“If I had a nickel for every unsolicited and very personal health question I’ve gotten at parties, I’d have paid off my medical school loans by now,” my doctor friend complained. As a physicist, I can somewhat relate. I occasionally find myself nodding along politely to people’s eccentric theories about the universe. A gentleman once explained to me how twin telepathy (the phenomenon where, for example, one twin feels the other’s pain despite being in separate countries) comes from twins’ brains being entangled in the womb. Entanglement is a nonclassical correlation that can exist between spatially separated systems. If two objects are entangled, it’s possible to know everything about both of them together but nothing about either one. Entangling two particles (let alone full brains) over tens of kilometres (let alone full countries) is incredibly challenging. “Using twins to study entanglement, that’ll be the day,” I thought. Well, my last paper did something like that.

In theory, a twin study consists of two people that are as identical as possible in every way except for one. What that allows you to do is isolate the effect of that one thing on something else. Aleksander Lasek (postdoc at QuICS), David Huse (professor of physics at Princeton), Nicole Yunger Halpern (NIST physicist and Quantum Frontiers blogger), and I were interested in isolating the effects of quantities’ noncommutation (explained below) on entanglement. To do so, we first built a pair of twins and then compared them.

Consider a well-insulated thermos filled with soup. The heat and the number of “soup particles” inside the thermos are conserved. So the energy and the number of “soup particles” are conserved quantities. In classical physics, conserved quantities commute. This means that we can simultaneously measure the amount of each conserved quantity in our system, like the energy and number of soup particles. However, in quantum mechanics, this needn’t be true. Measuring one property of a quantum system can change another measurement’s outcome.

Conserved quantities’ noncommutation in thermodynamics has led to some interesting results. For example, it’s been shown that conserved quantities’ noncommutation can decrease the rate of *entropy production*. For the purposes of this post, entropy production is something that limits engine efficiency—how well engines can convert fuel to useful work. For example, if your car engine had zero entropy production (which is impossible), it would convert 100% of the energy in your car’s fuel into work that moved your car along the road. Current car engines can convert about 30% of this energy, so it’s no wonder that people are excited about the prospective application of decreasing entropy production. Other results (like this one and that one) have connected noncommutation to potentially hindering thermalization—the phenomenon where systems interact until they have similar properties, like when a cup of coffee cools. Thermalization limits memory storage and battery lifetimes. Thus, learning how to resist thermalization could also potentially lead to better technologies, such as longer-lasting batteries.

One can measure the amount of entanglement within a system, and as quantum particles thermalize, they entangle. Given the above results about thermalization, we might expect that noncommutation would decrease entanglement. Testing this expectation is where the twins come in.

Say we built a pair of twins that were identical in every way except for one. Nancy, the noncommuting twin, has some features that don’t commute, say, her hair colour and height. This means that if we measure her height, we’ll have no idea what her hair colour is. For Connor, the commuting twin, his hair colour and height commute, so we can determine them both simultaneously. Which twin has more entanglement? It turns out it’s Nancy.

Disclaimer: This paragraph is written for an expert audience. Our actual models consist of 1D chains of pairs of qubits. Each model has three conserved quantities (“charges”), which are sums over local charges on the sites. In the noncommuting model, the three local charges are tensor products of Pauli matrices with the identity (XI, YI, ZI). In the commuting model, the three local charges are tensor products of the Pauli matrices with themselves (XX, YY, ZZ). The paper explains in what sense these models are similar. We compared these models numerically and analytically in different settings suggested by conventional and quantum thermodynamics. In every comparison, the noncommuting model had more entanglement on average.

Our result thus suggests that noncommutation increases entanglement. So does charges’ noncommutation promote or hinder thermalization? Frankly, I’m not sure. But I’d bet the answer won’t be in the next eccentric theory I hear at a party.