What can you do in 48 hours?

Have you ever wondered what can be done in 48 hours? For instance, our heart beats around 200 000 times. One of the biggest supercomputers crunches petabytes (peta = 1015) of numbers to simulate an experiment that took Google’s quantum processor only 300 seconds to run. In 48 hours, one can also participate in the Sciathon with almost 500 young researchers from more than 80 countries! 

Two weeks ago I participated in a scientific marathon, the Sciathon. The structure of this event roughly resembled a hackathon. I am sure many readers are familiar with the idea of a hackathon from personal experience. For those unfamiliar — a hackathon is an intense collaborative event, usually organized over the weekend, during which people with different backgrounds work in groups to create prototypes of functioning software or hardware. For me, it was the very first time to have firsthand experience with a hackathon-like event!

The Sciathon was organized by the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings (more about the meetings with Nobel laureates, which happen annually in the lovely German town of Lindau, in another blogpost, I promise!) This year, unfortunately, the face-to-face meeting in Lindau was postponed until the summer of 2021. Instead, the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings alumni and this year’s would-be attendees had an opportunity to gather for the Sciathon, as well as the Online Science Days earlier this week, during which the best Sciathon projects were presented.

The participants of the Sciathon could choose to contribute new views, perspectives and solutions to three main topics: Lindau Guidelines, Communicating Climate Change and Capitalism After Corona. The first topic concerned an open, cooperative science community where data and knowledge are freely shared, the second — how scientists could show that the climate crisis is just as big a threat as the SARS-CoV-19 virus, and the last — how to remodel our current economic systems so that they are more robust to unexpected sudden crises. More detailed descriptions of each topic can be found on the official Sciathon webpage.

My group of ten eager scientists, mostly physicists, from master students to postdoctoral researchers, focused on the first topic. In particular, our goal was to develop a method of familiarizing high school students with the basics of quantum information and computation. We envisioned creating an online notebook, where an engaging story would be intertwined with interactive blocks of Python code utilizing the open-source quantum computing toolkit Qiskit. This hands-on approach would enable students to play with quantum systems described in the story-line by simply running the pre-programmed commands with a click of the mouse and then observe how “experiment” matches “the theory”. We decided to work with a system comprising one or two qubits and explain such fundamental concepts in quantum physics as superposition, entanglement and measurement. The last missing part was a captivating story.

The story we came up with involved two good friends from the lab, Miss Schrödinger and Miss Pauli, as well as their kittens, Alice and Bob. At first, Alice and Bob seemed to be ordinary cats, however whenever they sipped quantum milk, they would turn into quantum cats, or as quantum physicists would say — kets. Do I have to remind the reader that a quantum cat, unlike an ordinary one, could be both awake and asleep at the same time?

Miss Schrödinger was a proud cat owner who not only loved her cat, but also would take hundreds of pictures of Alice and eagerly upload them on social media. Much to Miss Schrödinger’s surprise, none of the pictures showed Alice partly awake and partly asleep — the ket would always collapse to the cat awake or the cat asleep! Every now and then, Miss Pauli would come to visit Miss Schrödinger and bring her own cat Bob. While the good friends were chit-chatting over a cup of afternoon tea, the cats sipped a bit of quantum milk and started to play with a ball of wool, resulting in a cute mess of two kittens tangled up in wool. Every time after coming back home, Miss Pauli would take a picture of Bob and share it with Miss Schrödinger, who would obviously also take a picture of Alice. After a while, the young scientists started to notice some strange correlations between the states of their cats… 

The adventures of Miss Schrödinger and her cat continue! For those interested, you can watch a short video about our project! 

Overall, I can say that I had a lot of fun participating in the Sciathon. It was an intense yet extremely gratifying event. In addition to the obvious difficulty of racing against the clock, our group also had to struggle with coordinating video calls between group members scattered across three almost equidistant time zones — Eastern Australian, Central European and Central US! During the Sciathon I had a chance to interact with other science enthusiasts from different backgrounds and work on something from outside my area of expertise. I would strongly encourage anyone to participate in hackathon-like events to break the daily routine, particularly monotonous during the lockdown, and unleash one’s creative spirit. Such events can also be viewed as an opportunity to communicate science and scientific progress to the public. Lastly, I would like to thank other members of my team — collaborating with you during the Sciathon was a blast!

During the Sciathon, we had many brainstorming sessions. You can see most of the members of my group in this video call (from left to right, top to bottom): Shuang, myself, Martin, Kyle, Hadewijch, Saskia, Michael and Bartłomiej. The team also included Ahmed and Watcharaphol.

The Navajo connection

A few months ago, Prof. Keith Schwab brought visiting students and teachers from Navajo Preparatory School to tour some of the IQIM labs, listen to some quick lectures on optics, and talk to scientists. Since this opportunity was only allowed to the one carload that made the 11.5 hour drive from Farmington, NM, everyone involved agreed that we could reach far more students if the IQIM sent Caltech students there. Ana Brown and I both enjoyed speaking with the visiting students and teachers, and responded enthusiastically when Prof. Schwab offered to send us.  My enthusiasm momentarily dimmed when I realized our trip would be occurring in the dead of winter and it was projected to snow while we were there (having only lived in northern and southern California, let’s say I have a heightened sensitivity to weather), but I excitedly spent thanksgiving putting together demonstrations with supplies I found in my closet and garage. I’ve always enjoyed talking about applied math, science, and engineering to anyone, especially anyone young enough to have only heard “math is boring” or “science is too hard” few enough times I can convince them otherwise.  Navajo Prep seemed ideal for this, since the school prepares the students well and sends over 95% of the students to college, and is working to increase student interest in math, science, and engineering.

it's colder than it looks, I swear

Panorama from the center of Navajo Prep

With a suitcase half full of clothes and half full of tools and hacked-together electronics, I was picked up from the airport, and arrived at the school in the afternoon the Monday after Thanksgiving weekend. While Monday was spent arranging which classes I would attend, and what topics I would discuss, my second day involved a trip with the school’s outreach coordinator and Cody, one of the two students who visited Caltech, taking a tour of some of the local highlights, including a traditional Navajo lunch (steam corn stew, roast mutton, and I even tried ach’ii”) and toured the remnants of the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde, about half an hour from the school. Exploring a region with such a rich history and discussing it with my hosts, who are descendants in part from that history was an incredible experience.

yup, some 70 rooms built in a recess carved into the canyon wall almost a thousand years ago.

Rooms at the Oak Tree House at Mesa Verde

On Wednesday, I began talking to the freshman physics classes about optics, intending to discuss the properties of light, like frequency, speed, wavelength, velocity, energy, and momentum, but to give some context I began with a historical summary of discoveries in optics. I know I was surprised when I was preparing, so you might enjoy answering the same questions that I asked the class. Take a second, and guess when you think the first lenses were made and when wearable glasses were first used. (After you think you have a guess, scroll to the bottom to see how you did.)  When I realized that the class was more interested in seeing rather than hearing about optics, I skimmed over what I’d prepared in order to spend more time on the demonstrations where I showed refraction in glass and explained how that can be derived from assuming a different speed of light in the material. We found lenses for the students to manipulate/play with, and even though historically there were about 300 years between invention of glasses (and the proliferation of lens-making) and the invention of the telescope, some of the students unintentionally built telescopes after taking a second lens from their friends and were shocked to hear that what they had just made was better than the one Galileo used to first discover the four largest moons of Jupiter.

I promise this shot is not advertising for Under Armour.

Measuring focal lengths and observing lensing with a drop of water on a glass slide

We also demonstrated double slit diffraction and calculated light’s wavelength for three different laser pointers to within 5% accuracy using only a tape measure, a post-it, and a knife. I decided not to bring a demonstration to measure the speed of light with a laser, a few mirrors, a computer fan, and a reverse-biased photodiode hooked up to an old speaker, because I couldn’t get the fan to spin fast enough to get a reasonably short delay length. (From that can you guess what my set-up was?) On Thursday, Ana and I gave a similar lecture to a different pair of 90 minute freshman physics classes, and spent the other periods talking with math classes. In calculus, I described the different kinds of math classes offered in college, their applications, and their connections to each other in an attempt to give more meaning to the course titles they would no doubt be reading next fall. In geometry and trigonometry I answered the perennial high school math question: “when will we ever use this?” by talking about some applications in geometric optics.

Since I figure you readers like thinking about this sort of thing, I’ll elaborate: I started with the fact that a light beam’s incident angle (measured from the perpendicular of a surface) is equal to its reflected angle. This means that light propagation, like much of (but not all of) physics, is reversible in all but a few specific cases. As a result, light generated at or passing through the center of a circle is reflected off the circle back to the center. An ellipse has a similar property where light through one focus is all reflected to the other. Try deriving that from the fact that an ellipse is defined to be the set of all points where the sum of the distances to the two foci equals some fixed constant. In the lecture, I then used the fact that a parabola is the set of all points equidistant from a point (the focus) and a line (the directrix) to show that light from the focus is reflected off the parabola and collimated (focused at infinity).

Ana brought some IQIM hats and shirts, which the freshman physics classes seemed to definitely enjoy when we met with each class for 40 minutes on Friday.

We probably tripled the number of high school varsity football players who've worn IQIM gear in that one picture

One of the four freshman physics classes we got to spend time with

I tried to give them an impression of what we do in the IQIM, but I had a hard time giving a satisfactory explanation of the significance of quantum information, and Ana easily convinced me that it would be more engaging to use the 90 minute introduction I had already given them on optics to explain and describe solar energy, since many buildings deep in the Navajo reservation are off the power grid.  There are also plans to construct a large solar power plant on the reservation that will be much cleaner than the three local coal power plants in the region.

I think I made a joke and Ana might have been the only one to laugh.  Still, it's proof I can be funny.

Action shot during the lecture on solar

Ana and I also spoke to the senior seminar, which contained the entire graduating class, where she talked about the difficulties transitioning to college experienced by some of her friends in college who were from the Navajo reservation. She gave such great advice on applying to schools, applying for fellowships, and developing a healthy work/life balance, that the only thing I felt like I could contribute was some advice on picking a major (since I’ve picked about 4 different majors), where I described the difference between science and engineering, and talked about different fields within each. I loved how truly helpful I felt when so many of the students told us that they either found certain pieces of advice to be useful, thanked us for introducing them to an idea they hadn’t heard of, or asked us to come back soon.

Occasionally a student asked what I personally do, and their curiosity was rewarded with an explanation that lasted as long as they were interested.  The shortest lasted two sentences and the longest explanation (given to a calculus class of 5 people) involved 30 minutes with my laptop out showing all the steps I take to fabricate nanoscale devices to trap light in almost a cubic-wavelength volume in proximity to an “optically interesting” rare earth ion which my advisor and I hope will provide a viable quantum optical memory.  (Here‘s a little more about our work.)

In the evenings we cheered for the school’s basketball team, had dinner with some of the students and teachers, and discussed the school’s science curriculum and science fair projects. Ana and I consulted on a solar water heating project some of the students were working on, and, after the students all went home for the weekend, I even spent 2 hours in 17ºF weather the last night calibrating an 8″ diameter Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope that had been donated to the school. Compared to Pasadena the viewing was spectacular, and I could easily spot galaxies, nebulae, and discern stripes on Jupiter and the four Galilean moons. I can only expect that some of the students I met will be as excited as I was.

From wikipedia: “The earliest known lenses were made from polished crystal, often quartz, and have been dated as early as 700 BC for Assyrian lenses” and “Around 1284 in Italy, Salvino D’Armate is credited with inventing the first wearable eye glasses.” For anyone who’s interested in the history of science, I’d suggest you check it out.