Quantum braiding: It’s all in (and on) your head.

Morning sunlight illuminated John Preskill’s lecture notes about Caltech’s quantum-computation course, Ph 219. I’m TAing (the teaching assistant for) Ph 219. I previewed lecture material one sun-kissed Sunday.

Pasadena sunlight spilled through my window. So did the howling of a dog that’s deepened my appreciation for Billy Collins’s poem “Another reason why I don’t keep a gun in the house.” My desk space warmed up, and I unbuttoned my jacket. I underlined a phrase, braided my hair so my neck could cool, and flipped a page.

I flipped back. The phrase concerned a mathematical statement called “the Yang-Baxter relation.” A sunbeam had winked on in my mind: The Yang-Baxter relation described my hair.

The Yang-Baxter relation belongs to a branch of math called “topology.” Topology resembles geometry in its focus on shapes. Topologists study spheres, doughnuts, knots, and braids.

Topology describes some quantum physics. Scientists are harnessing this physics to build quantum computers. Alexei Kitaev largely dreamed up the harness. Alexei, a Caltech professor, is teaching Ph 219 this spring.1 His computational scheme works like this.

We can encode information in radio signals, in letters printed on a page, in the pursing of one’s lips as one passes a howling dog’s owner, and in quantum particles. Imagine three particles on a tabletop.

Peas 1

Consider pushing the particles around like peas on a dinner plate. You could push peas 1 and 2 until they swapped places. The swap represents a computation, in Alexei’s scheme.2

The diagram below shows how the peas move. Imagine slicing the figure into horizontal strips. Each strip would show one instant in time. Letting time run amounts to following the diagram from bottom to top.

Peas 2

Arrows copied from John Preskill’s lecture notes. Peas added by the author.

Imagine swapping peas 1 and 3.

Peas 3

Humor me with one more swap, an interchange of 2 and 3.

Peas 4

Congratulations! You’ve modeled a significant quantum computation. You’ve also braided particles.

2 braids

The author models a quantum computation.

Let’s recap: You began with peas 1, 2, and 3. You swapped 1 with 2, then 1 with 3, and then 2 with 3. The peas end up ordered oppositely the way they began—end up ordered as 3, 2, 1.

You could, instead, morph 1-2-3 into 3-2-1 via a different sequence of swaps. That sequence, or braid, appears below.

Peas 5

Congratulations! You’ve begun proving the Yang-Baxter relation. You’ve shown that  each braid turns 1-2-3 into 3-2-1.

The relation states also that 1-2-3 is topologically equivalent to 3-2-1: Imagine standing atop pea 2 during the 1-2-3 braiding. You’d see peas 1 and 3 circle around you counterclockwise. You’d see the same circling if you stood atop pea 2 during the 3-2-1 braiding.

That Sunday morning, I looked at John’s swap diagrams. I looked at the hair draped over my left shoulder. I looked at John’s swap diagrams.

“Yang-Baxter relation” might sound, to nonspecialists, like a mouthful of tweed. It might sound like a sneeze in a musty library. But an eight-year-old could grasp the half the relation. When I braid my hair, I pass my left hand over the back of my neck. Then, I pass my right hand over. But I could have passed the right hand first, then the left. The braid would have ended the same way. The braidings would look identical to a beetle hiding atop what had begun as the middle hunk of hair.


The Yang-Baxter relation.

I tried to keep reading John’s lecture notes, but the analogy mushroomed. Imagine spinning one pea atop the table.

Pea 6

A 360° rotation returns the pea to its initial orientation. You can’t distinguish the pea’s final state from its first. But a quantum particle’s state can change during a 360° rotation. Physicists illustrate such rotations with corkscrews.


Pachos corkscrew 2

A quantum corkscrew (“twisted worldribbon,” in technical jargon)

Like the corkscrews formed as I twirled my hair around a finger. I hadn’t realized that I was fidgeting till I found John’s analysis.

Version 2

I gave up on his lecture notes as the analogy sprouted legs.

I’ve never mastered the fishtail braid. What computation might it represent? What about the French braid? You begin French-braiding by selecting a clump of hair. You add strands to the clump while braiding. The addition brings to mind particles created (and annihilated) during a topological quantum computation.

Ancient Greek statues wear elaborate hairstyles, replete with braids and twists.  Could you decode a Greek hairdo? Might it represent the first 18 digits in pi? How long an algorithm could you run on Rapunzel’s hair?

Call me one bobby pin short of a bun. But shouldn’t a scientist find inspiration in every fiber of nature? The sunlight spilling through a window illuminates no less than the hair spilling over a shoulder. What grows on a quantum physicist’s head informs what grows in it.


1Alexei and John trade off on teaching Ph 219. Alexei recommends the notes that John wrote while teaching in previous years.

2When your mother ordered you to quit playing with your food, you could have objected, “I’m modeling computations!”

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!”