Two Views of the Eclipse

I am sure many of us are thinking about the eclipse.

It all starts with how far are we going to drive in order to see totality. My family and I are currently in Colorado, so we are relatively close to the path of darkness in Wyoming. I thought about trying to book a hotel room. But if you’d like to see the dusk in Lusk, here is what you get:

Let us just say that I became quite acquainted with small-town WY and any-ville NE before giving up. Driving in the same day for 10 hours with my two children, ages 4 and 5, was not an option. So I will have to be content with 90% coverage.

90% coverage sounds like it is good enough… But when you think about the sun and its output, you realize that it won’t actually be very dark. The sun gives out about 1kW of light and heat per square meter. 90% of that still leaves us with 100W per meter squared. Imagine a room lit by a square array of 100W incandescent bulbs at one meter apart from each other. Not so dark. Luckily, we have really dark eclipse glasses.

All things considered, it is a huge coincidence that the moon is just about the right size and distance from the earth to block the sun exactly, \frac{\mbox{sun radius}}{\mbox{sun-Earth distance}}=\frac{0.7\cdot 10^6 km}{150\cdot 10^6 km}\approx \frac{\mbox{luna radius}}{\mbox{luna-Earth distance}}=\frac{1.7\cdot 10^3 km}{385\cdot 10^3 km}.

On a more personal note, another coincidence of a lesser cosmic meaning is that my wife, Jocelyn Holland, a professor of comparative literature at UCSB and Caltech, has also done research on eclipses. She has recently published an essay that shows how, for nineteenth-century observers, and astronomers in particular, the unique darkness associated with the eclipse during totality shook their subjective experience of time. Readers might want to share their own personal experiences at the end of this blog so that we can see how a twenty-first century perspective compares.

As for Jocelyn’s paper, here is a redacted ‘poetry for scientists’ excerpt from it.

Eclipses are well-known objects of scientific study but it is just as true that, throughout history, they have been perceived as the most supernatural of events, permitting superstition and fear to intrude. As a result, eclipses have frequently been used across cultures, in particular, by the community of scientists and scholars, as an index of “enlightenment.” Astronomers in the nineteenth century – an epoch that witnessed several mathematical advances in the calculation of solar and lunar eclipses, as exemplified in the work of Friedrich Bessel – looked back at prior centuries with scorn, mocking the irrational fears of times past. The German astronomer Ludwig August Busch, in text published shortly before a total eclipse in 1851, points out with some smugness that scarcely 200 years before then, in Germany, “the majority of the population threw itself upon its knees in desperation during a total eclipse,” and that the composure with which the next eclipse will be greeted is “the most certain proof how only science is able to conquer prejudices and superstition which prior centuries have gone through.”

Two solar eclipses were witnessed by Europeans in the mid-nineteenth century, on July 8th, 1842 and July 28th, 1851, when the first photographic image of an eclipse was made by Julius Berkowski (see below).

What Berkowski’s daguerreotype cannot convey, however, is a particular perception shared by both professional astronomers and amateur observers of these eclipses: that the darkness of the eclipse’s totality is unlike any darkness they had experienced before. As it turns out, this perception posed a challenge to their self-proclaimed enlightenment.

There was already a historical record in place describing the strange darkness of a total eclipse. As another nineteenth-century astronomer, Jacob Lehmann, phrased it, “How is it now to be explained, namely what several observers report during the eclipse of 1706, that the darkness at the time of the total occultation of the sun compares neither to night nor to dusk, but rather is of a particular kind. What is this particular kind?” The strange darkness of the eclipse presents a problem that one can state quite simply in temporal terms: it corresponds to no prior experience of natural light or time of day.

It might strike us as odd that August Ludwig Busch, the same astronomer who derided the superstition of prior generations, writes the following with reference to eclipses past, and in anticipation of the eclipse of 1851:

You will all remember the inexplicable melancholic frame of mind which one already experiences during large if not even total eclipses, when all objects appear in a dull, unusual light, there lies namely in the sight of great plains and far-spread drifts, upon which trees and rocks, although still illuminated by sunlight, still seem to cast no shadow, such a thing which causes mourning, that one is involuntarily overcome by horror. This feeling should occur more intensely in people when, during the total eclipse, a very peculiar darkness arrives which can be named neither night nor dusk.

August Ludwig Busch.

One can say that the perceived relationship between the quality of light and time of day is based on expectations that are so innate as to be taken as infallible until experience teaches otherwise. It is natural for us to use the available light in the sky as the basis for a measure of time when no time-keeping piece is on hand. The cyclical predictability of a steady increase and decrease in available light during the course of the day, however, in addition to all the nuances of how the midday light differs from dawn and twilight, is less than helpful in the rare event of an eclipse. The quality of light does not correspond to any experience of lived time. As a consequence, not only August Ludwig Busch, but also numerous other observers, attributed it to death, as if for lack of an alternative.

For all their claims of rationality, nineteenth-century observers were troubled by this darkness that conformed to no experienced time of day. It signaled to them, among other things, that time and light are out of joint. In short, as natural and as it may be, a full solar eclipse has, historically, posed a real challenge: not to the predictability of mechanical time-keeping, but rather to a very human experience of time.

Taming wave functions with neural networks

Note from Nicole Yunger Halpern: One sunny Saturday this spring, I heard Sam Greydanus present about his undergraduate thesis. Sam was about to graduate from Dartmouth with a major in physics. He had worked with quantum-computation theorist Professor James Whitfield. The presentation — about applying neural networks to quantum computation — so intrigued me that I asked him to share his research on Quantum Frontiers. Sam generously agreed; this is his story.

Wave functions in the wild


The wave function, \psi , is a mixed blessing. At first, it causes unsuspecting undergrads (me) some angst via the Schrodinger’s cat paradox. This angst morphs into full-fledged panic when they encounter concepts such as nonlocality and Bell’s theorem (which, by the way, is surprisingly hard to verify experimentally). The real trouble with \psi , though, is that it grows exponentially with the number of entangled particles in a system. We couldn’t even hope to write the wavefunction of 100 entangled particles, much less perform computations on it…but there’s a lot to gain from doing just that.

The thing is, we (a couple of luckless physicists) love \psi . Manipulating wave functions can give us ultra-precise timekeeping, secure encryption, and polynomial-time factoring of integers (read: break RSA). Harnessing quantum effects can also produce better machine learning, better physics simulations, and even quantum teleportation.

Taming the beast

Though \psi grows exponentially with the number of particles in a system, most physical wave functions can be described with a lot less information. Two algorithms for doing this are the Density Matrix Renormalization Group (DMRG) and Quantum Monte Carlo (QMC).


Density Matrix Renormalization Group (DMRG). Imagine we want to learn about trees, but studying a full-grown, 50-foot tall tree in the lab is too unwieldy. One idea is to keep the tree small, like a bonsai tree. DMRG is an algorithm which, like a bonsai gardener, prunes the wave function while preserving its most important components. It produces a compressed version of the wave function called a Matrix Product State (MPS). One issue with DMRG is that it doesn’t extend particularly well to 2D and 3D systems.

Screen Shot 2017-07-29 at 12.01.23 AM

Quantum Monte Carlo (QMC). Another way to study the concept of “tree” in a lab (bear with me on this metaphor) would be to study a bunch of leaf, seed, and bark samples. Quantum Monte Carlo algorithms do this with wave functions, taking “samples” of a wave function (pure states) and using the properties and frequencies of these samples to build a picture of the wave function as a whole. The difficulty with QMC is that it treats the wave function as a black box. We might ask, “how does flipping the spin of the third electron affect the total energy?” and QMC wouldn’t have much of a physical answer.

Brains \gg Brawn

Neural Quantum States (NQS). Some state spaces are far too large for even Monte Carlo to sample adequately. Suppose now we’re studying a forest full of different species of trees. If one type of tree vastly outnumbers the others, choosing samples from random trees isn’t an efficient way to map biodiversity. Somehow, we need to make the sampling process “smarter”. Last year, Google DeepMind used a technique called deep reinforcement learning to do just that – and achieved fame for defeating the world champion human Go player. A recent Science paper by Carleo and Troyer (2017) used the same technique to make QMC “smarter” and effectively compress wave functions with neural networks. This approach, called “Neural Quantum States (NQS)”, produced several state-of-the-art results.


The general idea of my thesis.

My thesis. My undergraduate thesis centered upon much the same idea. In fact, I had to abandon some of my initial work after reading the NQS paper. I then focused on using machine learning techniques to obtain MPS coefficients. Like Carleo and Troyer, I used neural networks to approximate  \psi . Unlike Carleo and Troyer, I trained my model to output a set of Matrix Product State coefficients which have physical meaning (MPS coefficients always correspond to a certain state and site, e.g. “spin up, electron number 3”).

Cool – but does it work?

Yes – for small systems. In my thesis, I considered a toy system of 4 spin-\frac{1}{2} particles interacting via the Heisenberg Hamiltonian. Solving this system is not difficult so I was able to focus on fitting the two disparate parts – machine learning and Matrix Product States – together.

Success! My model solved for ground states with arbitrary precision. Even more interestingly, I used it to automatically obtain MPS coefficients. Shown below, for example, is a visualization of my model’s coefficients for the GHZ state, compared with coefficients taken from the literature.

Screen Shot 2017-07-28 at 11.46.45 PM

A visual comparison of a 4-site Matrix Product State for the GHZ state a) listed in the literature b) obtained from my neural network model. Colored squares correspond to real-valued elements of 2×2 matrices.

Limitations. The careful reader might point out that, according to the schema of my model (above), I still have to write out the full wave function. To scale my model up, I instead trained it variationally over a subspace of the Hamiltonian (just as the authors of the NQS paper did). Results are decent for larger (10-20 particle) systems, but the training itself is still unstable. I’ll finish ironing out the details soon, so keep an eye on arXiv* :).

Outside the ivory tower


A quantum computer developed by Joint Quantum Institute, U. Maryland.

Quantum computing is a field that’s poised to take on commercial relevance. Taming the wave function is one of the big hurdles we need to clear before this happens. Hopefully my findings will have a small role to play in making this happen.

On a more personal note, thank you for reading about my work. As a recent undergrad, I’m still new to research and I’d love to hear constructive comments or criticisms. If you found this post interesting, check out my research blog.

*arXiv is an online library for electronic preprints of scientific papers

Entropy Avengers

As you already know if you read my rare (but highly refined!) blog samples, I have spent a big chunk of my professorial career teaching statistical mechanics. And if you teach statistical mechanics, there is pretty much one thing you obsess about: entropy.

So you can imagine my joy of finally seeing a fully anti-entropic superhero appearing on my facebook account (physics enthusiasts out there – the project is seeking support on Kickstarter):

Apart from the plug for Assa Auerbach’s project (which, for full disclosure, I have just supported), I would like to use this as an excuse to share my lessons about entropy. With the same level of seriousness. Here they are, in order of increasing entropy.

1. Cost of entropy. Entropy is always marketed as a very palpable thing. Disorder. In class, however, it is calculated via an enumeration of the ‘microscopic states of the system’. For an atomic gas I know how to calculate the entropy (throw me at the blackboard in the middle of the night, no problem. Bosons or Fermions – anytime!) But how can the concept be applied to our practical existence? I have a proposal:

Quantify entropy by the cost (in $’s) of cleaning up the mess!

Examples can be found at all scales. For anything household-related, we should use the H_k constant. H_k=$25/hour for my housekeeper. You break a glass – it takes about 10 minutes to clean. That puts the entropy of the wreckage at $4.17. Having a birthday party takes about 2 hours to clean up: $50 entropy.

Another insight which my combined experience as professor and parent has produced:

2. Conjecture: Babies are maximally efficient topological entropy machines. If you raised a 1 year-old you know exactly what I mean. You can at least guess why maximum efficiency. But why topological? A baby sauntering through the house leaves a string of destruction behind itself. The baby is a mess-creation string-operator! If you start lagging behind, doom will emerge – hence the maximum efficiency. By the way, the only strategy viable is to undo the damage as it happens. But this blog post is about entropy, not about parenting.

In fact, this allows us to establish a conversion of entropy measured in k_B units, to its, clearly more natural, measure in dollar units. A baby eats about 1000kCal/day=4200kJ/day. To fully deal with the consequences, we need a housekeeper to visit about once a week. 4200kJ/day times 7 days=29400 kJoules. These are consumed at T=300K. So an entropy of S=Q/T~100J/K, which is also S~6 \times 10^{24} (Q/k_B T) in dimensionless units, converts to S~$120, which is the cost of our weekly housekeeper visit. This gives a value of $ 10^{-23} per entropy of a two-level system. Quite a reasonable bang for the buck, don’t you think?

3. My conjecture (2) fails. The second law of thermodynamics is an inequality. Entropy \geq Q/T. Why does the conjecture fail? Babies are not ‘maximal’. Consider presidents. Consider the mess that the government can make. It is at the scale of trillions per year. $ 10^{12}. Using the rigorous conversion rule established above, this corresponds to 10^{35} two-level systems. Which happens to quite precisely match the combined number of electrons present in the human bodies of all our military personnel. But the mess, however, is created by very few individuals.

Given the large amounts of taxpayer money we dish out to deal with entropy in the world, Auerbach’s book is bound to make a big impact. In fact, maybe Max the demon would one day be nominated for the national medal of freedom, or at least be inducted into the National Academy of Sciences.

What is Water 2.0

Before I arrived in Los Angeles, I thought I might need to hit the brakes a bit with some of the radical physics theories I’d encountered during my preliminary research. After all, these were scientists I was meeting: people who “engage in a systematic activity to acquire knowledge that describes and predicts the natural world”, according to Wikipedia. It turns out I wasn’t hardly as far-out as they were.

I could recount numerous anecdotes that exemplify my encounter with the frighteningly intelligent and vivid imagination of the people at LIGO with whom I had the great pleasure of working – Prof. Rana X. Adhikari, Maria Okounkova, Eric Quintero, Maximiliano Isi, Sarah Gossan, and Jameson Graef Rollins – but in the end it all boils down to a parable about fish.

Rana’s version, which he recounted to me on our first meeting, goes as follows: “There are these two young fish swimming along, and a scientist approaches the aquarium and proclaims, “We’ve finally discovered the true nature of water!” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”” In David Foster Wallace’s more famous version, the scientist is not a scientist but an old fish, who greets them saying, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?”

What is Water

The difference is not circumstantial. Foster Wallace’s version is an argument against “unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing” – personified by the young fish – and an urgent call for awareness – personified by the old fish. But in Rana’s version, the matter is more hard-won: as long as they are fish, they haven’t the faintest apprehension of the very concept of water: even a wise old fish would fail to notice. In this adaptation, gaining awareness of that which is “so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time” as Foster Wallace describes it, demands much more than just an effort in mindfulness. It demands imagining the unimaginable.

Albert Einstein once said that “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” But the question remains of how far our imagination can reach, and where the radius ends for us in “what there ever will be to know and understand”, versus that which happens to be. My earlier remark about LIGO scientists’ being far-out does not at all refer to a speculative disposition, which would characterise amateur anything-goes, and does go over-the-edge pseudo-science. Rather, it refers to the high level of creativity that is demanded of physicists today, and to the untiring curiosity that drives them to expand the limits of that radius, despite all odds.

The possibility of imagination has become an increasingly animating thought within my currently ongoing project:

As an independent curator of contemporary art, I travelled to Caltech for a 6-week period of research, towards developing an exhibition that will invite the public to engage with some of the highly challenging implications around the concept of time in physics. In it, I identify LIGO’s breakthrough detection of gravitational waves as an unparalleled incentive by which to acquire – in broad cultural terms – a new sense of time that departs from the old and now wholly inadequate one. After LIGO’s announcement proved that time fluctuation not only happens, but that it happened here, to us, on a precise date and time, it is finally possible for a broader public to relate, however abstract some of the concepts from the field of physics may remain. More simply put: we can finally sense that the water is moving.[1]

One century after Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, most people continue to hold a highly impoverished idea of the nature of time, despite it being perhaps the most fundamental element of our existence. For 100 years there was no blame or shame in this. Because within all possible changes to the three main components of the universe – space, time & energy – the fluctuation of time was always the only one that escaped our sensorial capacities, existing exclusively in our minds, and finding its fullest expression in mathematical language. If you don’t speak mathematics, time fluctuation remains impossible to grasp, and painful to imagine.

But on February 11th, 2016, this situation changed dramatically.

On this date, a televised announcement told the world of the first-ever sensory detection of time-fluctuation, made with the aid of the most sensitive machine ever to be built by mankind. Finally, we have sensorial access to variations in all components of the universe as we know it. What is more, we observe the non-static passage of time through sound, thereby connecting it to the most affective of our senses.


Of course, LIGO’s detection is limited to time fluctuation and doesn’t yet make other mind-bending behaviours of time observable. But this is only circumstantial. The key point is that we can take this initial leap, and that it loosens our feet from the cramp of Newtonian fixity. Once in this state, gambolling over to ideas about zero time tunnelling, non-causality, or the future determining the present, for instance, is far more plausible, and no longer painful but rather seductive, at least, perhaps, for the playful at heart.

Taking a slight off-road (to be re-routed in a moment): there is a common misconception about children’s allegedly free-spirited creativity. Watching someone aged between around 4 and 15 draw a figure will demonstrate quite clearly just how taut they really are, and that they apply strict schemes that follow reality as they see and learn to see it. Bodies consistently have eyes, mouths, noses, heads, rumps and limbs, correctly placed and in increasingly realistic colours. Ask them to depart from these conventions – “draw one eye on his forehead”, “make her face green” – like masters such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse have done – and they’ll likely become very upset (young adolescents being particularly conservative, reaching the point of panic when challenged to shed consensus).

This is not to compare the lay public (including myself) to children, but to suggest that there’s no inborn capacity – the unaffected, ‘genius’ naïveté that the modernist movements of Primitivism, Art Brut and Outsider Art exalted – for developing a creativity that is of substance. Arriving at a consequential idea, in both art and physics, entails a great deal of acumen and is far from gratuitous, however whimsical the moment in which it sometimes appears. And it’s also to suggest that there’s a necessary process of acquaintance – the knowledge of something through experience – in taking a cognitive leap away from the seemingly obvious nature of reality. If there’s some truth in this, then LIGO’s expansion of our sensorial access to the fluctuation of time, together with artistic approaches that lift the remaining questions and ambiguities of spacetime onto a relational, experiential plane, lay fertile ground on which to begin to foster a new sense of time – on a broad cultural level – however slowly it unfolds.

The first iteration of this project will be an exhibition, to take place in Berlin, in July 2017. It will feature existing and newly commissioned works by established and upcoming artists from Los Angeles and Berlin, working in sound, installation and video, to stage a series of immersive environments that invite the viewers’ bodily interaction.

Though the full selection cannot be disclosed just yet, I would like here to provide a glimpse of two works-in-progress by artist-duo Evelina Domnitch & Dmitry Gelfand, whom I invited to Los Angeles to collaborate in my research with LIGO, and whose contribution has been of great value to the project.

For more details on the exhibition, please stay tuned, and be warmly welcome to visit Berlin in July!

Text & images: courtesy of the artists.

ORBIHEDRON | 2017Orbihedron

A dark vortex in the middle of a water-filled basin emits prismatic bursts of rotating light. Akin to a radiant ergosphere surrounding a spinning black hole, Orbihedron evokes the relativistic as well as quantum interpretation of gravity – the reconciliation of which is essential for unravelling black hole behaviour and the origins of the cosmos. Descending into the eye of the vortex, a white laser beam reaches an impassible singularity that casts a whirling circular shadow on the basin’s floor. The singularity lies at the bottom of a dimple on the water’s surface, the crown of the vortex, which acts as a concave lens focussing the laser beam along the horizon of the “black hole” shadow. Light is seemingly swallowed by the black hole in accordance with general relativity, yet leaks out as quantum theory predicts.

ER = EPR | 2017ER=EPR

Two co-rotating vortices, joined together via a slender vortical bridge, lethargically drift through a body of water. Light hitting the water’s surface transforms the vortex pair into a dynamic lens, projecting two entangled black holes encircled by shimmering halos. As soon as the “wormhole” link between the black holes rips apart, the vortices immediately dissipate, analogously to the collapse of a wave function. Connecting distant black holes or two sides of the same black hole, might wormholes be an example of cosmic-scale quantum entanglement? This mind-bending conjecture of Juan Maldacena and Leonard Susskind can be traced back to two iconoclastic papers from 1935. Previously thought to be unrelated (both by their authors and numerous generations of readers), one article, the legendary EPR (penned by Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen) engendered the concept of quantum entanglement or “spooky action at a distance”; and the second text theorised Einstein-Rosen (ER) bridges, later known as wormholes. Although the widely read EPR paper has led to the second quantum revolution, currently paving the way to quantum simulation and computation, ER has enjoyed very little readership. By equating ER to EPR, the formerly irreconcilable paradigms of physics have the potential to converge: the phenomenon of gravity is imagined in a quantum mechanical context. The theory further implies, according to Maldacena, that the undivided, “reliable structure of space-time is due to the ghostly features of entanglement”.


[1] I am here extending our capacity to sense to that of the technology itself, which indeed measured the warping of spacetime. However, in interpreting gravitational waves from a human frame of reference (moving nowhere near the speed of light at which gravitational waves travel), they would seem to be spatial. In fact, the elongation of space (a longer wavelength) directly implies that time slows down (a longer wave-period), so that the two are indistinguishable.


Isabel de Sena

How do you hear electronic oscillations with light

For decades, understanding the origin of high temperature superconductivity has been regarded as the Holy Grail by physicists in the condensed matter community. The importance of high temperature superconductivity resides not only in its technological promises, but also in the dazzling number of exotic phases and elementary excitations it puts on display for physicists. These myriad phases and excitations give physicists new dimensions and building bricks for understanding and exploiting the world of collective phenomena. The pseudogap, charge-density-wave, nematic and spin liquid phases, for examples, are a few exotica that are found in cuprate high temperature superconductors. Understanding these phases is important for understanding the mechanism behind high temperature superconductivity, but they are also interesting in and of themselves.

The charge-density-wave (CDW) phase in the cuprates – a spontaneous emergence of a periodic modulation of charge density in real space – has particularly garnered a lot of attention. It emerges upon the destruction of the parent antiferromagnetic Mott insulating phase with doping and it appears to directly compete with superconductivity. Whether or not these features are generic, or maybe even necessary, for high temperature superconductivty is an important question. Unfortunately, currently there exists no other comparable high temperature superconducting materials family that enables such questions to be answered.


Recently, the iridates have emerged as a possible analog to the cuprates. The single layer variant Sr2IrO4, for example, exhibits signatures of both a pseudogap phase and a high temperature superconducting phase. However, with an increasing parallel being drawn between the iridates and the cuprates in terms of their electronic phases, CDW has so far eluded detection in any iridate, calling into question the validity of this comparison. Rather than studying the single layer variant, we decided to look at the bilayer iridate Sr3Ir2O7 in which a clear Mott insulator to metal transition has been reported with doping.

While CDW has been observed in many materials, what made it elusive in cuprates for many years is its spatially short-ranged (it extends only a few lattice spacings long) and often temporally short-ranged (it blinks in and out of existence quickly) nature. To get a good view of this order, experimentalists had to literally pin it down using external influences like magnetic fields or chemical dopants to suppress the temporal fluctuations and then use very sensitive diffraction or scanning tunneling based probes to observe them.

But rather than looking in real space for signatures of the CDW order, an alternative approach is to look for them in the time domain. Works by the Gedik group at MIT and the Orenstein group at U.C. Berkeley have shown that one can use ultrafast time-resolved optical reflectivity to “listen” for the tone of a CDW to infer its presence in the cuprates. In these experiments, one impulsively excites a coherent mode of the CDW using a femtosecond laser pulse, much like one would excite the vibrational mode of a tuning fork by impulsively banging it. One then stroboscopically looks for these CDW oscillations via temporally periodic modulations in its optical reflectivity, much like one would listen for the tone produced by the tuning fork. If you manage to hear the tone of the CDW, then you have established its existence!

We applied a similar approach to Sr3Ir2O7 and its doped versions [hear our experiment]. To our delight, the ringing of a CDW mode sounded immediately upon doping across its Mott insulator to metal transition, implying that the electronic liquid born from the doped Mott insulator is unstable to CDW formation, very similar to the case in cuprates. Also like the case of cuprates, this charge-density-wave is of a special nature: it is either very short-ranged, or temporally fluctuating. Whether or not there is a superconducting phase that competes with the CDW in Sr3Ir2O7 remains to be seen. If so, the phenomenology of the cuprates may really be quite generic. If not, the interesting question of why not is worth pursuing. And who knows, maybe the fact that we have a system that can be controllably tuned between the antiferromagnetic order and the CDW order may find use in technology some day.

Building the future

At the start of the academic year, my high school Physics students want an easy lab with simple, clear-cut data.  They are satisfied with a clear-cut conclusion. Open-ended labs, especially those without cookbook procedures are at first daunting and intimidating.  Having to take time to troubleshoot a problem is a painful process for them, as it can be for many.  As the year progresses, they seem to grow more comfortable with their own exploration of Physics trends.


Another happy day in Sloan

There is no set manual for real scientific research, for uncharted territory. Exciting, new research has no “right” answer upon which to compare your data. And building your own, unique experimental set-up inherently requires much time to minimize new issues. It is interesting to me that when there is less guidance based on previous research, there is a larger possibility for great, new discoveries.

This summer I again retreated from the summer heat, plunging into the Caltech sub basements to further my understanding of the freshest research, efficient laboratory techniques, and culture in Physics research. The quiet hum of the air conditioner and lights marked an eerie contrast to the non-stop, bustling life of the classroom. It was an even more stark contrast to my 16-month-old daughter’s incessant joyful and curious exploration of the world.


The SEM Chamber

My first project this summer focused on helping to get the SEM (Scanning Electron Microscope) up and running. Once the SEM is functional the first samples it will scan are solar cells comprised of graphene nanotubes. If grand scaled and mass produced, methane may be one source of the necessary carbon for graphene. What if we contained methane gases that are already problematically being released into our greenhouse-gas-ridden atmosphere and subsequently used them to make graphene solar cells? What a win-win solution to help the daunting problem of global climate change?

Helping to set up the SEM involved a variety of interesting tasks: I found the working distance from the SEM gun to the sample holder that would soon be loaded into the chamber. I researched Pirani gauge parts and later rubber pads to help with damping. I helped to install copper ConFlat flanges for making low pressure seals. We used sonification to clean parts used at the SEM lab. We found and installed a nitrogen (N2) line to flush out moisture in the SEM chamber. There were numerous rounds of baking out moisture that may have collected in the chamber in the years since this SEM was last in use.


A tube scanner head

During “down time”, such as when the SEM chamber was being pumped down to less than one-part-per-billion pressure with multiple vacuum pumps, we directed our attention to two other projects. The first was making parts for the tube scanner head. Due to the possibility of burning out scanner heads in the alignment process when we first turn on the SEM gun, we needed to be prepared with alternative STM parts. This involved drilling, epoxying, baking, sanding, and soldering tiny pieces.  A diminutive coaxial cable with multiple insulating layers was stripped apart so that we could properly connect the gold conducting wire from within.

During the last week I focused my efforts by returning to an interferometer set up in the sub-basement of Sloan. Last summer, part of my time was spent learning about and setting up an interferometer system in order to measure the shift of a piezoelectric stack when particular voltages were applied. Once calibrated, these piezos will be used to control the motion of the tips in our lab’s STM (Scanning Tunneling Microscope). This summer was different because we had additional equipment from Thorlabs in order to move further along with the project.

Piezo Interferometer Pic 2

Overhead view of the interferometer set-up.

On the day of arrival of the much-needed parts, I felt like a child at Christmas. Ready, set, go. Racing against the impending end of the internship and start of the upcoming academic year, I worked to assemble our equipment.  


LASER, function generator, amplifier.

This same procedure was completed roughly a decade ago by graduate students in our lab. Now, though, the remaining calibrated piezos have been used. In order to continue doing important STM measurements, new piezo stacks need to be calibrated.

A ray of red, coherent light from our LASER is directed to a beamsplitter. One arm of light is directed to a mirror and reflected back to the beamsplitter. Another arm of light is directed to a mirror fixed upon the piezoelectric stack. Depending on the applied voltage and particular piezo stacks, the orientation and magnitude of the shear varies. A signal generator and amplifier are connected to the opposite end of the piezoelectric stacks to carefully control the voltage signal applied to the piezos.  Once the beams are recombined at the beamsplitter, they should interfere.  An interference pattern should be detected on the oscilloscope.


Confirmation that my oscilloscope was working properly

At first it was plain fun setting up the various parts, like fitting puzzle pieces with the various optics devices. The difficulty came later in troubleshooting. I had little issue with adjusting the set-up so that both beams from the LASER landed directly onto the photodetector. Getting a beautiful interference pattern was another case. Making sense of the output signal from the photodetector on the oscilloscope was also a process. Finding joy and benefit in the learning process as opposed to frustration in a trying time is an important lesson in life.  Of course it is inevitable that there will be difficulties in life. Can we grow from the learning opportunity as opposed to complaining about the struggle?


What I at first thought was the interference pattern I had been hoping for… Not so fast.

The irony is that just like my students, I wanted an easy, beautiful interference pattern that could be interpreted on our oscilloscope. I had the opportunity to learn through trial and error and from additional research on interferometers. I look forward to hearing from the lab group about the progress that is made on this project during the academic year while I am in the classroom. I am grateful to IQIM and the Yeh Lab Group for allowing me to continue participating in this exciting program.

Upending my equilibrium

Few settings foster equanimity like Canada’s Banff International Research Station (BIRS). Mountains tower above the center, softened by pines. Mornings have a crispness that would turn air fresheners evergreen with envy. The sky looks designed for a laundry-detergent label.


Doesn’t it?

One day into my visit, equilibrium shattered my equanimity.

I was participating in the conference “Beyond i.i.d. in information theory.” What “beyond i.i.d.” means is explained in these articles.  I was to present about resource theories for thermodynamics. Resource theories are simple models developed in quantum information theory. The original thermodynamic resource theory modeled systems that exchange energy and information.

Imagine a quantum computer built from tiny, cold, quantum circuits. An air particle might bounce off the circuit. The bounce can slow the particle down, transferring energy from particle to circuit. The bounce can entangle the particle with the circuit, transferring quantum information from computer to particle.

Suppose that particles bounced off the computer for ages. The computer would thermalize, or reach equilibrium: The computer’s energy would flatline. The computer would reach a state called the canonical ensemble. The canonical ensemble looks like this:  e^{ - \beta H }  / { Z }.

Joe Renes and I had extended these resource theories. Thermodynamic systems can exchange quantities other than energy and information. Imagine white-bean soup cooling on a stovetop. Gas condenses on the pot’s walls, and liquid evaporates. The soup exchanges not only heat, but also particles, with its environment. Imagine letting the soup cool for ages. It would thermalize to the grand canonical ensemble, e^{ - \beta (H - \mu N) } / { Z }. Joe and I had modeled systems that exchange diverse thermodynamic observables.*

What if, fellow beyond-i.i.d.-er Jonathan Oppenheim asked, those observables didn’t commute with each other?

Mathematical objects called operators represent observables. Let \hat{H} represent a system’s energy, and let \hat{N} represent the number of particles in the system. The operators fail to commute if multiplying them in one order differs from multiplying them in the opposite order: \hat{H}  \hat{N}  \neq  \hat{N}  \hat{H}.

Suppose that our quantum circuit has observables represented by noncommuting operators \hat{H} and \hat{N}. The circuit cannot have a well-defined energy and a well-defined particle number simultaneously. Physicists call this inability the Uncertainty Principle. Uncertainty and noncommutation infuse quantum mechanics as a Cashmere GlowTM infuses a Downy fabric softener.

Downy Cashmere Glow 2

Quantum uncertainty and noncommutation.

I glowed at Jonathan: All the coolness in Canada couldn’t have pleased me more than finding someone interested in that question.** Suppose that a quantum system exchanges observables \hat{Q}_1 and \hat{Q}_2 with the environment. Suppose that \hat{Q}_1 and \hat{Q}_2 don’t commute, like components \hat{S}_x and \hat{S}_y of quantum angular momentum. Would the system thermalize? Would the thermal state have the form e^{ \mu_1 \hat{Q}_1 + \mu_2 \hat{Q}_2 } / { Z }? Could we model the system with a resource theory?

Jonathan proposed that we chat.

The chat sucked in beyond-i.i.d.-ers Philippe Faist and Andreas Winter. We debated strategies while walking to dinner. We exchanged results on the conference building’s veranda. We huddled over a breakfast table after colleagues had pushed their chairs back. Information flowed from chalkboard to notebook; energy flowed in the form of coffee; food particles flowed onto the floor as we brushed crumbs from our notebooks.

Coffee, crumbs

Exchanges of energy and particles.

The idea morphed and split. It crystallized months later. We characterized, in three ways, the thermal state of a quantum system that exchanges noncommuting observables with its environment.

First, we generalized the microcanonical ensemble. The microcanonical ensemble is the thermal state of an isolated system. An isolated system exchanges no observables with any other system. The quantum computer and the air molecules can form an isolated system. So can the white-bean soup and its kitchen. Our quantum system and its environment form an isolated system. But they cannot necessarily occupy a microcanonical ensemble, thanks to noncommutation.

We generalized the microcanonical ensemble. The generalization involves approximation, unlikely measurement outcomes, and error tolerances. The microcanonical ensemble has a simple definition—sharp and clean as Banff air. We relaxed the definition to accommodate noncommutation. If the microcanonical ensemble resembles laundry detergent, our generalization resembles fabric softener.

Detergent vs. softener

Suppose that our system and its environment occupy this approximate microcanonical ensemble. Tracing out (mathematically ignoring) the environment yields the system’s thermal state. The thermal state basically has the form we expected, \gamma = e^{ \sum_j  \mu_j \hat{Q}_j } / { Z }.

This exponential state, we argued, follows also from time evolution. The white-bean soup equilibrates upon exchanging heat and particles with the kitchen air for ages. Our quantum system can exchange observables \hat{Q}_j with its environment for ages. The system equilibrates, we argued, to the state \gamma. The argument relies on a quantum-information tool called canonical typicality.

Third, we defined a resource theory for thermodynamic exchanges of noncommuting observables. In a thermodynamic resource theory, the thermal states are the worthless states: From a thermal state, one can’t extract energy usable to lift a weight or to power a laptop. The worthless states, we showed, have the form of \gamma.

Three path lead to the form \gamma of the thermal state of a quantum system that exchanges noncommuting observables with its environment. We published the results this summer.

Not only was Team Banff spilling coffee over \gamma. So were teams at Imperial College London and the University of Bristol. Our conclusions overlap, suggesting that everyone calculated correctly. Our methodologies differ, generating openings for exploration. The mountain passes between our peaks call out for mapping.

So does the path to physical reality. Do these thermal states form in labs? Could they? Cold atoms offer promise for realizations. In addition to experiments and simulations, master equations merit study. Dynamical typicality, Team Banff argued, suggests that \gamma results from equilibration. Master equations model equilibration. Does some Davies-type master equation have \gamma as its fixed point? Email me if you have leads!


Experimentalists, can you realize the thermal state e^{ \sum_j \mu_j \hat{Q}_j } / Z whose charges \hat{Q}_j don’t commute?


A photo of Banff could illustrate Merriam-Webster’s entry for “equanimity.” Banff equanimity deepened our understanding of quantum equilibrium. But we wouldn’t have understood quantum equilibrium if questions hadn’t shattered our tranquility. Give me the disequilibrium of recognizing problems, I pray, and the equilibrium to solve them.


*By “observable,” I mean “property that you can measure.”

**Teams at Imperial College London and Bristol asked that question, too. More pleasing than three times the coolness in Canada!