Category Archives: Quantum mechanics

The State Space of Quantum Mechanics is Redundant

There was some water-cooler talk around the office this past week about a paper by Masanes, Galley and Müller that hit the arXiv, and I decided to write up my thoughts about it for ease of future reference. In short, I have no reason yet to think that the math is wrong, but what they present as a condition on states seems more naturally to me like a condition on measurement outcomes. Upon making this substitution, the Masanes, Galley and Müller result comes much closer to resembling Gleason’s theorem than they say it does.

So, if you’re wanting for some commentary on quantum mechanics, here goes:
Continue reading The State Space of Quantum Mechanics is Redundant

Proceedings of the Royal Society of Smegheads

So, the news from a little while back was that a new Journal of Controversial Ideas is in the pipeline, with a big part of the motivation being to protect “academic freedom” from the (nonexistent) Campus Free Speech Crisis. If this sounds to you like a way for the hateful to spout toxic ravings about marginalized peoples from behind a screen of anonymity, then I’d say you have a low opinion of human nature, a low opinion that is entirely merited by the data. If it also sounds to you like a good way to part a mark from his dollar with “peer review” that amounts to a vanity pay-to-publish scheme, then I’d say your sense of cynicism is nicely calibrated.

When I heard about J. Con. Id., I couldn’t help thinking that I have myself supported some unpopular scientific opinions. A few times, that’s where my best professional judgment led me. When my colleagues and I have found ourselves in that position, we set forth our views by publishing … in Nature.

(I have to admit that the 2010 comment is not as strong as it could have been. It was a bit of a written-by-committee job, with all that that implies. I recommend that every young scientist go through that process … once. Better papers in the genre came later. And for my own part, I think I did a better job distinguishing all the confusing variants of terminology when I had more room to stretch, in Chapter 9 of arXiv:1509.02958.)

The Rise of Ironic Physics and/or Machine Physicists?

CONTENT ADVISORY: old-fashioned blog snarkery about broad trends in physics.

Over on his blog, Peter Woit quotes a scene from the imagination of John Horgan, whose The End of Science (1996) visualized physics falling into a twilight:

A few diehards dedicated to truth rather than practicality will practice physics in a nonempirical, ironic mode, plumbing the magical realm of superstrings and other esoterica and fretĀ­ting about the meaning of quantum mechanics. The conferences of these ironic physicists, whose disputes cannot be experimentally resolved, will become more and more like those of that bastion of literary criticism, the Modern Language Association.

OK (*cracks knuckles*), a few points. First, “fretting about the meaning of quantum mechanics” has, historically, been damn important. A lot of quantum information theory came out of people doing exactly that, just with equations. The productive way of “fretting” involves plumbing the meaning of quantum mechanics by finding what new capabilities quantum mechanics can give you. Let’s take one of the least blue-sky applications of quantum information science: securing communications with quantum key distribution. Why trust the security of quantum key distribution? There’s a whole theory behind the idea, one which depends upon the quantum de Finetti theorem. Why is there a quantum de Finetti theorem in a form that physicists could understand and care about? Because Caves, Fuchs and Schack wanted to prove that the phrase “unknown quantum state” has a well-defined meaning for personalist Bayesians.

This example could be augmented with many others. (I selfishly picked one where I could cite my own collaborator.)

It’s illuminating to quote the passage from Horgan’s book just before the one that Woit did:

This is the fate of physics. The vast majority of physicists, those employed in industry and even academia, will continue to apply the knowledge they already have in hand—inventing more versatile lasers and superconductors and computing devices—without worrying about any underlying philosophical issues.

But there just isn’t a clean dividing line between “underlying philosophical issues” and “more versatile computing devices”! In fact, the foundational question of what the nature of “quantum states” really are overlaps with the question of which quantum computations can be emulated on a classical computer, and how some preparations are better resources for quantum computers than others. Flagrantly disregarding attempts to draw a boundary line between “foundations” and “applications” is my day job now, but quantum information was already getting going in earnest during the mid-1990s, so this isn’t a matter of hindsight. (Feynman wasn’t the first to talk about quantum computing, but he was certainly influential, and the motivations he spelled out were pretty explicitly foundational. Benioff, who preceded Feynman, was also interested in foundational matters, and even said as much while building quantum Hamiltonians for Turing machines.) And since Woit’s post was about judging whether a prediction held up or not, I feel pretty OK applying a present-day standard anyway.

In short: Meaning matters.

But then, Horgan’s book gets the Einstein–Podolsky—Rosen thought-experiment completely wrong, and I should know better than to engage with what any book like that on the subject of what quantum mechanics might mean.

To be honest, Horgan is unfair to the Modern Language Association. Their convention program for January 2019 indicates a community that is actively engaged in the world, with sessions about the changing role of journalism, how the Internet has enabled a new kind of “public intellectuals”, how to bring African-American literature into summer reading, the dynamics of organized fandoms, etc. In addition, they plainly advertise sessions as open to the public, which I can only barely imagine a physics conference doing more than a nominal jab at. Their public sessions include a film screening of a documentary about the South African writer and activist Peter Abrahams, as well as workshops on practical skills like how to cite sources. That’s not just valuable training, but also a topic that is actively evolving: How do you cite a tweet, or an archived version of a Wikipedia page, or a post on a decentralized social network like Mastodon?

Dragging the sciences for supposedly resembling the humanities has not grown more endearing since 1996.
Continue reading The Rise of Ironic Physics and/or Machine Physicists?

What I Do

At the moment, I’m taking a quick break from reading some rather dense mathematical prose, and I spent yesterday plugging away at a draft of my research group’s next technical publication. This led me to reflect on a lesson that I think a lot of science education leaves out: Even in a technical article, you have to have a story to carry the progression through. “These are all the boffo weird roadside attractions we found while proving the theorems in our last paper” is honest, but not adequate.

Our research project is the reconstruction of the mathematical formalism of quantum theory from physical principles. We tease apart the theory, identify what is robustly strange about it — for many more quantum phenomena can be emulated with classical stochasticity than are often appreciated — and try to build a new representation that brings the most remarkable features of the physics to the forefront. In special relativity, we have Einstein’s postulates, and the dramatic tension between them: Inertial observers can come to agree upon the laws of physics, but they cannot agree upon a standard of rest. In thermodynamics, we have the Four Laws, which come with their own dramatic tension, in that energy is conserved while entropy is nondecreasing. Both of these theories are expressed in terms of what agents can and cannot do, yet they are more than “mere” engineering, because they apply to all agents. Or, to say it another way, it is to the benefit of any agent to pick up the theory and use it as a guide.

What, then, is the analogue for quantum theory? If the textbook presentation of quantum physics is like the formulae for the Lorentz transform, with all those square roots and whatnot, or the Maxwell relations in thermo, with all those intermingling partial derivatives that we invent hacks about determinants to remember, what is quantum theory’s version of Einstein’s postulates or the Four Laws?

That’s the grandiose version, anyway. The reason I got invited to speak at an American Mathematical Society meeting is that the geometric structures that arise in this work are vexingly fascinating. You want about Galois fields and Hilbert’s 12th problem? We’ve got ’em! How about sphere packing and unexpected octonions? We’ve got those, too! And the structure that leads down the latter path turns out, on top of that, to yield a new way of thinking about Mermin’s 3-qubit Bell inequality. It is all lovely, and it is all strange.

The SIC problem gives us the opportunity to travel all throughout mathematics, because, while the definition looks pretty small, the question is bigger on the inside.

New Paper Dance, Encore

This time, it’s another solo-author outing.

B. C. Stacey, “Is the SIC Outcome There When Nobody Looks?” [arXiv:1807.07194].

Informationally complete measurements are a dramatic discovery of quantum information science, and the symmetric IC measurements, known as SICs, are in many ways optimal among them. Close study of three of the “sporadic SICs” reveals an illuminating relation between different ways of quantifying the extent to which quantum theory deviates from classical expectations.

New Papers Dance

In spite of the “everything, etc.” that is life these days, I’ve managed to do a bit of science here and there, which has manifested as two papers. First, there’s the one about quantum physics, written with the QBism group at UMass Boston:

J. B. DeBrota, C. A. Fuchs and B. C. Stacey, “Symmetric Informationally Complete Measurements Identify the Essential Difference between Classical and Quantum” [arXiv:1805.08721].

We describe a general procedure for associating a minimal informationally-complete quantum measurement (or MIC) and a set of linearly independent post-measurement quantum states with a purely probabilistic representation of the Born Rule. Such representations are motivated by QBism, where the Born Rule is understood as a consistency condition between probabilities assigned to the outcomes of one experiment in terms of the probabilities assigned to the outcomes of other experiments. In this setting, the difference between quantum and classical physics is the way their physical assumptions augment bare probability theory: Classical physics corresponds to a trivial augmentation — one just applies the Law of Total Probability (LTP) between the scenarios — while quantum theory makes use of the Born Rule expressed in one or another of the forms of our general procedure. To mark the essential difference between quantum and classical, one should seek the representations that minimize the disparity between the expressions. We prove that the representation of the Born Rule obtained from a symmetric informationally-complete measurement (or SIC) minimizes this distinction in at least two senses—the first to do with unitarily invariant distance measures between the rules, and the second to do with available volume in a reference probability simplex (roughly speaking a new kind of uncertainty principle). Both of these arise from a significant majorization result. This work complements recent studies in quantum computation where the deviation of the Born Rule from the LTP is measured in terms of negativity of Wigner functions.

To get an overall picture of our results without diving into the theorem-proving, you can watch John DeBrota give a lecture about our work.

Second, there’s the more classical (in the physicist’s sense, if not the economist’s):

B. C. Stacey and Y. Bar-Yam, “The Stock Market Has Grown Unstable Since February 2018” [arXiv:1806.00529].

On the fifth of February, 2018, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 1,175.21 points, the largest single-day fall in history in raw point terms. This followed a 666-point loss on the second, and another drop of over a thousand points occurred three days later. It is natural to ask whether these events indicate a transition to a new regime of market behavior, particularly given the dramatic fluctuations — both gains and losses — in the weeks since. To illuminate this matter, we can apply a model grounded in the science of complex systems, a model that demonstrated considerable success at unraveling the stock-market dynamics from the 1980s through the 2000s. By using large-scale comovement of stock prices as an early indicator of unhealthy market dynamics, this work found that abrupt drops in a certain parameter U provide an early warning of single-day panics and economic crises. Decreases in U indicate regimes of “high co-movement”, a market behavior that is not the same as volatility, though market volatility can be a component of co-movement. Applying the same analysis to stock-price data from the beginning of 2016 until now, we find that the U value for the period since 5 February is significantly lower than for the period before. This decrease entered the “danger zone” in the last week of May, 2018.

Recent Advances in Packing

The weekend before last, I overcame my reluctance to travel and went to a mathematics conference, the American Mathematical Society’s Spring Central Sectional Meeting. I gave a talk in the “Recent Advances in Packing” session, spreading the word about SICs. My talk followed those by Steve Flammia and Marcus Appleby, who spoke about the main family of known SIC solutions while I covered the rest (the sporadic SICs). The co-organizer of that session, Dustin Mixon, has posted an overall summary and the speakers’ slides over at his blog.

To Thems That Have

Occasionally, I think of burning my opportunities of advancing in the physics profession — or, more likely, just burning my bridges with Geek Culture(TM) — by writing a paper entitled, “Richard Feynman’s Greatest Mistake”.

I did start drafting an essay I call “To Thems That Have, Shall Be Given More”. There are a sizable number of examples where Feynman gets credit for an idea that somebody else discovered first. It’s the rich-get-richer of science.
Continue reading To Thems That Have

Multiscale Structure of More-than-Binary Variables

When I face a writing task, my two big failure modes are either not starting at all and dragging my feet indefinitely, or writing far too much and having to cut it down to size later. In the latter case, my problem isn’t just that I go off on tangents. I try to answer every conceivable objection, including those that only I would think of. As a result, I end up fighting a rhetorical battle that only I know about, and the prose that emerges is not just overlong, but arcane and obscure. Furthermore, if the existing literature on a subject is confusing to me, I write a lot in the course of figuring it out, and so I end up with great big expository globs that I feel obligated to include with my reporting on what I myself actually did. That’s why my PhD thesis set the length record for my department by a factor of about three.

I have been experimenting with writing scientific pieces that are deliberately bite-sized to begin with. The first such experiment that I presented to the world, “Sporadic SICs and the Normed Division Algebras,” was exactly two pages long in its original form. The version that appeared in a peer-reviewed journal was slightly longer; I added a paragraph of context and a few references.

My latest attempt at a mini-paper (articlet?) is based on a blog post from a few months back. I polished it up, added some mathematical details, and worked in a comparison with other research that was published since I posted that blog item. The result is still fairly short:

New Paper Dance Macabre

C. A. Fuchs, M. C. Hoang and B. C. Stacey, “The SIC Question: History and State of Play,” arXiv:1703.07901 [quant-ph] (2017).

Recent years have seen significant advances in the study of symmetric informationally complete (SIC) quantum measurements, also known as maximal sets of complex equiangular lines. Previously, the published record contained solutions up to dimension 67, and was with high confidence complete up through dimension 50. Computer calculations have now furnished solutions in all dimensions up to 151, and in several cases beyond that, as large as dimension 323. These new solutions exhibit an additional type of symmetry beyond the basic definition of a SIC, and so verify a conjecture of Zauner in many new cases. The solutions in dimensions 68 through 121 were obtained by Andrew Scott, and his catalogue of distinct solutions is, with high confidence, complete up to dimension 90. Additional results in dimensions 122 through 151 were calculated by the authors using Scott’s code. We recap the history of the problem, outline how the numerical searches were done, and pose some conjectures on how the search technique could be improved. In order to facilitate communication across disciplinary boundaries, we also present a comprehensive bibliography of SIC research.

Also available via SciRate.

Aphorism

Last night I thought of a way to summarize why my current big research project appeals to me.

The SIC problem gives us the opportunity to travel all throughout mathematics, because, while the definition looks pretty small, the question is bigger on the inside.

For a taste of why this is so, try here:

Google Scholar Whisky-Tango-Foxtrottery

Google Scholar is seriously borked today. I heard about the problem when Christopher Fuchs emailed me to say that he had his Google Scholar profile open in a browser and happened to click the refresh button, whereupon his total citation count jumped by 700. After the refresh, his profile was full of things he hadn’t even written. Poking around, I found that a lot of publications in the American Institute of Physics’s AIP Conference Proceedings were being wildly misattributed, almost as if everyone who contributed to an issue was getting credit for everything in that issue.

For example, here’s Jan-Åke Larsson getting credit for work by Giacomo D’Ariano:

screenshot of Google Scholar

And here’s Chris picking up 38 bonus points for research on Mutually Unbiased Bases—a topic not far from my own heart!—research done, that is, by Ingemar Bengtsson:
Continue reading Google Scholar Whisky-Tango-Foxtrottery

More Google Scholar Irregularities

A few years ago, I noticed a glitch in a paper that colleagues of mine had published back in 2002. A less-than sign in an inequality should have been a less-than-or-equals. This might have been a transcription error during the typing-up of the work, or it could have entered during some other phase of the writing process. Happens to the best of us! Algebraically, it was equivalent to solving an equation
\[ ax^2 + bx + c = 0 \] with the quadratic formula,
\[ x = \frac{-b \pm \sqrt{b^2 – 4ac}}{2a},\] and neglecting the fact that if the expression under the square root sign equals zero, you still get a real solution.

This sort of glitch is usually not worth a lot of breath, though I do tend to write in when I notice them, to keep down the overall confusingness of the scientific literature. In this case, however, there’s a surprise bonus. The extra solutions you pick up turn out to have a very interesting structure to them, and they include mathematical objects that were already interesting for other reasons. So, I wrote a little note explaining this. In order to make it self-contained, I had to lay down a bit of background, and with one thing and another, the little note became more substantial. Too substantial, I learned: The journal that published the original paper wouldn’t take it as a Comment on that paper, because it said too many new things! Eventually, after a little more work, it found a home:

The number of citations that Google Scholar lists for this paper (one officially published in a journal, mind) fluctuates between 5 and 6. I think it wavers on whether to include a paper by Szymusiak and Słomczyński (Phys. Rev. A 94, 012122 = arXiv:1512.01735 [quant-ph]). Also, if you compare against the NASA ADS results, it turns out that Google Scholar is missing other citations, too, including a journal-published item by Bellomo et al. (Int. J. Quant. Info. 13, 2 (2015), 1550015 = arXiv:1504.02077 [quant-ph]).

As I said in 2014, this would be a rather petty thing to care about, if people didn’t rely on these metrics to make decisions! And, as it happens, all the problems I noted then are still true now.