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 fret­ting 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.