Oh the Places I've Been!

In 1996 I participated in Caltech‘s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship program under the direction of two postdocs, Nicolas Cerf and Chris Adami (their big boss now works the halls of D.C.) The research project I worked on was to try to see whether quantum computers could efficiently solve NP-complete problems. Or as I like to say, my SURF was spent bashing my head up against the wall (and getting damn good at tensor products and spotting non-linear transforms, as you can see from my SURF writeup. John Preskill told me after my talk, in the first words he ever uttered in my direction: “that was a hard problem you worked on.”)
My SURF project was not my first introduction to quantum computing, but it was the first time I’d gotten a chance to bash my head up against the field, and something must have stuck. Because when I went to grad school in Berkeley in 1997, after a year of taking astrophysics courses (if the cosmic microwave background was distributed this way or that way on the sky, this or that cosmological model could be ruled out, how cool is that!) I stumbled back into quantum computing through the group of Chemistry Professor K. Birgitta Whaley and her postdoc Daniel Lidar. My first paper in quantum computing was published in 1999, and I’ve been a proud participant in the growing field of quantum information science ever sense.
Now that I’ve decided that it is time for a change and I’m moving out of the ivory tower and into the real world (academics, you see, manufacture their own reality, which is why they call everything outside of academia “the real world”), I thought it would be fun to indulge in a little bit of egotistical self-reflection, cataloging the joys that a decade plus spent in quantum computing has given me.  The joys of all of the papers I’ve written and all of the cool quantum computing stuff I’ve see?  No, that would be too easy.  Instead I thought it would be fund to think about the kind of crazy things that happen to you as life sweeps you along.  Or, as I like to say it, “Oh the places I’ve been!”
[Warning: self-flattering ego-inflating stories ahead!]
Things I’ve gotten to do that were pretty damn awesome:

  • I lectured a rich guy who’d just sold his company for many millions of dollars about quantum computing while standing on the walkway surrounding the 200-inch Hale telescope.  This will definitely be the only time I’ve been driven to give a scientific talk in a limo!
  • Parked my Mazda Miata with QUBITS license plate beside Murray Gell-Mann’s Range Rover sporting the license plate QUARKS while at the Santa Fe Institue.  One day I missed a major missed opportunity because of this.  Ben Schumacher was visiting the Santa Fe Institute… so I had the chance to get a picture of two people who have invented words that start with “Q”, that are in the dictionary, in front of two cars with license plates with those words!  I shall never forgive myself for this missed opportunity.

  • Played Isaac Newton to Scott Aaronson’s Gottfried Leibniz.  Personally I think I got to play the more awesome scientist and damn if that Leibniz didn’t steal calculus from me.

  • Gave a lecture at a summer school in Brisbane, Australia where I discussed a stabilizer code which contained the operators XXXX and ZZZZ. XXXX is the name of a beer in Australia, so I knew this would be awesome for jokes about beer and sleep. Unfortunately I didn’t notice that I had named the stabilizer group that these two operators generated Sex. The subsequent accident jokes had a few people rolling in the aisles.

  • Participated in a joint US/Australia NSF workshop in which I got to see Andrew White grill Australia’s Minister for Industry, Science and Resources(?) about education policy. During that trip I also got my finger stuck in an eye bolt when we were out on a cruise of Sydney Harbor, and had to get unstuck with the help of a stick of butter and an NSF program manager.  Oh, and I also got kicked into a nightclub on that trip.
  • Quantum Beer Night in Berkeley (at the Albatross) became Quantum Margarita Night at Caltech, where it made the list of top geek hangouts in Popular Science!
  • I got to hear Cormac McCarthy tell stories during SFI tea time, and found out that he deeply understands Bell inequalities.  Also at SFI I tied myself up to the corners of the lecture hall during a talk to demonstrate how SU(2) is related to the real world.
  • Got sick of looking at the arXiv every morning and so crowdsourced the daily task of filtering these posts by creating the website scirate.com.  Thank you people for doing so much filtering for me, you really have saved me a lot of time.
  • Gave a talk at Bungie about quantum video games.
  • Gave a talk in which I tried to sound like Martin Luther King Jr (BOMB)
  • Gave a talk that involved the use of subwoofers and speakers (sadly the file for this got corrupted and I no longer have the talk.)
  • Kept students amused during their exams by drawing cartoons:

  • Bought an iPhone and realized that it was a pain to surf for papers on the arXiv, so wrote an iPhone app for browsing the arXiv, arXiview.
  • Got a comment on my blog from a Nobel prize winner in physics.
  • Was once the top hit for the word “pontiff” on google. Take that Beattles!
  • Had a word stolen from me by Stephen Colbert: “Jesi.” Okay, well maybe not, but the ensuing discussion of the proper plural of Jesus is amusing.

Ah the things I’ve got to do.  So far.  Kind of makes me look forward to what kind of craziness is going to happen next 🙂

    6 Replies to “Oh the Places I've Been!”

    1. My old school master was a demigod, an iron man, and woe be unto that boy who could not answer yes or no to a direct question,” writes Kierkegaard about Michael Nielsen, the headmaster of Borgerdydskolen [The School of Civic Virtue] from 1813 to 1844. Like several of his colleagues, he was professor in his subject, and there is no doubt of his competence as a Latinist. The judgement on his paedagogical principles is less flattering: he is remembered as “Tyrant” and “Despot”. Only when a thunderstorm occurred did discipline relax, because then Nielsen became frightened, folded his hands and said: “When God speaks, I remain silent,” whereupon he immediately added: “But when I speak, you remain silent. ”

    2. Hehe, I remember the XXXX slide – I recall I was one of those rolling in the aisles. The slide was funny, but I think a lot of the mirth came from the imbibing of large quantities of XXXX the night before…

    3. There’s an excellent book by Michael Riordan and Lillian Hoddeson titled Crystal fire: the birth of the information age. QIT folks can usefully read their book as a source of clues to answering the question: “When the future book Qubit fire: the birth of the quantum information age is written, what will be the main narrative thread of that book?”
      As Riordan and Hoddeson point out, in the 1930s-1950s only a small number of researchers foresaw that the pn junction would emerge as the key enabling technology of the information age … even though pn junctions are (with hindsight) pretty simple to understand. As we all appreciate, foresight is far tougher than hindsight!
      So maybe we present-day QIT researchers (collectively) aren’t so good at foreseeing what will be the key technologies of the quantum information age … even if those key quantum technologies are right in front of our eyes at present (albeit in some embryonic form).
      So what history is teaching (IMHO) is that almost for sure, companies like Google, MicroSoft, IBM, Apple, and INTEL are going to be largely (even mainly) in the quantum information business … and so are individuals like you, Dave!
      It’s just that it’s likely to take Google, MicroSoft, IBM, Apple, and INTEL (and everyone else too) awhile to catch on to what QIT is really all about. 🙂

    4. Man, I’d forgotten both about the “Sex and Fourex” talk — remember, Fourex is *twice* as good as Dos Equis; I’m amazed that you remember the conversation with the Science minister; and I think the following phrase is possibly the best thing I’ve read on your blog, and am now determined to get it into a future talk:
      “…and had to get unstuck with the help of a stick of butter and an NSF program manager.”

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