Category Archives: Popular Science

Progressing from the God Particle to the Gay Particle

… and other physics and QC news

The ‘god particle’, aka the Higgs boson, received a lot of attention, not that this wasn’t warranted, but I can’t help but suspect that the justification of the CERN budget is partly to blame for the media frenzy.  The gay particle, on the other hand, is no less spectacular - especially since its theoretical prediction by far pre-dates the Higgs boson.  Of course, what has been discovered is, yet again, not a real particle but ‘only’ a pseudo particle similar to the magnetic monopol that has been touted recently.  And as usual, most pop-science write-ups fail entirely to remark on this rather fundamental aspect (apparently the journalists don’t want to bother their audience with these boring details). In case you want to get a more complete picture this colloquium paper gives you an in-depth overview.

On the other hand, a pseudo particle quantum excitation in a 2d superconductor is exactly what the doctor ordered for topological quantum computing, a field that has seen tremendous theoretical progress as it has been generously sponsored by Microsoft. This research entirely hinges on employing these anyon pseudoparticles as a hardware resource, because they have the fantastic property of allowing for inherently decoherence-resistant qubits.  This is as if theoretical computer science would have started writing the first operating system in the roaring twenties of the last century, long before there was a computer or even a transistor, theorizing that a band gap in doped semiconductors should make it possible to build one. If this analogy was to hold, we’d now be at the stage where a band gap has been demonstrated for the first time.  So here's to hoping this means we may see the first anyon-based qubit within the decade.

In the here and now of quantum computing, D-Wave merrily stays the course despite the recent Google bombshell news.  It has been reported that they now have 12 machines operational, used in a hosted manner by their strategic partners (such as 1Qbit).  They also continue to add staff from other superconducting outfits i.e. recently Bill Blake left Cray to join the company as VP of R&D.

Last but not least, if you are interested in physics you would have to live under a rock not to have heard about the sensational news that numerical calculations presumably proofed that black holes cannot form and hence do not exist.  Sabine Hossenfelder nicely deconstructs this.  The long and short of it is that this argument has been going on for a long time, that the equations employed in this research has some counter-intuitive properties, and that the mass integral employed is not all that well-motivated.

Einstein would have been happy if this pans out, after all this research claims to succeed where he failed, but the critical reception of this numerical model has just begun. It may very well be torn apart like an unlucky astronaut in a strongly in-homogeneous gravitational field.

This concludes another quick round-up post. I am traveling this week and couldn't make the time for a longer article, but I should find my way back to a more regular posting schedule next week.

News Roundup

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As school starts, I should find my way back to a regular blogging schedule. I usually drive my kids to German Saturday school and then pass the time at a nearby Starbucks updating this blog.

Job and family demanded too much of my time this summer. The former has gotten very interesting, as I am documenting a bank stress testing system, but the learning curve is steep. And while I just had a pleasant one week vacation at a pristine Northern lake, it very much lacked in Wifi connectivity and was not conducive to blogging. Yet, I had plenty of time to read up on material that will make for future posts.

Back home, my kids incidentally watched the Nova episode that features D-Wave and Geordie Rose, which prompted my mother-in-law to exclaim that she wants stock in this company. Her chance to act on this may come in the not too distant future. Recently, D-Wave's CEO hinted for the first time that there may be an IPO in the offing (h/t Rolf D).

Readers who follow the QC blogs have undoubtedly already learned about an interesting paper that supports D-Wave’s approach, since Geordie highlighted it on the company’s blog. The fact that Robert R. Tucci is looking for an experienced business partner to start a QC algorithm venture with may also already qualify as old news - Bob is mostly focused on the Gate model, but is agnostic about the adiabatic approach, and certainly displays an impressive grit and track record in consistently turning out patents and papers.

When it comes to love and business, timing is everything. The US allows for software patent protection of up to 20 years. This is a sufficiently long time frame to bet on Gate QC becoming a reality. But there is still a bit of a chicken and egg problem associated with this technology. After all, it is much more difficult (Geordie Rose would argue unrealistically so) then what D-Wave is doing. Shor’s algorithm alone cannot justify the necessary R&D expense to develop and scale up the required hardware, but other commercially more interesting algorithms very well may. Yet you only invest in developing those if there is a chance that you’ll eventually (within 20 years) have hardware to run them on. Currently, it still falls to academia to breach the gap, e.g. such as these Troyer et al. papers that make hope that quantum chemistry could see tangible speed-up from even modestly sized gate based quantum computers.

While quantum computing will remain a main theme of this blog, I intend to also get back to some more biographical posts that reflect on how the history of physics has evolved. Just as any human history, it is full of the oddest turns and twists that are more often than not edited out of the mainstream narrative. And just to be clear, this is not to suggest some grand conspiracy, but just another expression of the over-simplification that afflicts most popular science writing. Writing for the least common denominator makes often for rather poor results, but just as Sabine observes

The “interested public” is perfectly able to deal with some technical vocabulary as long as it comes with an explanation.

In the same vein, the intricacy of how scientific discovery progresses deserves some limelight as it illuminates the roads less traveled. It also makes for interesting thought experiments, imagining how physics may have developed if certain experiments or math had been discovered earlier, or one scientist's life hadn't been cut too short.

My next post will deal in some such idle speculation.

Update: This just in, Google sets out on its own (h/t bettinman), planning to put $8B into its proprietary QC hardware effort. which makes me wonder if the investment will match IBM's $3B to reach the post silicon area.  Not clear yet what this will mean for their relationship with D-Wave.

Fusion and Other News – Memory Hole Rescue

Another post on D-Wave is in my blog queue, but with all this attention on quantum computing my other favorite BC based high tech start-up doesn't get enough of my time - I haven't written anything on energy and fusion for quite a while, despite some dramatic recent news (h/t Theo) with regards to another dark horse fusion contender.

Fortunately, there is another excellent blog out there which is solely focused on fusion technology and the various concepts in the field. The Polywell is covered in depth, but General Fusion also gets is due, for its innovative technology.

Another focus of mine, the trouble with contemporary theoretical physics also keeps falling through the cracks.  From my past posts one may get the impression that I am just yet another String apostate, but I don't really have any trouble with String Theory as such, but rather with uncritical confirmation bias. Unfortunately, the latter cuts across all fields as nicely demonstrates in this recent post of hers.

D-Wave Withdrawal Relief

AAFor anybody needing an immediate dose of D-Wave news, Wired has this long, well researched article (Robert R. Tucci summarized it in visual form on his blog). It strikes a pretty objective tone, yet I find the uncritical acceptance of Scott Aaronson's definition of quantum productivity a bit odd.  As a theorist, Scott is only interested in quantum speed-up. That kind of tunnel vision is not inappropriate for his line of work, just an occupational hazard that goes with the job, but it doesn't make for a complete picture.

Other than that, the article only has some typical minor problems with QM.

At this point, you don't really expect a journalist to get across how gate model quantum algorithms work, and the article actually does this better than most. But the following bit is rather revealing; The writer, Clive Thompson, describes visually inspecting the D-Wave chip:

Peering in closely, I can just make out the chips, each about 3 millimeters square. The niobium wire for each qubit is only 2 microns wide, but it’s 700 microns long. If you squint very closely you can spot one: a piece of the quantum world, visible to the naked eye.

SQUIDs for magnetometers don't have to be very small. (Photo approximately to scale - as indicated by the handwriting on this lab sample). This is because for this application you want to measure the magnetic flux encompassed by the loop.

Innocuous enough quote, and most physicists wouldn't find anything wrong with it either, but therein lies the rub. SQUIDs can be fairly large (see photo to the right).

Any superconducting coil can harbour a coherent quantum state, and they can be huge.

The idea that quantum mechanics somehow only governs the microcosm has been with us from its inception, because that's what was experimentally accessible at the time i.e. atomic spectra.  But it is a completely outdated notion.

This is something I only fully came to grasp after reading Carvar Maed's brilliant little book on Collective Electrodynamics. In it, he makes a very compelling case that we are due for another paradigm change.  To me, the latter means dusting off some of Schrödinger's original wave mechanics ideas. If we were to describe a simple quantum algorithm using that picture, there's a much better chance to give non-physicists an idea of how these computation schemes work.

 

Breaking Science News on the Blogosphere?

Update Below

Wrong!

It has been my long held belief that science media needs an additional corrective in the form of blogs, similar to the development we've seen in the political sphere.  Now it seems the news that the BICEP results, that were heralded as Nobel price worthy, may be wrong, originated with this blog post.

Certainly big enough news to interrupt my blog hiatus.

Maybe sometimes some results are really too good to be true, and this may turn out to be this year's version of the faster than light neutrinos.

Update

As was to be expected there is now some push-back against these claims, and the authors stand by the paper.

It also illustrates that science is a bit like sausages, sometimes you don't really want to know exactly what went into it.  At least that how I felt when I learned that the source for this controversy is the way that data has been scrapped from a PDF copy. One could hardly make a better case for why we need a good Open Science infrastructure.

Irrespective my favorite physics blogger took on the results and puts them into context.

 

Time for Another Blogroll Memory Hole Rescue

CRA
The Canadian Revenue Agency is the equivalent to the IRS down South. They owe me money and always make me work to get it.

Unlike the US, tax returns in Canada are due by the end of April, but because of the Heartbleed bug, Revenue Canada had to take down electronic filing for a while, so the deadline has been extended a bit.  It seems I may need the extra days as life is keeping me extraordinarily busy. Saturday morning is usually my blogging time, but this weekend I had to look after my kids (my wife Sara was performing Beethoven 9th with the Peterborough Symphony) and today my oldest daughter turned seven, filling the day with Zoo visits and birthday cakes.

At least the bug bought me some more time.

So in order to not completely abandon this blog, a couple of links to other outstanding science musing are in order. To that end I would like to highlight some posts of Sabine Hossenfelder, a blogging physicist professor of theoretical physics currently teaching in Sweden. Her most recent post discusses some of the structural problems in Academia, which in reality is nothing like the commonly held notion of a utopian ivory tower (rather, the tower stands and becomes ever more compartmentalized, but there is nothing utopian about it).

Her post on the Problem of Now makes a nice primer for a long-planned future post of mine on Julian Barbour's End of Time, because arguably he took "Einstein's Blunder" and ran with it as far as one can take it.  The man's biography also ties back to the dilemma of academia, as it really doesn't  allow much space for such deep, and out of the mainstream, research programs.

Last but not least, I really enjoyed this rant.

And I probably should mention that Sabine also knows how to sing. It obviously takes a physicist to really muster the emotional impact of the agonizing ongoing demise of SUSY.

 

 

Inflation not Over-Inflated after all?

Updated Below

Cosmology is quintessential popular science, but I always regarded it as the most dismal field of physics because there is no avenue for experiments to keep run-away speculations at bay. It's like trying to catch a perpetrator by staring at a multi-billion year old crime scene with the evidence all scattered.  And of course, since it deals with the beginning of time, scientists may have a hard time divorcing themselves from philosophical or religious beliefs (e.g. for a long time, Einstein presumably regarded the big bang theory as an invention by the clergy).

Given the ad-hoc nature of the cosmic inflation theory to fix problems with the big bang explanation, I always felt rather lukewarm about it. It just appeared too much like a convenient quick fix. But I am certainly warming up to it, given that the new detailed observations of the cosmic microwave radiation do fit the picture quite nicely. This radiation is essentially a convenient thermometer for the entire universe, as it can be regarded as thermal black body radiation. This is as close as we can get to the aforementioned primordial crime scene, taking advantage of the fact that the further we look into space, the earlier the events we observe.  If the mainstream big bang theory is correct, then the evidence for it must be splattered all over space encoded in this background radiation.

 (one of the finest pop science writers on the web) nicely explains why this data is such a treasure trove. I have little to add to his article other than the caveat that one should keep an open mind, that the evidence may yet still fit a completely different sequence of events (e.g. this one made some recent headlines, and it will be interesting to observe how such alternative models may be adapted to fit the newly released data).

And then there is, of course, the other raison d'etre of this blog, pointing out when popular science writing gets the details wrong.  The better outlets, such as the NYT, got it right when they wrote that this data offers the first direct evidence for gravitational waves as predicted by general relativity.  And a layman certainly can relate to this, simply by appreciating the released pictures, that almost look like ripples left in the sand by some ocean waves.

./b_over_b_rect.eps
Slight temperature fluctuations, indicated by variations in color, of the cosmic microwave background of a small patch of sky (as provided by the BICEP2 Collaboration).

But there are a lot of press releases and news blurbs that leave out that crucial word "direct" when mentioning gravitational waves, ignoring the excellent indirect evidence that earned a Nobel prize in 1993. The latter is based on one of the neatest astronomical observations I can think of, which used the precise signal of a pulsar in a binary system to measure the declining orbit of the two stars. The observed orbital decay precisely matches the theoretical predictions of how much energy the system should disseminate via gravitational waves.

Just as accelerated electrical charges will under most circumstances emanate EM radiation, accelerated masses will send out gravitational waves, carrying away some of the kinetic energy of the system.

Of course, gravitational waves have the huge advantage of being the kind of physics accessible to immediate measurement, and this new cosmological evidence gives credence to the persistence in pushing for better gravitational wave detectors to eventually measure these waves directly.

Update

It didn't take long before some prominent push back, pointing to discrepancies between the BICEP2 data and previous data from the Planck and WMAP telescopes.

(h/t Sol Warda for prompting me to write this post) 

 

The Science Newscycle

As life keeps me otherwise busy, I am again late in finishing my next blog post, but in the meantime this web comic nicely summarizes much of the news dynamics of science in general and quantum computing in particular (h/t my lovely wife Sara).

"The Science Newscycle" by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com

 

The Most Important Discovery of the 21st Century

Last year I tried to establish a blog tradition of starting the new year with a hopeful science news item, something that shows enormous technological potential to change the world for the better.  But come New Years, it didn't work out, the Quantum Computing and D-Wave news was simply moving too fast, and I also didn't come across anything that felt significant enough.

Not any more. Recently a breakthrough discovery has been made that has the potential to rival the impact of the ammonium synthesis. When Fritz Haber discovered this process in the early 20th century, he single-handily vanquished famines from the developed world as  subsequently fertilizer became an inexpensive commodity. This new discovery has the potential to do the same for thirst and droughts.  It involves a surprising property of graphene and does justice to the hype that this miracle-material receives: Although graphene is usually hydrophobic it can be made to form capillaries that efficiently absorb water. Now researchers at the University of Manchester report having formed layers of graphene oxide that exploit this property to make efficient water filters on the molecular level.

These filters are reported to work astoundingly efficiently, keeping anything out above the size of nine Angstrom (9.0 × 10-10 m) at a speed comparable to an ordinary coffee filter.  It is essentially sieving on the molecular level. This is not yet enough to remove ordinary sea salt, but the scientists, who just published their research in last week's issue of Science, are confident that the material can be scaled down to this level.

If so, it will change the world. Desalination of sea water is currently only affordable to the wealthiest countries, as the required investments are staggering, and operating the necessary infrastructure is very energy intensive.  For instance, Saudi Arabia recently commissioned the world's largest desalination plant for US$ 1.46 billion. The scope of the project is impressive, yet this amount of money will still only suffice to supply one large city metropolis with enough water (~3.5M people).

According to a new report by the Worldwatch Institute, 1.2 billion people, or nearly a fifth of the world's population, live in areas of physical water scarcity, i.e. places where there is simply not enough water to meet demand. Another 1.6 billion face economic water scarcity, where people do not have the financial means to access existing water sources. If this research succeeds in creating a material that can simply filter out sea salt, and if its production can be scaled up, then this scourge on humankind could be rapidly diminished.

Wars have been fought over water and many more have been predicted.  It is rare that any one area of research has the potential to so dramatically alter the course of history for the better.

He Said She Said – How Blogs are Changing the Scientific Discourse

The debate about D-Wave's "quantumness" shows no signs of abating, hitting a new high note with the company being prominently featured on Time magazine's recent cover, prompting a dissection of the article on Scott Aaronson's blog. This was quickly followed by yet another scoop: A rebuttal by Umesh Vazirani to Geordie Rose who recently blogged about the Vazirani et al. paper which sheds doubt on D-Wave's claim to implement quantum annealing. In his take on the Time magazine article Scott bemoans the 'he said she said' template of journalism which gives all sides equal weight, while acknowledging that the Times author Lev Grossman quoted him correctly, and obviously tries to paint an objective picture.

If I had to pick the biggest shortcoming of the Times article, my choice would have been different. I find Grossman entirely misses Scott's role in this story by describing him as "one of the closest observers of the controversy". Scott isn't just an observer in this. For better or worse he is central to this controversy. As far as I can tell, his reporting on D-Wave's original demo is what started it to begin with. Unforgettable, his inspired comparison of the D-Wave chip to a roast beef sandwich, which he then famously retracted when he resigned as D-Wave's chief critic. The latter is something he's done with some regularity, first when D-Wave started to publish results, then after visiting the company and most recently after the Troyer et al. pre-print appeared in arxiv (although the second time doesn't seem to count, since it was just a reiteration of the first resignation).

And the say sandwiches and chips go together ...Scott's resignations never seem to last long. D-Wave has a knack for pushing his buttons. And the way he engages D-Wave and associated research is indicative of a broader trend in how blogs are changing the scientific discourse. For instance, when Catherine McGeoch gave a talk about her benchmarking of the DW2, Scott did not immediately challenge her directly but took to his blog (a decision he later regretted and apologized for). Anybody who has spent more than five minutes on a Web forum knows how the immediate, yet text only, communication removes inhibitions and leads to more forceful exchanges. In the scientific context, this has the interesting effect of colliding head on with the more lofty perception of a scientist. It used to be that arguments were only conducted via scientific publications, in person such as in scientific seminars, or the occasional letter exchange. It's interesting to contemplate how corrosive the arguments between Bohr and Einstein may have turned out, if they would have been conducted via blogs rather than in person. But it's not all bad. In the olden days, science could easily be mistaken for a bloodless intellectual game, but nobody could read through the hundreds of comments on Scott's blog that day and come away with that impression. To the contrary, the inevitable conclusion will be that science arguments are fought with no less passion than the most heated bar brawl.

During this epic blog 'fight' Scott summarized his preference for the media thusly

"... I think this episode perfectly illustrates both the disadvantages and the advantages of blogs compared to face-to-face conversation. Yes, on blogs, people misinterpret signals, act rude, and level accusations at each other that they never would face-to-face. But in the process, at least absolutely everything gets out into the open. Notice how I managed to learn orders of magnitude more from Prof. McGeoch from a few blog comments, than I did from having her in the same room ..."

it is by far not the only controversy that he courted, nor is this something unique to his blog. Peter Woit continues the heretical work he started with his 'Not Even Wrong' book, Robert R. Tucci fiercely defends his quantum algorithm work when he feels he is not credited, Sabine Hossenfelder had to ban a highly qualified String theory troll due to his nastiness (she is also a mum of twins, so you know she has practice in being patient, and it's not like she doesn't have a good sense of humor). But my second favorite science blog fight also occurred on Scott's blog when Joy Christian challenge him to a bet to promote his theory that supposedly invalidates the essential non-locality of quantum mechanics due to Bell's theorem.

It's instructive to look at the Joy Christian affair and ask how a mainstream reporter could have possibly reported it. Not knowing Clifford algebra, what could a reporter do but triangulate the expert opinions? There are some outspoken smart critics that point to mistakes in Joy Christian's reasoning, yet he claims that these are based on flawed understanding and have been repudiated. The reporter will also note that doubting Bell's theorem is very much a minority position, yet such a journalist not being able to check the math himself can only fall back on the 'he said she said' template. After all, this is not a simple straight forward fact like reporting if UN inspectors found Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass distractions or not (something that surprisingly most mainstream media outside the US accomplished just fine). One cannot expect a journalist to settle an open scientific question.

The nature of the D-Wave story isn't different, how is Lev Grossman supposed to do anything but report the various stances on each side of the controversy? A commenter at Scott's blog was dismissively pointing out that he doesn't even have a science degree. As if this were to make any difference, it's not like everybody else on each side of the story doesn't boast such degrees (non-PhDs are in the minority at D-Wave).

Mainstream media reports as they always did, but unsettled scientific questions are the exception to the rule, one of the few cases when 'he said she said' journalism is actually the best format. For everything else we fortunately now have the blogs.