Some human resources departments have a title called “Generalist” who is someone that can basically handle a wide variety of issues. Academia, on the other hand, has a title called “Professor” who more often than not is an expert in one particular narrow area of their already fairly narrow profession. There are very few professors who are generalists, though I don’t think this is of their own choosing, but is the product of a lot of culture and practicality (expertise is necessary for advancement of the academic’s field.)
I was thinking about this the other day, and mulling over how I think I’m might be more of a generalist than a specialist (or at least I’m a lousy dilettante), when it occurred to me that perhaps this is the reason why I ended up in quantum computing. To the outside world quantum computing people are often characterized by “Oh they’re a quantum person.” I’ve heard exactly that phrase (especially when it comes to hiring decisions )
But let’s think a bit about what that means. Quantum theory is an uber-theory of physics, sitting squarely at the base of theoretical physics. Computing is…well….gigantic. It is a joke that to form a research area in quantum computing you simply go to the dictionary of fields in computing and affix a big fat “quantum” in front of it. It may be a joke, but it’s very much true.
For example, I have worked in quantum error correction, quantum algorithms, universal quantum computing, simulation of quantum correlations, quantum foundations (Bell inequalities with communication), quantum computing in bizarre models of physics, adiabatic quantum protocols, and matrix product states algorithms for simulating quantum physics. And I’m a lazy bastard with a short publication list. A further example of this is the last paper I put up on the arxiv, arXiv:1006.4388 with co-authors Isaac Crosson and Ken Brown. In that paper we discuss essentially a statistical physics result and, along with connecting it to a model of computing, we also tie our work to a fundamental complexity class. Fun stuff! (Though hard to find an appropriate journal.)
I’ve often said that one of the great things about working in quantum computing is that I get to see all sorts of talks, from hard-core experimental physics to pie in the sky theoretical computer science. It only recently occurred to me that this is, apparently, is my own private way of getting to pretend to be a generalist. Which is to say, it used to bug me when people said “oh that Quantum Pontiff he’s just a quantum dude” (quantizing Bishops left and right, well mostly right!) But now I take it as a great protective shield, keeping me from bolting a system that favors single minded expertise over any broader approach.