizabeth Yang, for their invitation and hospitality.

How Captain Okoli got his name

About two years ago, I dreamt up a character called Captain Okoli. He features in the imaginary steampunk novel from which I drew snippets to begin the chapters of my otherwise nonfiction book. Captain Okoli is innovative, daring, and kind; he helps the imaginary novel’s heroine, Audrey, on her globe-spanning quest. 

Captain Okoli inherited his name from Chiamaka Okoli, who was a classmate and roommate of mine while we pursued our master’s degrees at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. Unfortunately, an illness took Chiamaka’s life shortly after she completed her PhD. Captain Okoli is my tribute to her memory, but my book lacked the space for an explanation of who Chiamaka was or how Captain Okoli got his name. The Perimeter Institute offered a platform in its publication Inside the Perimeter. You can find the article—a story about an innovative, daring, and kind woman—here.

These are a few of my favorite steampunk books

As a physicist, one grows used to answering audience questions at the end of a talk one presents. As a quantum physicist, one grows used to answering questions about futuristic technologies. As a quantum-steampunk physicist, one grows used to the question “Which are your favorite steampunk books?”

Literary Hub has now published my answer.

According to its website, “Literary Hub is an organizing principle in the service of literary culture, a single, trusted, daily source for all the news, ideas and richness of contemporary literary life. There is more great literary content online than ever before, but it is scattered, easily lost—with the help of its editorial partners, Lit Hub is a site readers can rely on for smart, engaged, entertaining writing about all things books.”

My article, “Five best books about the romance of Victorian science,” appeared there last week. You’ll find fiction, nonfiction as imaginative as fiction, and crossings of the border between the two. 

My contribution to literature about the romance of Victorian science—my (mostly) nonfiction book, Quantum Steampunk: The Physics Of Yesterday’s Tomorrow—was  published two weeks ago. Where’s a hot-air-balloon emoji when you need one?

One equation to rule them all?

In lieu of composing a blog post this month, I’m publishing an article in Quanta Magazine. The article provides an introduction to fluctuation relations, souped-up variations on the second law of thermodynamics, which helps us understand why time flows in only one direction. The earliest fluctuation relations described classical systems, such as single strands of DNA. Many quantum versions have been proved since. Their proliferation contrasts with the stereotype of physicists as obsessed with unification—with slimming down a cadre of equations into one über-equation. Will one quantum fluctuation relation emerge to rule them all? Maybe, and maybe not. Maybe the multiplicity of quantum fluctuation relations reflects the richness of quantum thermodynamics.

You can read more in Quanta Magazine here and yet more in chapter 9 of my book. For recent advances in fluctuation relations, as opposed to the broad introduction there, check out earlier Quantum Frontiers posts here, here, here, here, and here.

The power of being able to say “I can explain that”

Caltech condensed-matter theorist Gil Refael explained his scientific raison dê’tre early in my grad-school career: “What really gets me going is seeing a plot [of experimental data] and being able to say, ‘I can explain that.’” The quote has stuck with me almost word for word. When I heard it, I was working deep in abstract quantum information theory and thermodynamics, proving theorems about thought experiments. Embedding myself in pure ideas has always held an aura of romance for me, so I nodded along without seconding Gil’s view.

Roughly nine years later, I concede his point.

The revelation walloped me last month, as I was polishing a paper with experimental collaborators. Members of the Institute for Quantum Optics and Quantum Information (IQOQI) in Innsbruck, Austria—Florian Kranzl, Manoj Joshi, and Christian Roos—had performed an experiment in trapped-ion guru Rainer Blatt’s lab. Their work realized an experimental proposal that I’d designed with fellow theorists near the beginning of my postdoc stint. We aimed to observe signatures of particularly quantum thermalization

Throughout the universe, small systems exchange stuff with their environments. For instance, the Earth exchanges heat and light with the rest of the solar system. After exchanging stuff for long enough, the small system equilibrates with the environment: Large-scale properties of the small system (such as its volume and energy) remain fairly constant; and as much stuff enters the small system as leaves, on average. The Earth remains far from equilibrium, which is why we aren’t dead yet

Far from equilibrium and proud of it

In many cases, in equilibrium, the small system shares properties of the environment, such as the environment’s temperature. In these cases, we say that the small system has thermalized and, if it’s quantum, has reached a thermal state.

The stuff exchanged can consist of energy, particles, electric charge, and more. Unlike classical planets, quantum systems can exchange things that participate in quantum uncertainty relations (experts: that fail to commute). Quantum uncertainty mucks up derivations of the thermal state’s mathematical form. Some of us quantum thermodynamicists discovered the mucking up—and identified exchanges of quantum-uncertain things as particularly nonclassical thermodynamics—only a few years ago. We reworked conventional thermodynamic arguments to accommodate this quantum uncertainty. The small system, we concluded, likely equilibrates to near a thermal state whose mathematical form depends on the quantum-uncertain stuff—what we termed a non-Abelian thermal state. I wanted to see this equilibration in the lab. So I proposed an experiment with theory collaborators; and Manoj, Florian, and Christian took a risk on us.

The experimentalists arrayed between six and fifteen ions in a line. Two ions formed the small system, and the rest formed the quantum environment. The ions exchanged the x-, y-, and z-components of their spin angular momentum—stuff that participates in quantum uncertainty relations. The ions began with a fairly well-defined amount of each spin component, as described in another blog post. The ions exchanged stuff for a while, and then the experimentalists measured the small system’s quantum state.

The small system equilibrated to near the non-Abelian thermal state, we found. No conventional thermal state modeled the results as accurately. Score!

My postdoc and numerical-simulation wizard Aleks Lasek modeled the experiment on his computer. The small system, he found, remained farther from the non-Abelian thermal state in his simulation than in the experiment. Aleks plotted the small system’s distance to the non-Abelian thermal state against the ion chain’s length. The points produced experimentally sat lower down than the points produced numerically. Why?

I think I can explain that, I said. The two ions exchange stuff with the rest of the ions, which serve as a quantum environment. But the two ions exchange stuff also with the wider world, such as stray electromagnetic fields. The latter exchanges may push the small system farther toward equilibrium than the extra ions alone do.

Fortunately for the development of my explanatory skills, collaborators prodded me to hone my argument. The wider world, they pointed out, effectively has a very high temperature—an infinite temperature.1 Equilibrating with that environment, the two ions would acquire an infinite temperature themselves. The two ions would approach an infinite-temperature thermal state, which differs from the non-Abelian thermal state we aimed to observe.

Fair, I said. But the extra ions probably have a fairly high temperature themselves. So the non-Abelian thermal state is probably close to the infinite-temperature thermal state. Analogously, if someone cooks goulash similarly to his father, and the father cooks goulash similarly to his grandfather, then the youngest chef cooks goulash similarly to his grandfather. If the wider world pushes the two ions to equilibrate to infinite temperature, then, because the infinite-temperature state lies near the non-Abelian thermal state, the wider world pushes the two ions to equilibrate to near the non-Abelian thermal state.

Tasty, tasty thermodynamicis

I plugged numbers into a few equations to check that the extra ions do have a high temperature. (Perhaps I should have done so before proposing the argument above, but my collaborators were kind enough not to call me out.) 

Aleks hammered the nail into the problem’s coffin by incorporating into his simulations the two ions’ interaction with an infinite-temperature wider world. His numerical data points dropped to near the experimental data points. The new plot supported my story.

I can explain that! Aleks’s results buoyed me the whole next day; I found myself smiling at random times throughout the afternoon. Not that I’d explained a grand mystery, like the unexpected hiss heard by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson when they turned on a powerful antenna in 1964. The hiss turned out to come from the cosmic microwave background (CMB), a collection of photons that fill the visible universe. The CMB provided evidence for the then-controversial Big Bang theory of the universe’s origin. Discovering the CMB earned Penzias and Wilson a Nobel Prize. If the noise caused by the CMB was music to cosmologists’ ears, the noise in our experiment is the quiet wailing of a shy banshee. But it’s our experiment’s noise, and we understand it now.

The experience hasn’t weaned me off the romance of proving theorems about thought experiments. Theorems about thermodynamic quantum uncertainty inspired the experiment that yielded the plot that confused us. But I now second Gil’s sentiment. In the throes of an experiment, “I can explain that” can feel like a battle cry.

1Experts: The wider world effectively has an infinite temperature because (i) the dominant decoherence is dephasing relative to the \sigma_z product eigenbasis and (ii) the experimentalists rotate their qubits often, to simulate a rotationally invariant Hamiltonian evolution. So the qubits effectively undergo dephasing relative to the \sigma_x, \sigma_y, and \sigma_z eigenbases.

Space-time and the city

I felt like a gum ball trying to squeeze my way out of a gum-ball machine. 

I was one of 50-ish physicists crammed into the lobby—and in the doorway, down the stairs, and onto the sidewalk—of a Manhattan hotel last December. Everyone had received a COVID vaccine, and the omicron variant hadn’t yet begun chewing up North America. Everyone had arrived on the same bus that evening, feeding on the neon-bright views of Fifth Avenue through dinnertime. Everyone wanted to check in and offload suitcases before experiencing firsthand the reason for the nickname “the city that never sleeps.” So everyone was jumbled together in what passed for a line.

We’d just passed the halfway point of the week during which I was pretending to be a string theorist. I do that whenever my research butts up against black holes, chaos, quantum gravity (the attempt to unify quantum physics with Einstein’s general theory of relativity), and alternative space-times. These topics fall under the heading “It from Qubit,” which calls for understanding puzzling physics (“It”) by analyzing how quantum systems process information (“Qubit”). The “It from Qubit” crowd convenes for one week each December, to share progress and collaborate.1 The group spends Monday through Wednesday at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), dogged by photographs of Einstein, busts of Einstein, and roads named after Einstein. A bus ride later, the group spends Thursday and Friday at the Simons Foundation in New York City.

I don’t usually attend “It from Qubit” gatherings, as I’m actually a quantum information theorist and quantum thermodynamicist. Having admitted as much during the talk I presented at the IAS, I failed at pretending to be a string theorist. Happily, I adore being the most ignorant person in a roomful of experts, as the experience teaches me oodles. At lunch and dinner, I’d plunk down next to people I hadn’t spoken to and ask what they see as trending in the “It from Qubit” community. 

One buzzword, I’d first picked up on shortly before the pandemic had begun (replicas). Having lived a frenetic life, that trend seemed to be declining. Rising buzzwords (factorization and islands), I hadn’t heard in black-hole contexts before. People were still tossing around terms from when I’d first forayed into “It from Qubit” (scrambling and out-of-time-ordered correlator), but differently from then. Five years ago, the terms identified the latest craze. Now, they sounded entrenched, as though everyone expected everyone else to know and accept their significance.

One buzzword labeled my excuse for joining the workshops: complexity. Complexity wears as many meanings as the stereotypical New Yorker wears items of black clothing. Last month, guest blogger Logan Hillberry wrote about complexity that emerges in networks such as brains and social media. To “It from Qubit,” complexity quantifies the difficulty of preparing a quantum system in a desired state. Physicists have conjectured that a certain quantum state’s complexity parallels properties of gravitational systems, such as the length of a wormhole that connects two black holes. The wormhole’s length grows steadily for a time exponentially large in the gravitational system’s size. So, to support the conjecture, researchers have been trying to prove that complexity typically grows similarly. Collaborators and I proved that it does, as I explained in my talk and as I’ll explain in a future blog post. Other speakers discussed experimental complexities, as well as the relationship between complexity and a simplified version of Einstein’s equations for general relativity.

Inside the Simons Foundation on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan

I learned a bushel of physics, moonlighting as a string theorist that week. The gum-ball-machine lobby, though, retaught me something I’d learned long before the pandemic. Around the time I squeezed inside the hotel, a postdoc struck up a conversation with the others of us who were clogging the doorway. We had a decent fraction of an hour to fill; so we chatted about quantum thermodynamics, grant applications, and black holes. I asked what the postdoc was working on, he explained a property of black holes, and it reminded me of a property of thermodynamics. I’d nearly reached the front desk when I realized that, out of the sheer pleasure of jawing about physics with physicists in person, I no longer wanted to reach the front desk. The moment dangles in my memory like a crystal ornament from the lobby’s tree—pendant from the pandemic, a few inches from the vaccines suspended on one side and from omicron on the other. For that moment, in a lobby buoyed by holiday lights, wrapped in enough warmth that I’d forgotten the December chill outside, I belonged to the “It from Qubit” community as I hadn’t belonged to any community in 22 months.

Happy new year.

Presenting at the IAS was a blast. Photo credit: Jonathan Oppenheim.

1In person or virtually, pandemic-dependently.

Thanks to the organizers of the IAS workshop—Ahmed Almheiri, Adam Bouland, Brian Swingle—for the invitation to present and to the organizers of the Simons Foundation workshop—Patrick Hayden and Matt Headrick—for the invitation to attend.