Quite frankly, this does not surprise me in the least. DNA is essentially a chemical process and chemistry is built entirely on quantum mechanics. It also goes to show that some of the most interesting physics that is now emerging is coming from the mesoscopic realm where the quantum and classical worlds meet.
Archive for June, 2010
The following is an op-ed piece that is about to appear in the next issue of The Quantum Times (which is not out yet). Since some of my readers do not read The Times, I am posting it here since I think it has a fairly general relevance to it.
The greatest professional complement I have ever received was from a former student who had taken my introductory physics course as part of the requirements for a life sciences degree (she is now a practicing nurse). At the end of my course, which is well-known for being hard, she told me that my physics course had taught her to question everything (her emphasis). Most physicists likely share this penchant for skepticism, at least to a degree. After all, the process of formulating a theory or carrying out an experiment involves constant revision, which naturally entails questioning our own results. As Mike Fortun and Herb Bernstein (yes, that Herb Bernstein) put it, science can be “messy” and the process of doing science is often simply an act of “muddling through.”
That said, two things recently caught my eye that deserve mention. The first was an excellent post by GQI Chair Dave Bacon on his blog The Quantum Pontiff concerning the paper review process. Dave writes,
Science is dynamic. Sometimes this means that science is wrong, sometimes it means that science is messy. Mostly it is very self-correcting, given the current state of knowledge. At any given time the body of science knows a lot, but could be overturned when new evidence comes in. What we produce through all of this, however, at the end of the day, are polished journal articles.
This is more than just an issue of transparency. As someone who has done a fair amount of research in the history of science, I have noticed that one of the things we have lost in the digital age is “rough notes.” For papers more than about thirty years old, notes – from scraps of paper to entire notebooks – frequently can be found in archives and private collections that detail the “messy” process of science. The other thing we have lost, particularly with the advent of e-mail, is written letters as a record. Some of the best ideas have come out of these letters (I cited several in my PhD thesis) and they often included hand-drawn diagrams, equations that were often easier to read, and other items not found in the limiting form of an e-mail.
We also, often individually (i.e. with no real consensus), place limits on the questions we think science can legitimately ask. While this may be necessary, it is, to some degree, arbitrary and can have the effect of quenching legitimate scientific progress. Combined with the issues I raised above, it is also quenching what could be legitimate scientific dialogue.
That brings up the second thing that caught my eye recently. A letter was forwarded to me this spring in which a Nobel Physics Laureate was disinvited to a conference in Italy due to their apparent interest in the “paranormal.” The letter goes on to say that “it would not be appropriate for someone with such research interests to attend a scientific conference.” While I agree that certain aspects of the paranormal do not belong at a scientific conference, where, precisely, do we draw the line? Would we disinvite the late Georges Lemaître, a student of Einstein and a father of modern cosmology, because he was a Jesuit priest and, as such, took vows that ostensibly implied his belief in transubstantiation, a rite he likely performed regularly? There was never any evidence that implied that the disinvited person would make their paranormal beliefs a centerpiece of conversation. Did Lemaître babble on about Catholic theology at cosmology conferences?
Both these points beg the question of whether or not some of the founding papers in our own discipline would get published in a leading journal today. Bohr’s writing, for example, was notoriously philosophical (and some might say impenetrable).
The end result is that science, which should rise above such things, is increasingly being shaped by modern society rather than shaping modern society. The “culture wars” are forcing upon science a narrowing of purpose while the digital age is destroying its transparency and making its development appear black and white. More than simply unfortunate, this is dangerous.
Thus, I call on you to question everything, including your strongest beliefs, and be open and transparent about it. Science is beautiful and powerful but it isn’t perfect. We should stop pretending it is.
This is probably not appropriate for all ages, but it’s relatively funny.
I suppose I might as well post this. Please note my additional comment in the comments section of the posted article. This is my 15 minutes of fame, I guess.
This past spring for my quantum mechanics course, I again used Schumacher and Westmoreland’s book Q-PSI which I had the good fortune to test over the past couple of years, prior to its publication. But I also used, as a supplement, Aharonov and Rohrlich’s Quantum Paradoxes. Interestingly enough, they couch Schrödinger’s cat ‘paradox’ in terms of morality. For readers not familiar with the paradox, here is the way Schrödinger envisioned it.
Place a cat in a box that also contains a vial of cyanide gas, a hammer, a Geiger counter, and a single radioactive atom. The hammer is connected to the Geiger counter in such a way that when the atom decays and the decay product is detected by the Geiger counter, the hammer swings down to break open the vial of cyanide gas killing the cat. According to Schrödinger, quantum mechanics tells us that, until we open the box and look inside, the cat is simultaneously both alive and dead – it is in a superposition of the two states. This is because the decay of the atom is probabilistic and we can have no way of knowing (until we open the box) whether the decay has happened or not (and thus whether or not the cat is dead).
There’s a subtlety here though. This paradox has been at the heart of discussions of the ‘measurement problem’ in quantum mechanics since it was proposed. That is, does the act of measurement cause the state to collapse to a definite outcome? In other words, does the opening of the box have an effect on the outcome? Schrödigner’s point in proposing this paradox was to show that the answer to the latter ought to be ‘no’ because it sounds absurd. And yet it is fairly well-accepted that, indeed, the act of measurement can have an effect (and it’s not hard to imagine scenarios – even classical ones – in which this is the case).
Aharonov and Rohrlich take this one step further. Let us assume that killing the cat is immoral, i.e. since we know that opening the box might kill the cat, we can’t unintentionally kill it. Now if the act of measurement does not have an effect on the state of the cat and the cat’s state is solely determined by the random process of the decaying atom, then, if it dies before we open it, whomever built the fiendish contraption is guilty of the cat’s murder. However, if the act of measurement does have an effect on the state of the cat, i.e. it truly exists in a superposition of states until the box is opened, and we find it dead upon opening the box, then we are guilty of the cat’s murder!
While fairly far-fetched, it nevertheless highlights the fact that science does not occur in a vacuum. There may be consequences – sometimes subtle – to what we do as scientists. It also highlights the importance of foundational research. I can envision a future in which a clearer understanding of the measurement problem could be morally important depending on the nature and state of technology. Let us hope funding agencies, politicians, and even corporations realize this.
As usual, I received grapevine word of the following (see below). Wouldn’t you think that, as the editor of the major (perhaps the only?) newsletter on quantum information in the US (maybe anywhere?), Mary Beth Ruskai would have sent this to me even if she didn’t think it would make it into the newsletter in time (which it would if she’d approached me about it)? But, no, Ivan Deutsch had to send me a message asking me for her. She also sent it to Dave Bacon (i.e. The Pontiff). WTF is wrong with the quantum information community??? I have truly never met a more insular, obsessively navalnavel-gazing group of people in my life.
US NSF Travel Grant Program for Nordita/Mittag-Leffler
Conference on Quantum Information Theory 4-8 Oct. 2010
This program will provide funds to support travel and lodging for US scientists to participate in the International Conference on Quantum Information Theory to be held in Stockholm Sweden during 4-8 October 2010. Information on the conference is available at
The program is contingent on funding expected from the US National Science Foundation and will be administered by Tufts University. It is intended to cover most of the costs of travel and lodging.
In addition, funds are available to cover lodging for 1-2 weeks before or after the conference to participate in the fall programs at Nordita and Mittag-Leffler or to engage in collaborative research at other institutes in Scandanavia. For information on these programs see
Those not constrained by teaching obligations are encouraged to take advantage of this opportunity.
Eligibility: Open to US scientists, i.e., US citizens or those affiliated with a US institution.
• Preference will be given to junior scientists (advanced graduate students and recent PhD’s) and faculty at undergraduate (RUI) institutions. Members of under-represented groups are especially encouraged to apply.
• In general, those who have current grants with travel funds are not eligible. Partial institutional support is permissible.
• US scientists participating in the Nordita or Mittag-leffler programs in Sept. or Oct. who wish to extend their stay to include the conference week are eligible for lodging support that week.
• Transatlantic travel must use US flag carriers (even if more expensive).
Application process: Applications must be submitted by e-mail to Chris King email@example.com
Send a CV with a cover letter containing a brief description of research interests. Those who want to extend their stay should also describe their plans and/or interest in this. Graduate students and new PhD’s should arrange for one (at most two) letters of recommendation to be sent separately.
Application Deadline: 15 July 2010
Selection Process: Applications will be reviewed by a selection committee of Charles H. Bennett, Alan Aspuru-Guzik, Julio Gea-Banacloche, Christopher King (chair), Marius Junge, Mary Beth Ruskai (PI) and Wim van Dam. We expect to notify applicants by the start of August.
Questions: Contact the PI, Mary Beth Ruskai, by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org