Essentials of complexity-theoretic stand-up comedy

Recently someone asked me how to give funnier talks.  My first response was to recoil at such an insolent question: doesn’t everyone know that at the core of my shtick lies a unique and ineffable je ne sais quoi that can’t be packaged, bottled, or resold?  But the truth was not that I couldn’t give advice; it’s that I didn’t want to.  For if everyone knew how easy it was to keep an audience at least half-awake, how would people like me maintain their edge?  By proving better theorems?  Having something new and relevant and say?  These questions answer themselves.

But because I love you, my readers, so deeply, and because I feel guilty about abandoning you for so long, I shall now publicly deconstruct the main ingredients of seminar humor, insofar as I’ve been able to find them.  (A few ingredients are specific to theoretical computer science, but most are more general.)

  1. Make fun of people in the audience.  (Of course, you have to do it in such a way that they’re flattered you’re ripping them and not someone else.)
  2. Ridicule bogus claims related to your topic, particularly claims that received wide currency in the popular press.  (To be honest, I do this not so much because it gets laughs—though it does—but as a small service to humanity.  If I can make one budding crackpot think twice before hitting “Submit” on a disproof of Bell’s Theorem, I will not have lived in vain.  Of course, the ridicule should always focus more on ideas than people; and even then, a few in the audience will frown on it, considering it unscientific or unprofessional.  Forty or fifty crackpots ago, I agreed with them.  It’s only experience that hardened me into a vigilante.)
  3. Incorporate the audience’s shared experiences into your talk (without making a big deal of it, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world).  For example, when it comes time to trot out an Alice/Bob scenario, have yours wryly comment on a previous talk, an excursion everyone went on, a current event (like an election) that everyone actually cares about more than the talk…
  4. Self-deprecate.  (“My first conjecture was falsified.  The following conjecture hasn’t yet been falsified, and is obviously true…”)
  5. Say things that recognize and comment on how neurotic the thought-process of theoretical computer scientists really is, by taking that thought-process to extremes.  (“That’s off by a factor of 1010^120, which is only O(1) and is therefore irrelevant.” “For years, people tried unsuccessfully to prove this sort of impossibility result was impossible.  Our result shows the impossibility of their goal.”)
  6. If your field is interdisciplinary, the humor potential is almost limitless.  Are you a physicist?  Ridicule the computer scientists.  A computer scientist?  Ridicule the mathematicians.  A mathematician?  Ridicule the economists.  Chances are, enough differences in notation, terminology, assumptions, and underlying goals will arise in the talk to give you a never-ending supply of material.  “Disciplinary humor” is a more refined, intellectual variant of ethnic humor, and is effective for the same reasons.
  7. Explain your results in an unusually vivid or graphic way.  (“If, at the moment of your death, your whole life flashed before you in an instant, and if while you were alive you’d performed suitable quantum computations on your own brain, then you could solve Graph Isomorphism in polynomial time.”)  This type of humor is my absolute favorite: on a plot with laughter volume on one axis and scientific content on the other, it’s way out on the upper-right-hand corner.
  8. If you’re using PowerPoint, take full advantage of its comic potential: wild animations, text that pops up on the screen to question or even flat-out contradict what you’re saying, a punchline at the bottom of the slide that only gets revealed when you press a key, etc.  I love doing this because I have as much time as I need to “precompute” jokes (though I’ll then often elaborate on them extemporaneously).
  9. Banter with the crowd: if someone makes a crack at your expense, always respond, and even escalate the interaction into a “staged fight” (the rest of the audience will love it).  If someone catches you in a mistake, or you don’t know the answer to a question, make a self-deprecating joke that acknowledges the situation even as it wins you sympathy points.
  10. Have high energy!  Loud, lots of moving around, emotion in your voice … like you can’t wait to invite everyone along to the most exciting journey in the history of the universe.  Not only is that good practice in general (at the least, it keeps the audience from falling asleep), it also creates a general atmosphere in which it’s okay to laugh at jokes.
  11. Pause a few beats before the punchline.  (You can get better at this by watching professional comics.)
  12. Experiment!  If a particular joke bombs, drop it from your rotation; if it brings the house down, recycle it in future talks.  Of course, you should drop a joke once it reaches its saturation point, where much of the audience has already heard it in previous talks.  On the other hand, if this particular audience hasn’t yet heard the joke, disregard your own internal sense of its being “tired”: it could go over just as well as the first time, or better.
  13. Steal ideas shamelessly from other speakers.  (I mean their humor techniques, not their results.)  Just as importantly, study the lame jokes other speakers use, so as to avoid them.  (For example, I estimate that 94% of quantum computing talks include a heavy-handed comment about someone or something being “in superposition”; this has not yet gotten a laugh.  Or the talks repeat stories about Feynman, Bohr, etc. that everyone in the audience has already heard a thousand times.)
  14. Tailor your jokes to the audience’s background.  For instance, I have some jokes that work great in the US, but sink in other countries.  Or work on physicists but not computer scientists, or vice versa.
  15. Make jokes about the country you’re visiting.  Of course, this is subject to common sense: I’ve been known to resort to “zed” / “aboot” jokes in Canada, scone / royalty / powdered wig jokes in England, and neutrality / yodeling jokes in Switzerland, but I usually don’t make the first joke that pops into my head when visiting Germany or Austria.
  16. Take risks!  Here’s an Umeshism: if some of your jokes don’t flop, then you’re not being bold enough.  Do things that people can’t believe anyone would actually do in a talk.  Most people seem to operate under the assumption that when they’re giving a talk, they have to be less funny than in regular conversation, when the truth is the opposite.  If something comes into your head that’s funny to you, and it passes the most flimsy and cursory of offensiveness checks … out with it, and worry later about the consequences!

Three final remarks.

First, reading over the list, I can’t help but feel sheepish about how much one can do with such a crude and obvious bag of tricks.

Second, I only wish I applied this crude bag more consistently!  Particularly when I have a new result and I’m excited about the proof, I all too often ignore my own advice and lapse into boringness.  But at least I notice I’m doing it, get annoyed at myself, and resolve to be crasser, less mature, and less professional the next time around.

Third, you might feel that adding shtick to your talks makes you “shallow,” that all that should matter is the content of your results.  In the relatively rare case where you’re addressing experts in your own sub-sub-subfield, that’s probably true: you can drop the funny business and get straight to the point.  In all other cases, I’m almost certain the audience will understand your results better if you incorporate some shtick than if you don’t.  But hey—it’s up to you whether you want to address an ideal Platonic audience (“more lemmas! no irrelevant distractions! yes! harder! faster!”) or the actual flesh-and-blood hairless apes who are dozing off in the seminar room while you speak.

78 Responses to “Essentials of complexity-theoretic stand-up comedy”

  1. Wim vam Dam Says:

    Huzzah for #13! Our field has mightily progressed the past decade, but the superposition/entanglement jokes have gone staler and staler: “This lemma and the main theorem are, as it were,… entangled with each other!” Painful.

  2. NoJoy Says:

    re: #11
    Why are engineers so bad at telling jokes? [no pause] Timing.

  3. Dave Bacon Says:

    Dear younger clown,

    You forgot my favorite: make sure your research is on a topic which is inherently really funny. That way you don’t have to work as hard at the jokes, they will just flow out of the audacity of your choice of topic :)

  4. Russell Says:

    Actually, I don’t think you do need to be as funny as in a real conversation, although that should be your goal. You have two advantages in a theory talk: very low expectations and a captive, bored audience. They will usually be grateful for any crumbs of humor spread through the talk. So I encourage even those who don’t consider themselves witty to make a minimal effort.

    Russell

  5. harrison Says:

    The one thing I’d add that you didn’t mention outright, although it was pretty implicit, is be confident, even when you’re acting self-deprecating and neurotic. People don’t laugh at a genuinely uncertain comedian’s jokes; at best, they’re laughing at the guy himself.

    (At the very least, project confidence at the lowest level. Obviously I can’t say how you was actually feeling at the talks I’ve seen you give, Scott, but you certainly seemed to be sure of yourself — I know I’ve performed scared as hell, but the important thing was that I managed to come across as someone in control.)

  6. John Sidles Says:

    NoJoy’s remark truly captures the essence of engineering humor! :)

    A rule-of-thumb that is widely respected in medicine is don’t joke about serious medical topics. Is your lecture about metastatic (incurable) bone tumors? No jokes, please. Is your lecture about bunions? Jokes are OK … even welcome.

  7. Chris Says:

    I’ve made extensive use of #7 and #10 in the presentation of my undergraduate thesis. Here were some comments from my evaluators (I particularly like the last one):

    – unclear presentation of result, but good enthusiasm.
    – enthusiastic presentation; some problems answering questions but generally good understanding of the problem given the time frame of the work.
    – not good way to present scientific material (this is not an
    entertainment stage);

  8. anonymous Says:

    Any special advice for women? Some of these, like #10, don’t work for women as well.

  9. Amit C Says:

    Anon #8, why shouldn’t Scott’s#10 work? You must not have heard Jeannette Wing give a talk.

  10. gowers Says:

    Re point 13 and tired jokes — if you are reading this, could you please silently promise to yourself that if you are ever going to a seminar and meet the speaker on the way, then you will not say, “Ah, at least I can’t be late then!” or words to that effect. It’s been done. It’s been done. It’s been done. It’s been done. It’s been done. If you must say it, then you should know that anybody over the age of about 28 has heard the remark, and probably made it too, innumerable times, and if they laugh then their laugh is almost certainly faked. (If I’m the speaker, then my laugh won’t be faked because it won’t happen in the first place.)

  11. Jim L. Says:

    I am not sure why this advice doesn’t work well for women. But I don’t think it is good advice in the first place.

    Jokes are fine when they catch the attention because they are particularly appropriate, and when they are novel. But when a joke gets as many rolled eyes as laughs, you are wasting your audience’s time. Jokes about O(1) constants, for example, are only appropriate to first-year CS students who haven’t seen the same joke five hundred times before. Ditto with Swiss neutrality. Humor about the audience, or shared experiences, can at least be slightly less generic.

  12. akk Says:

    To Anonymous: #10 might be even more important for women than for men. As women we’ve been socialized to be more quiet, less outgoing, and it’s easy to put an audience to sleep that way. High energy, enthusiasm and taking command of the room can really hold an audience’s attention and keep them interested in what you’re saying.

  13. milkshake Says:

    Too wussy to offend your Germanic audience? The World is not here to be possessed by the faint-hearted races.

  14. Michael Maxwell Says:

    #9: Dr. Daniel Jackson gives a good illustration of this, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LApMrCt2RJg

  15. wolfgang Says:

    #10: But Scott dont over-do it an become the Bruno of Complexity theory 8-)

  16. Scott Says:

    Wolfgang: Of Sacha Baron Cohen’s three alter egos, I’d say I’m closest to Borat (though admittedly, I’m not particularly close to any of them :-) )

  17. Charlie Stromeyer Says:

    Between seminars/talks, I enjoy trying to think of nerdy pickup lines, and the more nerdy and obscure the better. Here are two I just thought of from physics:

    Hey, maybe our two different vacua could form a kink solution.

    Hey, let’s lie down in a general scalar field so that I can feel the gradient of your physical quantities.

    But can we come up with a pickup line that is so obscure that no one could possibly be offended by it? (Perhaps there is some impossibility theorem that prevents doing this without resorting to total solipsism).

  18. Scott Says:

    Any special advice for women? Some of these, like #10, don’t work for women as well.

    anonymous, that’s an extremely interesting question! Much like in theoretical computer science, there are way fewer female than male comedians, but on the other hand, many of the ones you do get are extraordinary. When I think about successful female comics (Sarah Silverman, Samantha Bee, or even the funniest women in my personal circle of friends), much of their humor seems to play off the contrast between their innocent, demure countenances and the vile trash that comes out of their mouths. But while I’m sure it’s possible, I’m not sure how to exploit that effect in the setting of a research talk! :-)

    Shafi Goldwasser’s Athena lecture at STOC was both high-energy and extremely funny (not least because of her ironic commentary about getting a “women’s award,” like using pink fonts). Dorit Aharonov, Barbara Terhal, Yael Kalai, Jennifer Chayes, and probably others who I’m forgetting all have the “high-energy” part down, and could incorporate any of the comedy tricks I listed with minimal effort.

  19. Jenny Harrison Says:

    Hi Scott,

    It was nice to meet you last week in the Azores. I see now why I enjoyed your talk so much. However, I would go easy with #2. Public castigation of real people is not only cruel, but can be a two edged sword, especially if they turn out to be correct.

  20. Scott Says:

    Jenny, it was nice to meet you as well!

    Obviously, I’d never publicly castigate someone for a simple error; I’d only do so after attempts to reason with that person ran up against a brick wall of pompous obstinacy. Also, when I criticize a crackpot claim (like NP-complete problems being efficiently solvable using soap bubbles, or quantum mechanics or Bell’s Theorem being disproved), the risk of its turning out correct is one I’m very much willing to take. :-)

  21. Qiaochu Yuan Says:

    #10 is to me a universal requirement of a good talk, not necessarily even a funny one. If you don’t sound like you care about your subject, how can you expect anyone listening to?

    Then again, I’ve been told more than once that my talks are energetic but incomprehensible…

  22. Scott Says:

    You have two advantages in a theory talk: very low expectations and a captive, bored audience. They will usually be grateful for any crumbs of humor spread through the talk.

    Thanks, Russell! That’s a crucial point, which I should have made explicit but didn’t.

  23. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Bell’s Theorem being disproved

    Disproving Bell’s inequality seems like a particularly tall order.

    But hey, maybe we should hedge our bets, and not just with Bell’s result. Has anyone looked for a counterexample to the Cauchy-Schwarz inequality?

  24. Scott Says:

    Some context, Greg: I just came from an FQXi workshop in the Azores, where Joy Christian gave a talk about his “disproof of Bell’s inequality” (about which he’s written numerous arXiv preprints). Not surprisingly, what he turns out to mean (though he refuses to say it this clearly) is that he doesn’t like Bell’s definition of “local realism,” and prefers a broader definition that encompasses QM by construction. In my opinion, even this weaker position is perverse: Bell’s definition is a perfectly natural one, amounting to nothing more or less than classical shared randomness.

    But I tried to explain to people why claiming to have disproved a theorem, as Christian does, is in any event completely insane: at most you can argue that the underlying assumptions are foolish. To my horror (but not, alas, my surprise), many of the physicists disagreed with me: to them, talking about “disproving a theorem” seemed like a perfectly acceptable use of language.

  25. Pakcomic Says:

    If you want to hear how great technical standup comedy talk should be done, I would recommend attending one of the “Power of Procrastination” talks by Jorge Cham of phdcomics.com. There are also some other “comedians” doing great science/engineering humor with Powerpoint…check out TechnicallyFunny.com or sciencecomedian.com, although its geared more to the general public.

    By the way…I’m a Physicist and a Standup. The mistake I always make is # 14 – Know your crowd. I once had to do a show for low temperature physicists, that crowd was so cold it felt like a Bose-Einstein condensate :-)

  26. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Scott: For physicists, FQXi is evidently an invitation to behave badly. Whereas for mathematicians (and theorem-minded computer scientists), it’s an invitation to do stand-up comedy. It may come to the same thing!

    And for scientists of any kind, Templeton and his son would want FQXi to be an invitation to find God. But do they get takers?

  27. Jair Says:

    This is some good advice – not just for talks, but books too! Obviously you don’t want to go overboard on the dumb jokes in published material, but so many math books I read are so dry that I get the impression the author has no enthusiasm for the topic whatsoever. Or maybe they just have such religious respect for the material that any aside seems irreverent to them.

    Also, I think livening up lectures is many times more important when the class is at a lower level. Pre-calculus or algebra students can be very intimidated by math and so if you can turn a mathematical idea into something funny that they can relate to they will appreciate it.

  28. Daniel Says:

    A cheap way of grabbing the attention of the audience is to include nice photos and pictures that are related somehow to the concepts or the terminology you present. For example, in these slides, among other abuses of this technique, I use the garbage compactor scene from Star Wars to illustrate “iterative compression”:

    http://www.cs.bme.hu/~dmarx/papers/marx-agape09-slides.pdf

  29. ano nym Says:

    >> to them, talking about “disproving a theorem” seemed like a perfectly acceptable use of language

    Scott, if you have a problem with that, it just shows that you have never heard of Goedel’s famous result: All theorems are either incomplete or contain a contradiction.

    I’m kidding, I’m kidding – just practising my own standup routine.

  30. Dave Bacon Says:

    “Bell’s definition is a perfectly natural one, amounting to nothing more or less than classical shared randomness.”

    Would you say this if you were a quantum computer? I love Bell, but to play the devil’s advocate (how come no one says “play the God’s advocate?”) “natural” is a matter of perspective. If you saw quantum probability as the proper way to model you everyday life, then classical shared randomness would be a weak assumption. Just sayin, cus, you know, this thread needs more random discussion of hidden variable theories (I’ve got a new one which is great fun but alas I’m too dumb to understand its computational power.)

  31. Geordie Says:

    During the canonization process of the Roman Catholic Church, the Promoter of the Faith (Latin: Promotor Fidei), popularly known as the Devil’s Advocate (Latin: advocatus diaboli), is a canon lawyer appointed by Church authorities to argue against the canonization of the candidate.

  32. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Would you say this if you were a quantum computer?

    Quantum probability (which is to say, non-commutative probability) is a completely nailed down, rigorous mathematical theory. Classical probability is another one. Bell’s theorem is (one version of) the theorem that quantum probability cannot be embedded in classical probability in a way that respects locality. In more abstract jargon, both models are tensor categories, and the tensor structure is the locality structure.

    There is a good time and a bad time to play devil’s advocate. It’s irritating when people play devil’s advocate in response to the rigorous statement of a theorem. It could be great to play devil’s advocate in discussing the significance of a theorem, but debating the statement of a valid theorem is just a way to get less done. Who enjoys conversations like this:

    Alice: Here a chart of the ASCII code.
    Bob: I’d like to play devil’s advocate.

    Okay, it may work as stand-up comedy. Actually I don’t mean to criticize Dave Bacon’s point either. Yes it is true, and very important, that shared entanglement is nothing more than a quantum computer’s version of shared randomness. Quantum “nonlocality” isn’t really nonlocality. Rather, it’s Bell’s result that quantum locality is classically nonlocal.

    But as for Joy Christian’s talk title, I agree with Scott: The word “disproof” here is extremely lame.

  33. Dave Bacon Says:

    And here you would think the Quantum Pontiff would know the origin of “Devil’s advocate.” Bested by Kuperberg again.

  34. Dave Bacon Says:

    Oh it was Geordie who bested me. Sorry for the spam Scott I’ll go back to my hole now.

  35. Scott Says:

    Dave: It might be hard for classical beings to learn quantum concepts, but I doubt the converse would be the case—since even to do QM you need classical concepts at the end of the day (I apply this Hamiltonian, measure in that basis…). So if I were a quantum computer, in between bouts of factoring and solving Pell’s equation I don’t think I’d have any trouble understanding Bell’s theorem or its importance.

  36. Dave Bacon Says:

    No doubt “ease of understanding” goes down the crazy physical theory ladder. Quantum computers can understand classical computers can understand finite automata. But once you’ve achieved the Nirvana of being a quantum computer, the assumption of the model below you no longer seem “natural.” Having seem the light of Turing Machines, do Context Free Grammars seem natural?

    Let me try to be more constructive and less obtuse. Are there models of the universe which are not themselves classical, but which lead to the idea that shared classical randomness is the proper criteria in a Bell experiment? (The proper criteria being defined by what the creature in the crazy universe experiences, not, of course, by the actual laws themselves.)

  37. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Are there models of the universe which are not themselves classical, but which lead to the idea that shared classical randomness is the proper criteria in a Bell experiment?

    I’m not exactly sure what “lead to” means, but I think that the answer is yes. Namely, a quantum computer certainly can recognize a commutative sub-universe as a natural special case. And within that Bell-type inequalities would certainly be satisfied.

  38. Chris Says:

    Humor, god, and Bell’s theorem all go quite naturally together. I’m imagining this comic: http://www.atheistcartoons.com/?attachment_id=1074. Replace the first panel with “I believe in Bell’s theorem” and the second-to-last panel with “therefore the moon is not there when nobody looks”.

  39. Charlie Stromeyer Says:

    Scott, I’m willing to bet you actual money that the first sufficiently robust quantum computers won’t be able to correctly understand various quantum concepts such as these three (but perhaps you mean something different?):

    1) The origin of quantum-mechanical wave/particle duality for fermions?

    2) The origin of quantized non-abelian Berry phase (geometric phase)?

    3) The reason why the wavefunction in QM is fundamentally non-seqential rather than sequential?

    Also, IIRC, back in 2006, three Harvard University physicists did an experiment showing that at least one aspect of QED is accurate to 1 part in 1 trillion!

    Note that the genius Feynman who won the Nobel prize for his work on QED also spent a large amount of time acting the clown/fool, and so perhaps we are aiming in the right direction!

  40. Peter Morgan Says:

    Not all classical models satisfy all the assumptions required to derive Bell inequalities. Specifically, a continuous random field at finite temperature [and/or in the presence of nontrivial quantum fluctuations, which are Lorentz invariant, and hence distinct from thermal fluctuations] does not. A continuous random field can be understood as a classical analogue of a quantum field. See J. Phys. A 39 (2006) 7441-7455, “Bell inequalities for random fields” (or arXiv:cond-mat/0403692).

    If one is to allow quantum physics to resort to fields to ensure empirical adequacy, presumably one might also allow classical physics to resort to fields (though a discrete computational viewpoint doesn’t much encourage it).

  41. John Sidles Says:

    Dave Bacon asks: Are there models of the universe which are not themselves classical, but which lead to the idea that shared classical randomness is the proper criteria in a Bell experiment?

    Dave, if we take the continuum limit of your question (continuous measurements as contrasted with discrete measurements), then we obtain an interesting mathematical question, namely: What is the most natural mathematical lift of the Lindblad-Choi invariance from its “natural” home on vector spaces, for example—per Section 8.2 of Nielsen and Chuang—to a (local?) invariance on (Kählerian?) manifolds.

    The point being, that since the Lindblad-Choi invariance is at the heart of the “mysteriousness” of Bell experiments, perhaps if we generalized the Lindblad-Choi invariance then we might hope to similarly generalize the Bell experiments.

    Of all the fundamental invariances of physics, the Lindblad-Choi invariance has been among the least explored with respect to mathematical generalization. This barrier is partly psychological: because we first learn quantum mechanics as a vector space theory, it can be challenging to conceive it (later on) in broader mathematical contexts.

  42. Daniel de França MTd2 Says:

    Does this counter proof to bells theorem is in fact a kind of loop hole similar to use supersymmetry to get around Coleman Mandula theorem?

  43. Charlie Stromeyer Says:

    When I studied neuroscience at Oberlin College and when I worked in neuroscience at Harvard University, I would sometimes wish that someone would study quantum neuroscience in at least a quasi-legitimate way.

    Now, a reputable biophysics journal has published the best article on this topic so far which is about possible quantum phenomena in the brains of migratory birds:

    http://www.cell.com/biophysj/abstract/S0006-3495(09)00777-2

    There is now a new field of quantum biological systems, but so far I have not seen any evidence for bio-quantum computers.

  44. John Sidles Says:

    Wow! Nice link by Charlie Stroymeyer!

    It seems that this thread is undergoing a humor-to-physics phase transition … and so I’ll post a couple of thoughts relating to math/physics that were inspired by last week’s FOMMS Conference (Foundations of Molecular Modeling and Simulation) here in the Pacific Northwest.

    First let me say, FOMMS was a *very* lively conference. None of the attendees were daunted by the undoubted NP-hard algorithmic difficulty of simulating quantum systems … instead the prevailing assumption was (to quote a speaker) “Everything we can observe, we can simulate.”

    Now, if we think about this speaker’s claim from a quantum informatic point of view, we see that there is nothing heretical about it. It’s true that we can’t (efficiently) simulate quantum computers … but on the other hand, we can’t observe them working either!

    In contrast to quantum computers, biomolecular and electronic systems function in a hot-and-noisy world … which is (quantum-equivalently) observing them all the time … and so it’s perfectly consistent with quantum orthodoxy to postulate that these systems can (generically) be simulated with classical resources. And this principle even extends to zero-temperature systems … `cuz duh, how did they get to zero temperature? … well, if they got there by contact with a thermal reservoir, then they can (in principle) be simulated efficiently. Surely it can’t hurt to try! That’s the working assumption of the FOMMS community, anyway.

    Of course, efficient quantum simulation in practice is much harder than efficient quantum simulation in principle. But here too, the FOMMS attendees are making tremendous progress. It was striking that the FOMMS community is well-up-to-speed on abstract geometric descriptions of state-spaces … unsurprisingly, because even classical models of molecular dynamics have symplectic integrators at their heart.

    Accurate modeling of noise (both classical and quantum) turned out to be very important to FOMMS researchers, for a reason that I had not appreciated: this is the path by which thermodynamic quantities (like free energy) are computed.

    This sets the stage for a striking mathematical intersection of practical molecular modeling with string theory (and more broadly, with geometric quantization theory). Namely, every quantum molecular model (perforce) pulls back the orthodox Lindblad-Choi model of quantum measurement and noise onto a lower-dimension (and in general nonlinear) state-space.

    This pullback necessary entails some deformation of the Lindblad-Choi structure … and in consequence, today’s practical molecular modeling codes are increasingly embodying (mathematically) many of the same geometric ideas of quantum deformation theory that the string theorists use.

    So if anyone can point to accessible articles on quantum deformation of the Lindblad-Chao invariance theorems … there is a broad community of molecular modelers who might be *very* interested. I’ll be giving talks on this topic at next month’s Kavli Conference on Molecular Imaging, and would greatly enjoy talking with anyone else who is interested in the deformation theory of quantum information.

  45. Charlie Stromeyer Says:

    Hi, John. I will think about what you say about deformation. In the meantime, a professor of physical (quantum) chemistry at Harvard University named Alan Aspuru-Guzik told me that he just attended this legitimate workshop about quantum effects in biological systems:

    http://sqig.math.ist.utl.pt/lqcil/quebs09/home/

    If you look at the abstracts of the talks here do they have any relevance for molecular imaging? Thanks.

  46. John Sidles Says:

    Charlie Stromeyer asks (in effect): What does quantum microscopy have to do with quantum biology?

    That is a great question … at the FOMMS conference I spend considerable time talking about precisely this topic with Roel Sanchez-Carrera (who is a post-doc in the Aspuru-Guzik group).

    At FOMMS everyone is interested in ramping-up the power of quantum simulation. The emerging hope/consensus (according to David Baker) is that given a coarse-grained initial guess at a biomolecular structure (say coordinates within 0.5 nanometer (?) or so), the most recent generation of molecular simulation codes can do an excellent job of refining the structure to atomic resolution and (more important!) do a pretty good job of predicting the resulting dynamics.

    Conversely, at the August Kavli Conference at Cornell, the quantum spin microscopy community is interested in ramping-down quantum spin-imaging resolution to precisely the scales where the FOMMS modeling codes can take over.

    The prospect of achieving this link-up between molecular microscopy and molecular simulation has people at both conferences pretty excited, because it would open-up the world’s structural biome to comprehensive survey in much the same way that sequencing opened up the genome. It is interesting that pretty much all the information of such a structural survey would arrive over information channels that are explicitly quantum … and so this would be the first planetary-scale enterprise to have a quantum informatic basis.

    There’s also a strengthening mathematical alliance between the quantum molecular modelers and the quantum spin microscopists, namely, we use pretty much the same codes/algorithms and the same (abstract!) geometric frameworks. This link-up is a main theme of both my FOMMS poster and next month’s Kavli workshop on large-scale quantum spin simulation algorithms.

    My present impression is that our two communities are using overlapping sets of algorithms and disjoint sets of computer codes. :)

  47. proaonuiq Says:

    Anyone interested in the use of quantum effects at the biological and neuromental levels can see Paul Davies article Quantum life in the latest issue of Physics World.

    Any evidence of the use of these effects at any of these levels will change my opinion about the possibility of quantum computing (i.e the use of quantum effects at the sociocultural level) and about the status of QM as a fundamental definite theory. I bet i will not change my opinion (not soon, never). And i´m not joking…

  48. John Sidles Says:

    proaonuiq says: Any evidence of the use of these [quantum[ effects at any of these levels will change my opinion about the possibility of quantum computing …

    I dunno … it sure seemed to me that Davies’ article was well-conceived (and well-written too). For example, Davies quotes 10^-13 seconds as a typical quantum bio-decoherence timescale … this corresponds to an equivalent temperature of 80 Kelvin … which seems perfectly reasonable for structural decoherence.

    On the other hand, nuclear spin decoherence timescales in liquids can be of order seconds — precisely because these spin states are well-isolated from the local thermal bath … which makes spin states perfect for sensing and imaging … with imaging and sensing being two sides of the same quantum informatic coin! Again it sure seems to me that Davies explains this very clearly.

    And since we humans use spin states for bioimaging all the time, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised if nature uses these same states for the equivalent purpose of sensing?

    Finally, there are electron conduction-band states — which (as Davies says) occupy a less-well-understood middle ground of decoherence.

    Bottom line: quantum coherence in biomolecules is absolutely essential for bio-sensing and bio-imaging, and is presumably important for energy transfer processes, and perhaps is not so important for structural dynamics.

    The idea that a system isn’t “really” quantum until it occupies a large-dimension state-space seems too restrictive to me … by my lights (and Davies’ too) biological systems are ubiquitously quantum … quantum effects that are no less subtle for being low-dimension.

  49. Charlie Stromeyer Says:

    A brilliant mathematician alerted me to this paper which I have not read yet about a possible QFT approach to modeling brain waves:

    http://arxiv.org/abs/0802.3854

    Also, do you suppose that this nanobiotechnology for magnetic control of cells might be relevant for quantum biology (if quantum biology is somehow real):

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/01/080108183025.htm

  50. John Sidles Says:

    Charlie Stromeyer remarks: … if quantum biology is somehow real …

    Charlie, isn’t it pretty well-established, already, that quantum biology precisely as “real” as quantum chemistry? Which is to say, quantum biology is perfectly real?

    For QIT folks, a much better-posed question is: “What are some of the roles played by quantum coherence in biology?”

    To which three well-established answers are: “Quantum coherence plays a modest role in ‘hot & wet’ biomolecular dynamics; plays a major role in biomolecular energy transfer and catalysis processes; plays a starring role in biomolecular sensing processes and in quantum spin microscopy.”

    When it comes to murkier questions like: “What is consciousness and how does it work? What is the state-space of the universe and what are its dynamics?” … it appears (to most people) that at present we don’t even know how to ask these questions in a well-posed way, much less answer them … which makes applications of quantum mechanical formalisms to these questions dubious at best … which is why Paul Davies’ article (IMHO) deserves plenty of credit for not trying to suggest answers these questions. :)

  51. John Sidles Says:

    … and to continue the above post, a perfectly reasonable question to ask (which is stimulated by today’s The Onion) is this: “Isn’t a sustained focus on well-posed QIT/QIS questions that have important practical applications tremendously boring?”

    Well … yes.

    But fortunately, the kernels of subversive mathematical ideas can be found in even the most prosaic QIT/QSE applications.

    To appreciate how this works, we imagine a classical engineer simulating 2D Newtonian-Euclidean dynamics on a computer having a very short floating-point word length — say 16-bit words. Solely to avoid numerical overflow, the engineer might choose to integrate trajectories using Euler-angle coordinates.

    Of course, the resulting simulated state-space would have a “deformed” non-Euclidean geometry … but for many purposes (short-distance navigation, for example), the dynamical effects of simulation deformation would be small. And since the simulation code runs fast, without memory overflow, the programmer is happy.

    The really interesting/transgressive mathematical questions—which might not even occur to the programmer—are questions like: (a) how can this deformation be mathematically generalized? (b) could such deformations occur in the real world?

    Much the same thing happens in practical quantum simulations. It is computationally advantageous to program on low-dimension quantum state-spaces. It’s true that both the quantum state-space geometry and the quantum dynamical equations are deformed—which from an orthodox point-of-view is undesirable—but for broad classes of system (e.g., hot & wet … cold & damped … observed & controlled … etc.) the errors induced by simulation deformation are negligible.

    The enjoyably transgressive aspect of quantum systems engineering arises when we ask: (a) How can quantum simulation deformations be mathematically generalized? (b) Could such quantum deformations be the natural laws of the real world?

    These questions guide quantum systems engineering students to the same wonderful mathematical paradise in which the string theorists and quantum geometers already live. :)

  52. proaonuiq Says:

    John, i agree that the article is good. So good that only using Paul Davies quotes i can make my point (the quotes might be in a different order as they appear in Davies article; the sentences between Davies quotes are mine):

    QM as an advantage…

    “Physicists are familiar with the fact that discreteness, quantum tunnelling, superposition and entanglement produce novel and unexpected phenomena”…”Given that the basic processes of biology take place at a molecular level, harnessing quantum effects does not seem a priori implausible”.

    …if some obstacles were avoided:

    “Although at least some of these examples add up to a prima facie case for quantum mechanics playing a role in biology, they all confront a serious and fundamental problem. Effects like coherence, entanglement and superposition can be maintained only if the quantum system avoids decoherence caused by interactions with its environment”….”Only so long as decoherence can be kept at bay will explicitly quantum effects persist. The claims of quantum biology therefore stand or fall on the precise decoherence timescale. If a system decoheres too fast, then it will classicalize before anything of biochemical or biological interest happens.”

    …and if we knew more about QM they might be avoided…

    …”However, there are reasons why real biological systems might be less susceptible to decoherence than simplistic models predict. One is that biological organisms are highly non-linear, open, driven systems that operate away from thermodynamic equilibrium. The physics of such systems is not well understood and could conceal novel quantum properties that life has discovered before we have”.

    My conclusion (using davies words)…

    “Unfortunately, biological systems are so complex that it is hard to separate “pure” quantum effects from the shifting melee of essentially classical processes that are also present. There is thus plenty of scope for disagreement about the extent to which life utilizes non-trivial quantum processes”.

    I´ve not read nor in Davies article nor in your interesting comments anything conclusive about this. And my bet is that if any conclusive research appeared in this matter it would be in the other direction (non-trivial quantum processes plays no role at these levels). If we need new and complex knowledege about an almost centenarian theory (QM) for explaining old phenomenons…it might be better change the theory !

  53. John Sidles Says:

    Proaonuiq, I don’t disagree with your comments … I just put a different emphasis on them.

    As Richard Feynman says in quite a few places, “We are struck by the very large number of different physical viewpoints and widely different mathematical formulations [of quantum mechanics] that are all equivalent to one another.”

    It is perfectly feasible, for example, to formulate a quantum mechanics framework that very closely resembles the (symplectic/stochastic/informatic) mechanics of modern molecular mechanics, as presented for example in Arnol’d’s classic Mathematical Methods of Classical Mechanics and more recently by Frenkel & Smit’s excellent Understanding Molecular Simulation : from Algorithms to Applications.

    IMHO, no QIT/QIS researcher should underestimate the sophistication and power of these modern large-scale classical simulation frameworks. To use a favorite phrase of Feynman, these frameworks are terrific! :)

    We can ask, how much do we have to extend these modern-classical frameworks to encompass (say) the quantum physics of chapters 2 & 8 of Nielsen and Chuang? The answer is simple: “Not very much!”

    The minimality of this classical-to-quantum extension was the theme of our UW QSE Group’s FOMMS Poster and will be the theme of the tutorials at this August’s Kavli Workshop on Molecular Imaging.

    The point is that we don’t have to wait for some future Feynman-esque world in which we observe and simulate biological systems using powerful quantum-based technologies and mathematical/computational frameworks … because we already live in that world. :)

  54. Charlie Stromeyer Says:

    I don’t have a problem with the possibility of quantum coherence in biological systems or for quantum computation, but physics Professor Joseph Eberly correctly predicted the existence of ESD (entanglement sudden death) which seems quite common in Nature, thus perhaps ruling out widespread occurrence of quantum entanglement?

    See: “Sudden Death of Entanglement” by T. Yu and J.H. Eberly in Science v323(5914) pp.598-601.

  55. John Sidles Says:

    Charlie, my intuitions about quantum entanglement are somewhat different from yours … my intuitions are closely aligned with framework adopted by the geometric quantum mechanics community … this framework is well-summed-up in a 1997 review article by Ashtekar and Schilling (available on the arxiv server) titled Geometrical Formulation of Quantum Mechanics:

    The geometric formulation shows that the linear structure which is at the forefront in text-book treatments of quantum mechanics is, primarily, only a technical convenience and the essential ingredients—the manifold of states, the symplectic structure and the Riemannian metric—do not share this linearity. … Have we been restricting our attention only to the most elementary of viable theories? … Also, even in the finite-dimensional case, we do not know if there exist any Kähler manifolds other than projective Hilbert spaces for which a satisfactory measurement theory can be developed. Even isolated examples of such manifolds would be very illuminating

    In the decade since Ashtekar and Schilling wrote their review, tremendous progress in geometric quantum mechanics has come from a source that many physicists would perhaps regard as unlikely—the quantum biologists!

    In particular, without worrying too much about elegant mathematical abstractions, the biologists have simply gone ahead and “deformed” orthodox quantum measurement theory to fit onto their K¨hlerian code-spaces.

    Thus, in order to pursue Ashtekar and Schilling’s program of deforming measurement theory, it is only necessary to translate the language of large-scale biological simulation into the language of differential geometry and quantum information theory (and this can be done on a single page).

    And oh yeah … then we try to figure out what it all means! And this illogical progression—first we do the calculations, then we figure out the meaning—is one of the most enjoyable processes in mathematics and science. :)

    In particular, this non-vector-space approach to quantum mechanics evades one of the least attractive (IMHO) aspects of entanglement theory: the fact that the entanglement property is NP-complete to calculate. Because it is only the linearity of QM that associates this unfortunate property with entanglement … the (physically more essential) complex, symplectic, and Riemannian structures of QM do not demand it.

    This provides a solid informatic rationale for dropping the linearity postulate from QM — on the dual grounds that (1) the linearity postulate forces no-fun mathematics upon us, and (2) in practical calculations, we don’t really need it! :)

  56. proaonuiq Says:

    John, your vision is an engineer´s one, fully satisfied with effective approximations (such as the possibility of simulate classical MM by QM as you point), and that´s a perfectly legitimate position…but does not satisfy a “fundamentalist” like me.

    “Regular” physical phenomenons have been fully explored, progress can only come by going to the extremes of the physical level wich is becoming more and more costly and dificult (i.e. high energy experiments at CERN (BTW have you seen last Weinberg talk there ?))…and we can not decide wich is the correct physical theory (at a fundamental level).

    Why not looking instead at higher levels from a fundamental perspective ? What do we see there ? What must be explained there ? At the biological level biological invariants such as duplication of the unit of life (the cell) or the 4-letteres code (the sceptic: are they invariants at all ?).
    My question is: how does avalaible physical theories such as QM, tailored for other purposes, do explain such invariants ? Why do not forget philosophy (i.e.anthropic principle discusions) and try to explain reality (i.e. what i call biological invariants)…maybe this will help to decide!

  57. John Sidles Says:

    Proaonuiq says: … your vision is an engineer´s one

    Proaonuiq, your judgment is acutely accurate. And yet history teaches us to appreciate the potentialities of engineering vision! :)

    In point of fact, I have just came from a discussion with members of David Baker’s group, at which the topic was establishing a “link-up”—in the full-spectrum sense of a math, physics, engineering, and applications link-up—between the Baker Group’s simulation-based structuralist vision of biology, and our QSE Group’s QIT-based vision of quantum spin biomicroscopy.

    As for this being an engineering vision, well … definitely it is… and if memory serves … didn’t Wigner, von Neumann, Pauling … and Gauss, Poincare, and Wittgenstein … and (to respect Scott’s topic of humor) Joseph Heller! … didn’t these people all train and/or work as engineers?

    These examples suggest (IMHO) that engineering research in quantum information theory very plausibly may help to catalyze useful mathematical insights.

    My own feeling is that Lindblad-Choi invariance (as geometrically deformed and algebraically optimized in simulation codes) is one of the areas where practical engineering applications can point to new math/physics insights—just as Gauss’ practical surveying program pointed him toward the geometric insights of the Theorema Egregium.

  58. rrtucci Says:

    John Sidles, you keep on saying that Ashtekar’s work (and therefore yours) uses the tools of String Theory. That’s not true. Ashtekar does Loop Quantum Gravity, which has very little to do with String Theory, and is considered by 99.9% of String Theorists to be a failure as a theory of quantum gravity (although the math is nice).

  59. John Sidles Says:

    Rtucci, your argument is strictly true in the physics sense, but (IMHO) it definitely is not broadly true in the mathematical sense.

    One way to see this is to compare the mathematical topics covered in Patricia Schwarz’ String Theory Mathematics Guide and Syllabus with the mathematical topics that are covered in modern textbooks on (classical state-space) simulation, for example, V. I. Arnol’d’s Mathematical methods of classical mechanics and Frenkel and Smits Understanding Molecular Simulation.

    The degree of congruity in these respective syllabi is very impressive (to me) … it seems perfectly clear that a course of mathematical preparation for research in string theory is very good preparation for research in simulation theory … and vice versa of course! :)

    What is strikingly missing from both syllabi are in-depth applications of information theory. Here (arguably) the simulation syllabus does somewhat better than the string theory syllabus, in consequence of the in-depth coverage of thermodynamic and entropic principles.

    A cogent mathematical critique of Arnol’d’s work in particular, and (by implication) the modern literature on simulation theory, comes from Sergei Novikov’s review The role of integrable models in the development of mathematics. Novikov asserts:

    Arnol’d himself wrote a brilliant book on mathematical understanding of classical mechanics. I would honestly say that I do not like that book, because he completely reconstructed the ideology. The book of Landau and his school was just a starting point to develop a great science; it contained many initial points allowing further progress. In Arnol’d’s reconstruction, the mathematics is, of course, much better—it is a very good book for pure mathematicians—but starting points for future research areas are missing. People who read Arnol’d’s book arrive at an endpoint.

    My reading of the Frankel and Smits textbook—and also, the work of Ashtekar and Schilling on geometric quantization—is that it constitutes a very good response to Novikov’s criticism of Arnol’d’s school.

    Modern simulation theory (it seems to me) has arrived at a starting point at which the tools of classical simulation are no longer mathematically distinct from those of quantum simulation, and the opportunities for further fundamental research are as unbounded as the opportunities for practical application.

    Definitely, this is an engineering point-of-view. Because from an engineering point-of-view, hotly debated questions like “Which theory is correct, string theory or loop quantum gravity?” are of only marginal interest relative to the vast mathematical scope of the vistas that are opening-up in simulation theory, and also, for many hundreds of millions of people, “the more immediate and terribly pressing concerns of where their next mouthful of food will come from, where they will find shelter tonight, and where they will find warmth from the cold of winter.”

    The bottom line is that (from my personal point-of-view) the relative correctness of string-theory versus loop-theory is interesting, but not nearly as interesting (or urgent) as the application of these powerful mathematical tools to the immense practical problems of our century.

    Everyone takes an interest in job creation and enterprise … what distinguishes the engineering point-of-view is mostly the scale of the job creation and enterprise. Because if we’re not thinking of creating hundreds of millions of jobs, we’re thinking too small. :)

  60. Charlie Stromeyer Says:

    rrtucci and John, I thought about applying string theory ideas to engineering first back in 1996, and now it appears that another researcher at Harvard University is making some progress on this notion:

    http://groups.google.com/group/sci.physics.research/browse_thread/thread/037eec85c0fab51f#

    If for some reason this link does not work then see the discussion thread entitled “String theory (holography) –> HTc superconductivity” on the moderated usenet and Google group sci.physics.research

  61. John Sidles Says:

    Thank you for that link, Charlie!

    And to respond also to those who hunger (like Proaonuiq, and me too) for insights into “the correct physical theory at a fundamental level”, it turns out that the “spookiness” of quantum mechanics (the spukhafte Fernwirkungen in the original phrase) has a pretty good mathematical explanation in the language of biological simulation.

    The explanation goes like this:

    Any fundamental theory of nature has to account for conservation laws and thermodynamic laws; the appropriate mathematical framework for ensuring these properties is—as every computational biologist knows—a symplectic structure on the phase space.

    Classical symplectic structures live on a {p,q} bundle manifold, but this manifold lacks a natural metric structure, `cuz duh, position and momentum have different physical units. To fix this, we introduce a physical constant (Planck’s constant) that endows our state-space with a natural metric and a natural symplectic structure.

    Of course, from a metric structure and a symplectic structure we can construct a complex structure, and (by definition) a manifold having all three structures is a Kähler manifold—and so now we understand why all fundamental physical theories have a Kählerian state-space.

    Given a Kählerian state-space, the “spooky” quantum properties of randomness and action-at-a-distance then follow naturally from thermodynamics. Namely, for macroscopic systems there are so many possible data records of any (continuous) measurement process, or (equivalently) so many thermodynamically accessible micro-states, that a detailed accounting of any data record and/or any micro-state is necessarily random, as follows from the Kolmogorov-Chaitin theory of randomness.

    Thus, any fundamental theory that respects conservation laws and thermodynamic principles lives (necessarily?) on a Kählerian state-space that exhibits the “spooky” properties of randomness, compressive measurement, and action at-a-distance.”

    Of course, there are numerous other (equivalent & perfectly valid) ways to think about quantum spukhafte Fernwirkungen—the above explanation just happens to be particularly accessible and congenial to the computational biology community.

    As in any good explanation of quantum mechanics, there is an element of cognitive and mathematical sleight-of-hand: the above explanation does not rely at all on the quantum state-space being a linear vector space. But the computational biologists are not bothered by this, because they are well-accustomed to non-vector state spaces, and to the fact that dynamics that is non-linear “in the small” can appear to be linear “in the large” (and vice versa).

  62. Raoul Ohio Says:

    Today’s “Dr. Dobb’s Update” contains a pointer to an interesting blog entry:

    http://dobbscodetalk.com/index.php?option=com_myblog&show=Essentials-of-Quantum-Computing.html&Itemid=29

    It is a Q&A where Jack Woehr asks John Phillips beginner questions about Quantum Computing, and gets some insightful answers.

  63. Charlie Stromeyer Says:

    John, I am curious to know your opinion of the theory Quantum Darwinism:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_darwinism

    Thanks.

  64. John Sidles Says:

    Charlie Stromeyer asks: John, I am curious to know your opinion of the theory “Quantum Darwinism”.

    My understanding is that the term “quantum Darwinism” is due to Wojciech Zurek, whose work our QSE Group knows and respect very much.

    Zurek invented another (related) term “einselection”, whose use we prefer, because it is easier to describe einselection processes in well-posed mathematical terms than it is to describe quantum Darwinism.

    Some of the practical applications of einselection processes in quantum simulation are discussed—with full attribution to Zurek—in Section 3.4.7 (p. 60) of our recent NJP article Practical Recipes … .

    In coming articles we are probably going to use the Tao/Candes-inspired term “quantum concentration theorems” to describe a broad class of theorems that derive from Zurek’s ideas on einselection. Examples of einselection-inspired quantum concentration theorems are Theorems 3.2 (construction of positive P-representations of thermal density matrices) and 3.8 (bounds on einselection rates) of the just-mentioned Practical Recipes article.

    Our QSE Group perceives there are many more such quantum concentration theorems waiting to be constructed … in fact quite a number of recent results in quantum information theory can be viewed as concentration theorems (as we review in Section 3.3.7 of the Practical Recipes).

    More broadly, we regard Zurek’s physically motivated concept of einselection as finding its natural (and rigorous) mathematical expression in quantum concentration theorems that (1) have immediate practical utility in large-scale quantum simulation codes, and (2) help free us from the (incorrect) intuition that quantum density matrices are represented only on linear vector spaces (the P-representation theorems providing a counterexample).

  65. Raoul Ohio Says:

    Check out a team in Innsbruck using a quantum computer they had kicking around the lab to prove that “it is not possible to explain quantum phenomena in non-contextual terms.”

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/07/090722142824.htm

  66. Charlie Stromeyer Says:

    Raoul Ohio, here is a copy of a correspondence letter I sent to the journal Nature yesterday morning about this result from the team in Innsbruck:

    Sir,

    I have just read the interesting new letter by Kirchmair et al. entitled “State-independent experimental test of quantum contextuality” in Nature 460, p.494-497 (23 July 2009). However, from what I can tell, classical non-contextuality was already ruled out by this previous paper from eight years ago by S. Dolev and A.C. Elitzur entitled “Non-Sequential Behavior of the Wave Function” which shows that the wavefunction of quantum mechanics is fundamentally non-sequential rather than sequential:

    http://arxiv.org/abs/quant-ph/0102109

    I would also like to take a moment to thank Scott Aaaronson for this very interesting blog.

  67. John Sidles Says:

    That’s a wonderful experiment, Raoul … but (IMHO) its most mysterious aspect—both physically and mathematically—is not its superposition aspect, but rather, its Hamiltonian aspect.

    As Saunders Mac Lane famously said:

    It has taken me over fifty years to understand the derivation of Hamilton’s equations.

    Nowadays we appreciate that the study of Hamiltonian structures leads inexorably to the study of symplectic and Riemannian structures, which leads to the study of complex structures … which leads to quantum mechanics.

    From this point of view, the mysteries of quantum mechanics are pullbacks from the deeper, more fundamental mysteries of Hamiltonian, symplectic, Riemannian, and complex structures. Thus, if we focus too closely on the quantum aspect of a given system, our chances of achieving a fundamental understanding of it actually diminish.

    From this point of view, isn’t it true that the new generation of computational biologists have evolved a more powerful framework for understanding quantum mysteries than the physicists have?

    Hmmmm … :)

  68. John Sidles Says:

    Charlie Stromeyer Says: I would also like to take a moment to thank Scott Aaaronson for this very interesting blog.

    Me too! We should all recognize that it has taken a substantial commitment from Scott—a sustained commitment—and a ton of work, plenty of tolerance, and plenty of creativity on Scott’s part, to keep this blog running. He deserves (serious) thanks from all of us, for making the QIT/QIS community a better place.

    Among physics blogs Shtetl Optimized is (IMHO) among the elite in its combined respect for humor and fundamental issues … for idiots like me, it provides a modern blog equivalent of this Python sketch. :)

  69. Charlie Stromeyer Says:

    Hey, I’m also the local village idiot because I actually live in a rural spot outside of the town center.

    We should consider starting an academic society for village idiots because the problem with universities is why would I want to work for an institution whose standards are so low that they would hire me ?-)

    Computational biologists might as well try to shed some light on the mysteries of QM because, e.g., the origin of QM wave/particle duality cannot yet be explained via string theory.

  70. John Sidles Says:

    Continuing the theme of linking-up quanta, humor, and biology, this stimulating article on the philosophy and practice of measurement theory in modern biology is prominently posted on the bulletin board of a local UW computational biology lab.

  71. Charlie Stromeyer Says:

    Hey John, check out Super G-String Field Theory:

    http://insti.physics.sunysb.edu/~siegel/parodies/sgsft.html

  72. Jonathan Vos Post Says:

    Comment please? “We prove that the complexity class QIP, which consists of all problems having quantum interactive proof systems, is contained in PSPACE. This containment is proved by applying a parallelized form of the matrix multiplicative weights update method to a class of semidefinite programs that captures the computational power of quantum interactive … Read Moreproofs. As the containment of PSPACE in QIP follows immediately from the well-known equality IP = PSPACE, the equality QIP = PSPACE follows.”
    [QIP = PSPACE, by Rahul Jain, Zhengfeng Ji, Sarvagya Upadhyay, John Watrous, 27 Jul 2009]

  73. harrison Says:

    Hey Scott, Dave Bacon says (re: Jain et al.’s proof of QIP = PSPACE):

    What does this say about the power of quantum computers? Well on the one hand, I’m not sure it does tell us too much (ask Scott, damnit!) since these complexity classes are, off the top, most interesting for the intractable problems they represent.

    So I’m asking: What does this say about the power of quantum computers? :P Personally, I like to think that this result essentially tells us that God (the SF, whatever) can’t prove anything to D-Wave that he can’t prove to the rest of us, too.

  74. proaonuiq Says:

    Paul Davies elaborated on the “use” of non-trivial quantum processes at the biological level. In a recent paper “Physics and the five problems of the philosophy of mind”, Arxiv, 15th july, history of physics (?), Kauffman elaborates on its “use” at the neuromental level. No time to read it yet but after a quick scroll i´ve not seen any mathematics on it, so it is surelly too philosophical even form me. I hope this QIP=PSPACE new result does not invalidates his conclusions…

  75. Dave Bacon Says:

    “Personally, I like to think that this result essentially tells us that God (the SF, whatever) can’t prove anything to D-Wave that he can’t prove to the rest of us, too.”

    Yeah but he can convince them faster (unless the PH collapses) and thus give them a huge arbitrage opportunity. Their secret business plan revealed at last!

  76. John Sidles Says:

    Dave’s joke overlays a serious point. “Financial engineering”—an activity that is a largely simulation-based—has come to play a huge role in the global economy.

    IMHO, no-one should scoff at this … this particular economic sector has (AFAICT) created more jobs for information theorists than any other.

    ——

    Aside: did anyone else enjoy the vehemently anti-humour post on the Fortnow/GASARCH blog that argued:

    It is the responsibility of the people in the audience to pay utmost attention and to think; and not expect entertainment or sound-bites. A scientific talk is not a sit-com.

    It seems that even ingenious presentations like Scott’s cannot “please all of the people, all of the time.”

  77. John Sidles Says:

    Dave … so you’re the mysterious person who pinned that “David E. Shaw & Co.” recruiting poster on the wall outside the UW QSE Lab. :)

  78. Pat Cahalan Says:

    > A mathematician? Ridicule the economists.

    Mathematicians ridicule everybody, Scott, particularly themselves. They do make generally great targets for humor, though, since they don’t care if physicists and computer scientists ridicule *them*. Math is inherently pretty ridiculous, considering all of the work starts off by arbitrarily declaring the conditions in the problem space.

    I haven’t noticed that computer scientists, as a class, are quite as open to self-ridicule as mathematicians are. Economists usually aren’t. I don’t know enough physicists to judge. Philosophers aren’t open to self-ridicule, since every possible ridiculous scenario can be analyzed :)

    Perhaps you could start a little social science experiment, and analyze the “humor level” of the various disciplines by trotting out discipline-specific humor at various talks and recording the level of response from the audience…