Theory Like Software

One interesting issue in quantum information science is the lack of hiring of theory people by physics departments in the United States over the last few years (by my count, four hires in the last six years.) I think one of the main reasons for why this may be true is that physics departments are still skeptical over the field of quantum computing. For experimentalists, the hiring situation has been better (although, of course, no piece of cake by any measure!) The reason for this, it seems to me, is that experimental people in quantum information science are doing interesting experiments which push the boundaries of experimental physics. It is easier to justify hiring an experimentalist because there is some belief that they will be able to adjust if quantum information begins to fizzle out (I don’t believe it, but apparently a large number of physicists do.) In essence physics departments feel that they experimentalists are a better hedge than theorists.

But lets take a look at this issue from the perspective of the next few years. As quantum computers grow from four and five qubit computers to ten to a hunderd qubit computers, the experimentalists will be in some ways less tied to fundamental physics and more tied to the engineering and technology of the devices they will be building. And there is a another important factor: not all implementations of quantum computers are going to pay off. Thus while hiring an experimentalists who is working for the implementation which really takes off can be a jackpot for a department, hiring one who is working on the implementation which fizzles can leave the department in exactly the position they are supposedly avoiding by not hiring theorists.

Now look at this from the perspective of hiring a theorist. Quantum information theorists are much more immune to which implementation really takes off. Sure, some theorists are more tied to a particular implementation, but, on the other hand the main bulk of theory is done in a way which is independent of any quantum computing platform. Thus quantum information theorists, like those involved in the computer science of software, are in many ways a more robust hire in the long run than an experimentalist.

Of course, this argument is only a small part of the big picture (i.e. what does happen if the field is a fad? what if you do believe you can pick out the best implementation? what if you only care about hiring someone who will have an impact in the next five to ten years?) but it’s certainly an argument which I wish more physics departments would listen to.

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16 Responses to Theory Like Software

  1. Dave Bacon says:

    Interesting. I certainly hadn’t gotten the impression experimental money was easier to come by than theory money. Perhaps this is because I’ve always been at theory places which have had a decent amount of money. And when I tell other theorists in physics what the size of the grants people are getting, they are usually rather impressed. Plus I’d say that we don’t even know what the money situation is like for theorists, because well there have only been a few NEW theorists in physics departments. Everyone else was rather well established when they jumped into the quantum computing game.

    I guess I’d just hope that physics departments were a bit more long term than just “we’re safe for five years.” Because I really think in five years there will be only two or three leading implementations. Sure some will hang around but it will be very hard to get funding when you look over at NIST and see a 40 qubit machine and you’re still hacking away at your two qubit interactions.

    And this is not to say that I think less experimentalists should be hired or that I don’t think experiments in all of these implementations shouldn’t be carried out. But let’s face it, sometime in the future, there will be a dominate technology and this dominate technology will monopolize the field. I guess it’s just easier to wait until then to hire theorists, but I think in doing so you miss the opportunity for a large payoff.

  2. Dave Bacon says:

    Yeah, I think the amount of money and the “overhead” associated with grants is a large reason that experimental physics is favored over theory in the United States. I really don’t have any problem with this cus I think physics should be an experimentally driven field. On the other hand it is a bit ridiculous that there are four hires in a field which just past $1 billion spending over the past ten years. I guess a good question is what percentage of physicist faculty are experimentalists and which are theorists and then I should compare this to the current situation in quantum information science. Oh boy, more work for another blog article (although I’m pretty sure quantum information science will come out as being pretty unbalance theory/experimentalist wise.)

  3. One more for Howard’s list: Kitaev at Caltech, a joint Physics / CS hire.

  4. Dave Bacon says:

    Todd Brun is in the EE department (although I’m guessing he’d consider himself a physicist. He was Gell-Mann’s grad student after all!) The other person I was thinking of was Kitaev. Technically I should also count Ike Chuang who is joint Media lab/physics, but was hired into the Media lab.

  5. Chad Orzel says:

    I think the real issue is money. It’s easier (or at least perceived as easier) to get grants for experimental work than theoretical work, and the grants tend to be larger.

    Also, at this point, actual implementations are still far enough off that any apparatus built in the course of an attempt to do experimental quantum computing will be fairly general-purpose. So I think it is a pretty good hedge.

  6. Kaveh Kh. says:

    Even those theorists mentioned above have strong backgrounds in other areas, i.e. all of them can do (and already do) other stuff.

    I guess you made some more experimentalist enemies for yourself with this post 🙂

  7. mick says:

    I also thought the real issue was money as well. I’m probably wrong, but I was told that for a lot of research grants in the US a university department gets a flat-rate percentange cut of the grant money allocated to any group in their department. Supposedly this is to help pay for infrastructure etc. Experimentalists almost always get larger grants than theorists so they bring more money into a department. I guess this argument doesn’t work if an experimtalists experiments go belly-up after 5 years… I’m certain most departments don’t think that far ahead though. Apparently the situation is different here in Oz and it’s one reason why our department is stacked with theorists…

  8. Howard Barnum says:

    Hey Dave, Just wanted to see if I am current on the situation…
    You mean there have been four theory hires in QI in physics in the US so far? That would be Jonathan Dowling at LSU, Lorenza Viola at Dartmouth, Todd Brun at USC, and Lu-ming Duan at Michigan? I guess the big question is whether we are about to hit a big growth period… I suspect we might be, with Dowling hiring more people at LSU, and a few other places maybe perking up. The situation seems to be that what one might think of as the “big-name” departments are slower… this is a good place for a canny department (or administration!) at a smaller school to get into something exciting (and which, moreover, seems to attract students!)

  9. mick says:

    I guess that you aren’t counting the recent hirings at the IQC either. It’s pretty close to the US… Crap, the Canadians are going to kill me for saying that. Seriously though, Howard Barnum asked about growth, has anyone done a tally of hirings in Europe, Canada, and Ozneyland? Does anyone have any idea whether there will be an oversupply or an undersupply of graduate students and postdocs in the next few years?

  10. JM Geremia says:

    Dont’ worry Dave- there is another alternative: sigma algebras AND screwdrivers! Try selling yourself as _both_ an experimentalist _and_ a theorist. [DISCLAIMER: If you are a search committee member this year, you have no guarantee that I’m really me.] Apparently, the natural reaction to this purely ingenious attempt to circumvent hiring trends is that no one believes that you can do anything, theory or experiment. 🙂

  11. Jon says:

    I know exactly how many string experimentalists have been hired over the past six years, but how many string theorists have been hired over that same span, for comparison’s sake?

  12. Minki Jeong says:

    I guess the number of Ph.D. produced in QIS compared to that in other fields, for example condensed matter theory, should be considered if we are to estimate the status of hiring in QIS correctly. In other respect, personally, I think people in QIS should say aloud that the construction of quantum computer is not the only thing important in the field. Hiring shouldn’t appear as the result of the single answer (by physics departments) to the yes/no question, ‘can quantum computer be built(in recent years, at best)?’. We should convince them that there are many more (interesting) questions to be asked before one determines to hire or not.

  13. Rod says:

    Before coming to Keio for my Ph.D., I was talking to a CS systems prof from Berkeley about his students’ job prospects on graduating from what is one of the top CS programs in the world.

    Apologies in advance to those who will no doubt get up in arms over his characterization of places…

    He said, “Our systems students tend to go to first-rate schools in second-rate places, like Purdue, or second-rate schools in first-rate places, like San Jose State.”

    I asked, “What about the theory students?”

    He replied, dismissively, “Oh, they go to second-rate schools in second-rate places.”

    It’s a simple fact that most profs put out a dozen or two Ph.D. students over their career, and only one will get the prof’s job when he/she retires. The others filter down to “lower level” schools, or go to industry.

    Any students beyond the one replacement who get jobs at the same level represent growth in faculty, and schools are most definitely conservative about that, since it represents a long-term commitment.

    Meantime, there is definitely a cadre of fine postdocs, including yourself, waiting for the right opening. Look on the bright side — in Pasadena and Santa Fe you’re building long-term relationships with some extraordinary people.

    P.S. Ike is an off-the-scale hire even by MIT’s standards, IMHO, but I don’t think of him as a theorist. I know he built some of the NMR equipment at Stanford, and the students of his that I’ve met are certainly hands-on.

  14. Anonymous says:

    the real reason is fairly simple, interdisciplinary field, falls between the chairs, is this person a physicist or a computer scientist? the situation for experimentalists is much less ambigous.

  15. Anonymous says:

    those involved in the computer science of software, are in many ways a more robust hire in the long run…I wish more PHYSICS departments would listen to…(my emphasis)


    It is amazing what you find sitting in your hotel room late at night in Los Angeles at the APS meeting Googling yourself.

    A few comments from the “old man”.

    Couldn’t “Quantum Pontiff” be shortened to “QuanTiff”?

    While it is apparently well known that I have accepted a prof job at LSU, what is lesser known is that in a last ditch attempt to remain in Los Angeles, I interviewed for a position at a well-known “University in Southern California” for a position advertised at the assistant professor level, but which contained the catch phrase, “qualified candidates at a higher rank will be considered”.

    Well when it comes to rank — sniff!? — nobody is higher than me and so I gave it a shot.

    They turned me down.

    The reasons they gave should interest this group. While they stated their desire to hire THREE assistant profs in quantum information theory over three years, they came flat out and said they were not willing to invest money and tenure in a more senior person.

    This “University in Southern California” is not exactly not rolling in dough.

    The reason they gave was chilling, “Well if quantum computing does not work out we will not have lost too much of an investment.” The implication was that they would be free to rid themselves of these hapless hires at the tenure point with little cost to them if QC bit the dust, but would be in a position to take off if QC blossomed.

    Finally, US gov’t funding for QIP was virtually zero until 1994. The first call for proposals came out in 1995 post Shor, and the funding arrived in 1996.

    Graduate students who might have otherwise when into superstrings began being trained in quantum information theory, finished their PhDs in 2000, and are now emerging from their second postdocs.

    However the US gov’t funding for QIP has gone flat since about 2001-02. Due to inertia, the system will continue to pump out job candidates in quantum information theory for the next few years, well ahead of the funding curve. New positions in QIT will roll off with the funding in the next year or two.

    We can predict that for the next 5-10 years there will be a surplus of quantum info theorist to jobs available until the market corrects itself.

    The situation will get even worse if funding for QIP declines instead of remaining flat, as some now predict.

    Then places like the “University in Southern California” will rid themselves of their untenured unfunded assistant profs, cut their losses, and go on with their lives.

    Moral of this story: Doing quantum physics is like surfing. No matter how big and long the wave, always keep your eye out for the next one – and always realize you need a day job.

    Finally, diversify your portfolio and don’t end up like the Panda, able to eat only one kind of leaf.

    Jonathan “The Quantum Pundit” Dowling

    PS: All ya’ll may call me “The QuDit”.

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