Happy New Year and all that. Recently I got back from a two-week journey to India (to attend the QIP conference in New Delhi and, of course, liveblog from the Taj) as well as England (to meet up with family in London and make a religious pilgrimage to Bletchley Park).
Even though my travel entries typically get fewer comments than anything else, I nonetheless feel a historic responsibility to record my first visit to a subcontinent with one-sixth of the world’s population — the birthplace not only of my adviser and so many other great theoretical computer scientists, but also of Gandhi, Ramanujan, the Buddha, and commenter Nagesh Adluru. But where do I even start? Writing anything open-ended has always been a chore for me, and it’s only getting harder with time.
So I’ll tell you what: I’ll just post some photos with commentary. Then ask me whatever you want in the comments section: “Were there any good talks at QIP?” “Were you brave enough to sample the strange, exotic North Indian dishes, like ‘naan’ and ‘samosas’ and ‘chicken curry’?” “Having spent a full week in India, to what extent, if any, do you think the Bhutto assassination will destabilize Indo-Pakistani relations?”
India: where every imaginable entity with wheels, feet, or hooves can be found on the road, making deafening noises while swerving to kill you; the water’s not even safe for toothbrushing; the beggars have their own beggars; and the cellphone network is more reliable than anything in the US.
These are students and religious pilgrims at the Dayalbagh colony near Agra, the headquarters of one branch of the Radha Soami sect of Hinduism. They’re laboring in the fields at dawn, before coming in to hear me and others give quantum computing talks. I’m not making this up.
When I agreed to give a talk at the Dayalbagh Educational Institute, all I knew about my hosts is that they were computer scientists near Agra who would take me on a guided tour of the Taj Mahal and arrange the logistics. I had no idea that my hosts — and their self-supporting agricultural commune of about 20,000 people, led by religious scholars fascinated by quantum computing theory — would turn out to be considerably more interesting than the Taj itself.
For my talk, I was going to present some recent results with Peter Shor, Salman Beigi, and Bill Fefferman on the complexity class QMA(k) (Quantum Merlin-Arthur with multiple unentangled Merlins). But then I learned that over 200 people would be attending. I panicked: “there aren’t 200 people on Earth who would care about this talk, let alone 200 people on a Hindu kibbutz near Agra!” So I quickly substituted my usual dog-and-polynomial show about the limits of quantum computers.
I was surprised that the guru of the sect, Prof. P. S. Satsangi, actually came to my talk. Everyone stood at attention when he entered the room, and then he sat in a special chair surrounded by flowers at the front of the lecture hall. He did not ask questions.
In the end, while I couldn’t assent to the Radha Soamis’ mystical beliefs (as they were explained to me), I found much in their way of life to recommend it. I had fun imagining, say, a Kansas farmtown where a quantum computing workshop would be a major public event, attended by the mayor and every local dignitary.
This is where I stayed in New Delhi: at the Islamic Cultural Centre Guest House. I chose to stay here because (1) as someone who’s occasionally blogged about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, I felt a historic responsibility to make a bold peace gesture, and (2) it was the only place in walking distance to the conference center.
As you can see from the Christmas tree out in front, the Islamic Centre was happily not averse to ecumenicism. As explained to me by my “friend” at the guest house (the guy who knocked on my door every fifteen minutes to see if I needed anything, before asking me for a tip), “here in India there is no ‘you Hindu, you Muslim, you Buddhist, you Sikh.’ All are brothers, you understand? Tip?”
Dorit Aharonov and Barbara Terhal passionately debating some adiabatic something-or-other near the Qutb Minar, a twelfth-century minaret.
Need Grover’s algorithm tailored to solve the element distinctness problem in n2/3 queries? I know just the guy for such jobs…
If you can’t read it, the sign says “MADHUSUDAN MOTORS.”
Our guides: “c’mon, move along, nothing to see here … just a stray monkey …”
The obligatory photo. Not Photoshopped, I promise.
Here we shift the scene from India to its former colonialist ruler (now a quaint, scone-intensive island in the North Atlantic). I’m standing in front of the Bletchley Park mansion, an hour and a half by train from London. In the early nineties, this site was apparently going to be demolished to make way for housing developments. Then someone pointed out that, by current estimates, the cryptanalysis done at Bletchley Park probably shortened World War II by at least two years and saved about twenty million lives. So they made it into a museum. Next time you’re in London, I strongly recommend making the pilgrimage (just beware that the place closes at 4PM).
This is a Bombe.
Alan Turing’s office in Hut 8.