After three years of procrastination and delays, my 8-page feature article on “The Limits of Quantum Computers” has finally appeared in the March issue of Scientific American. Once I get permission, I’ll post a plain-text version on my website. In the meantime, you can buy the online issue for US$5.00 from SciAm‘s website, in which case you get colorful sidebars and graphics (including a bearded, white-lab-coated cartoon scientist holding quantum computers and complexity class inclusion diagrams), as well as an interview with Jeff Kimble about the unfortunate movie “Jumper”, and other articles about “the end of cosmology”, prediction markets (Robin Hanson and his “futarchy” get a mention), and the disastrous overfishing of the bluefin tuna (the kind used for toro sushi).
Update (2/18): By popular demand, I’m posting a rough early draft (PDF) of my article online. Read at your own risk!
So, what was it like to write for Scientific American? Exhausting, excruciating, and ultimately worth it. As a general rule, SciAm (probably like all large-circulation magazines) rewrites articles so extensively that the person listed in the byline is less the “writer” than the “content consultant.” Almost every sentence in my article bears the scars of battle (some that I won, more that I didn’t). Yet I have to concede that, when something was really cringe-inducingly wrong, SciAm was willing to listen and make changes — and besides, they did a great job with the cartoons. I’m happy with the end result. Thanks to George Musser, the editor who solicited the article and gave me lots of feedback in the early stages, and to Graham Collins, who finally saw it into print.
A few specific comments for your amusement:
- In an earlier draft, the cartoons adorning my article were “all balding white guy, all the time” (supposedly, because of the need to keep a “consistent character” throughout the article). I demanded some sort of cartoon-diversity. After a heated discussion among the editors — in which, I’m told, the name of Larry Summers was invoked — they finally agreed to add a cartoon black woman. To those who think I’m a male chauvinist pig: how many brownie points do I get?
- No, the crystal ball with floating ψ’s and φ’s, mounted atop a keyboard, is not an accurate depiction of what a quantum computer would look like. Having toured some actual QC labs, though, I had to admit it worked better graphically than a lab table piled high with tinfoil, lasers, and assorted pipes.
- The topic label of the article is “Information Technology.” I pleaded with them to change the topic to “Computer Science,” but to no avail. Apparently the problem was that in the table of contents, the previous two articles were labeled “Prediction Science” and “Brain Science.”
- The complexity class inclusion diagram on page 67 was a key concession I did win. (Apparently some editors felt a Venn diagram with P, NP, BQP, and PSPACE would be way too complicated, even for readers who regularly gobble down heaping helpings of M-theory.) As you can imagine, exposing people to this stuff seemed pretty important to me: this is apparently the first time P, NP, and NP-completeness have been explained at any length in Scientific American since articles by Knuth and by Lewis and Papadimitriou in the 1970′s.
- In the author bio on page 67, the description of me as a “high school dropout” is a slight exaggeration, but there’s no other short term for what I am (see here for more).
- I had nothing to do with the sidebar on page 68, about Vernor Vinge’s novel A Fire Upon the Deep. I’ve never read that (or anything else by Vinge for that matter).
- My original draft included explanations of both the polynomial and adversary methods for quantum lower bounds, with references to BBCMdW and Ambainis. Shockingly, all of that was cut, while the part about time machines was greatly expanded.
During the hairiest parts of editing process, I was reminded of a passage in Anita and Solomon Feferman’s biography of the great logician Alfred Tarski, which described Tarski’s writing of an article for Scientific American (the only popular article he ever wrote).
Usually the Scientific American articles are heavily edited; many are rewriteen and some even ghostwritten, but Wisnovsky [Tarski's editor] knew better than to tamper with Tarski’s work and did not — except for his usage of ‘which’ and ‘that’. It seemed to him that Tarski did a 180-degree reversal of these words, so he changed every ‘which’ to ‘that’ and every ‘that’ to ‘which’ and sent the proofs to Tarski, who changed everything back to the way it had been. Wisnovsky got out Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, the house bible, and called Tarski on the telephone. “I asked if I could read him the relevant passage on ‘that’ and ‘which’ and he said, ‘yes’. It goes on for pages, but he listened very patiently until I finished. Then he said, ‘Well, you see, that is Fowler. I am Tarski.’ The minute he said that I caved in. I felt cut off at the knees and I gave up trying to make any changes at all.”
Yet, while the “Tarski approach” to magazine writing is a tempting one, here’s the final irony. I looked up Tarski’s actual article from 1969, and it badly needed an editor.