Ig Nobels 2011

Yes, it’s that time of year again. The Ig Nobel Prize ceremony was held this evening at Harvard. My favorite is the winner of the Ig Nobel Peace Prize, which went to

Arturas Zuokas, the mayor of Vilnius, Lithuania, for demonstrating that the problem of illegally parked luxury cars can be solved by running them over with an armoured tank.

This could have plausibly gotten him an Ig Nobel in economics instead, since it’s all about incentives. The video is priceless:

As of right now, the list of winners is still not up at the home page for the Annals of Improbable Research. That link should start working shortly, but until then I found this article from the BBC which gives complete coverage of the event. Enjoy!
Of course, this means that we will know the winners of the “real” Nobels soon enough. Put your best guess for the Physics prize in the comments.

Geocentrism Revival

Robert Sungenis is an idiot.Seriously?

A few conservative Roman Catholics are pointing to a dozen Bible verses and the church’s original teachings as proof that Earth is the center of the universe, the view that was at the heart of the church’s clash with Galileo Galilei four centuries ago.

I can confidently speak for all of the quantum pontiffs when I say that we reject the geocentric view of the universe. I never thought I would have to boldly stand up for these beliefs, yet here I am.

… Those promoting geocentrism argue that heliocentrism, or the centuries-old consensus among scientists that Earth revolves around the sun, is a conspiracy to squelch the church’s influence.

This sentence nearly made my head explode.
First of all, heliocentrism is of course not agreed upon as scientific fact. As readers of this blog surely know, General Relativity teaches us that there are an infinite number of valid coordinate systems in which one can describe the universe, and we needn’t choose the one with the sun or earth at the origin to get the physics right (though one or the other might be more convenient for a specific calculation.) 
Second, you’ve gotta love the form of argument which I affectionately call “argument by conspiracy theory”, in which any evidence against your position is waved away as the work of a secret organization with interests aligned against you. Oh, what’s that? You don’t have any evidence for the existence of this secret society? Well, that simply proves how cunning they are and merely strengthens the argument by conspiracy theory!

“Heliocentrism becomes dangerous if it is being propped up as the true system when, in fact, it is a false system,” said Robert Sungenis, leader of a budding movement to get scientists to reconsider. “False information leads to false ideas, and false ideas lead to illicit and immoral actions — thus the state of the world today.… Prior to Galileo, the church was in full command of the world, and governments and academia were subservient to her.”

So in case you were wondering: yes, this guy is serious. In fact, he is also happy to charge you $50 to attend his conference, or sell you one of several books on the topic, as well as some snazzy merchandise like coffee mugs and t-shirts that say “Galileo was wrong” on the front. (Hint: they don’t say “Einstein was right” on the back.)
To Mr. Sungenis and his acolytes: I implore you. Please just stop. It’s embarrassing for both of us. And if you’re worried about your bottom line, then consider going into climate change denial instead, which I hear is quite lucrative.

The Quantum Interregnum Decoherence Continues

The College of Cardinals has been in conclave for over a month now and leaks to the public indicate that the cardinals are still stalemated.  What does this portend for the world?  The end?  A new beginning?  Only entropy (which others call time) will tell.

Quantum Interregnum!

The Vicar of Randomization hereby informs the readers of this blog that the Quantum Pontiff Dave Bacon XLII has decohered.  He further informs the readers of this blog that the entire Quantum Pontiff blog is in Justitium and hopes that the readers will refrain from acting like Canucks fans after losing the Stanley Cup.
The College of Cardinals will begin conclave in the coming days, please stay tuned to this chimney.

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 🙂

    My Favorite D-Wave Future

    As many of you know, D-Wave has a nice paper out about some experiments on one of their eight qubit systems. In addition they have sold one of their systems to the military industrial complex, a.k.a. Lockheed Martin.
    One of the interesting things about the devices they are building is that no one really knows whether it will provide computational speedup over classical computers. In addition to the questions of whether adiabatic quantum algorithms will provide speedups for useful problems, there is also the question of how this speedup will be affected when working at finite temperature. If I were an investor this would worry me, but as a scientist I find the question fascinating and hope they can continue to push their system in interesting directions. Of course if I were an investor I’d probably be some multimillionaire who probably has an odd risk aversion profile 🙂
    A fun question to ponder, at least for me, is what will eventually happen to D-wave, in, say, ten years. Of course there are the most obvious futures. They could run out of funding and close their doors as a device maker and sell their patent porfolio. They could succeed and build machines that do outperform classical computers on relevant hard combinatorial problems. Those two are obvious. BORING.
    But my favorite scenario is as follows. D-wave continues to build larger and larger devices. At the same time they perform even more exhaustive testing of their system. And in the process they discover that there are “noise” sources that they hadn’t really expected. Not noise sources that violate quantum theory or anything, but instead noise sources that end up turning their stoquastic Hamiltonian into a non-stoquastic Hamilotnian. While no one knows how to use the Hamiltonian of D-wave’s machine to build a universal quantum computer, it is entirely possible that such a machine, plus some crazy extra unwanted terms could end up being universal. So while the company is squarely behind the dream of a combinatorial optimizer, it’s not at all impossible that their machine could accidentally be useful for universal adiabatic quantum computation (and of course whether this can be made fault-tolerant is still a major open question, at least for the models with non-degenerate ground states.) Wouldn’t it be hilarious if the noise which most people believe will destroy D-wave’s computational advantage actually turns their machine into a universal quantum computer? Ha!
    So which will it be? And what odds will you give me on each of these possible futures?

    Hoisted From the Comments: Quantum Marriage

    Charlie Bennett comments about an novel use of quantum entanglement:

    Tracy Staedter describes a quantum wedding apparatus built by conceptual artist Jonathon Keats, which briefly entangles two people by illuminating them with entangled photons. Staedter quotes Keats as saying the resulting quantum marriage would literally be broken up by skepticism about it.

    Speaking of which, who was it who introduced the idea of monogamy of entanglement?
    (Anyone want to go into business selling a device which shoots entangled photons at you and a nearby person? “The Quantum Entangler” could be used to entangle you with that nearby hottie who you really want to get to know 🙂 )

    Look Ma, I'm a Financial Journalist!

    In this Saturday’s New York Times, in an article titled The Chasm Between Consumers and the Fed, I found the most amazing chart:

    Of course I am not a financial journalist, so I have absolutely no understanding of the gigantic amoeba-like-shaded-area in this chart. But it looks very cool and very much like it represents something about which the article has much to say. Sadly, however, the New York Times does not provide the methodology it used in obtaining the amazing fact that six of the points can be grouped together while those other two points are excluded from the party. What astounding mathematical finance model did the Grey Lady use to come up with this plot (I’ll be it involves Ito calculus)?
    Frustrated by the lack of transparency, I decided that it would be best if I tried to come up with my own methods and models for obtaining this graph. My first attempt, after scouring the economics literature and using some advance methods (related to integrating over Banach spaces) was the following

    As you can see this model seems to pick out the overall rate of return as the defining characteristic. After much great reflection, and reacquainting myself with some obscure results from the theory of hyperbolic partial differential equations and new deep learning techniques from machine learning, I was able to tweak my model a bit and obtained the following

    Now this is a beautiful plot, but it clearly does not reproduce the graph from the New York Times. What exactly, was I missing in order to obtain the giant amoeba of correlation?
    But then I remembered…I’m not a financial journalist. I’m a physicist. And so, I took a look at the stats notes I took as a physics major at Caltech, quickly plugged in some numbers, and obtained a new, reality based, version of the plot

    Well it’s not the New York Time plot. But I like it a lot.