Locklin on science

Golden age experimental physics memories

Posted in Design, physics by Scott Locklin on March 26, 2019

I’ve given some hints of my tastes in experimental physics, and that my taste is experimental physics rather than impotent theoretical cargo cult wanking. I didn’t exactly work on project SLAM, but my early work kinda had this flavor. I caught the last fumes of the heroic cold war age in experimental physics.


My first big project was an experiment for observing something called the quantum breaktime, which I believe nobody gives a shit about any more. If you observe a quantum (in our case, chaotic) system for a short period of time, it should look semiclassical. If you wait around long enough, because quantum bound systems are a recurrence map, it will end up looking quantum. Anyway, nobody cares any more, as it turned out to be a fairly trivial thing and nothing important was observed. But at the time it looked important; Anderson won the Nobel for a related idea, and so we tried to build a crazy contraption to observe the thing. None of it was my idea, other than a few gew-gaws to make it go, as I was just some redneck kid who was good at making mechanical things work. I think the PI on this project is still alive, shooting at crows in Kansas or some such thing, and the senior grad student (who graduated) has gone on to more gentle pursuits. I totally lost track of the laser jockey. Names withheld to protect the innocent.

Proof this actually happened; and I used to have hair

The physical embodiment of the idea was to build a couple cubic meters worth of vacuum chamber filled with calcium vapor and shoot lasers at it. The problem with calcium vapor is at the partial pressures we needed it at, the chamber needed to operate at 400 degrees C. Oh yeah, we also needed to distill the crap so we were only using one of the isotopes, to avoid some fine structure nonsense that would have sunk the whole experiment, but as I never got that far, we’ll just pretend it didn’t matter. So, calcium is a reactive metal that wants to bind with anything resembling an optical opening that can withstand a 500 degree C bake out. So, there was another chamber within the chamber, with a set of calcium fluoride windows resting on knife edges that hopefully would keep most of the calcium out of the main chamber and away from the seals and the sapphire windows that kept the air out and let the laser pulses in. Did I mention seals? Yeah, seals and 500/600 degree C bakes (you need to cook all the volatile shit out of the chamber at higher than operating temperatures) don’t get on well. You can’t use viton which is the ordinary high vacuum seal. You sure as shit can’t use conflats and copper due to different coefficients of expansion of stainless and OFHC copper. The PI came up with this brilliant thing involving bolts under preposterous strain, shallow spring like knife edges, and a thick brand of aluminum foil. I think it was used in the Mercury program and promptly forgotten by everyone but the PI who was actually alive and sentient in those days. I won’t tell you what we used to seal the optics; it was similarly insane (and, unlike the aluminum trick, carcinogenic) and found by scouring the literature using INSPEC and paper indexes rather than the garbage you ninnies use on your nerd dildos. I tested both technologies, and to my minor amazement, they both worked  reliably at the design temperatures.

The pump on this thing was something called a diffusion pump. You pump on the chamber with a piston driven mechanical roughing pump to rough it out to 10^-3 torr or whatever, then you fire up the diffusion pump. Diffusion pumps boil some dense fluid which makes a spray through various trumpet like things in a big cooled metal tube, and it creates a pumping action which works sort of like how the shower curtain gets sucked inward when the shower is on. The dense fluid is sometimes mercury, which is why every experimental atomic physicist of a certain age has a mad hatter twitch, though in this experiment, we used some weird fluorodated oil made by Dow-Corning which we hoped wouldn’t explode when calcium vapor hit it. On top of the diffusion pump sits some water cooled baffles and a “trap” of liquid nitrogen, which catches any stray diffusion pump operating fluid molecules and prevents them from futzing up the vacuum too badly. Believe it or not, this kind of pump stack was dirt standard for 60s-90s atomic physics before turbo pumps and ion traps became cheaper. Probably still often used where you need high pumping power in a relatively small place.

Now, to do atomic physics, generally speaking, you also need lasers. The kinds of experiments we were doing you needed pump and probe stuff. This was mostly someone else’s responsibility, at least in the early days, but I was keenly aware of the laser systems as I had to observe proper safety procedures when the laser setup was being run in the same room with me. Our stack consisted of a UV excimer laser (which lived in the other room and ran on poisonous gas and high voltage electricity), an infrared YAG setup which fed a dye laser which I believe made green light when everything was working right. There was probably a KDP crystal or two in it somewhere, since momentum generally must be conserved, and since I remember the laser jockey blowing them up from time to time to powerful slavic imprecations. I don’t remember how many watts these things were, but you could light each other’s pantaloons on fire with some of the things. The dye laser setup used DMSO, a membrane penetrant used to deliver drugs through the skin, and a soup of carcinogenic and poisonous dye (I believe it was coumarin). A dye laser is basically a pump and high pressure hose with some optics around it, and it would occasionally spectacularly explode, shooting deadly DMSO dye goop all over the place. It never hit anyone important. Oh yeah, in case some of you don’t have laser safety training: green light, IR and UV; what do you use for safety goggles? I’ll tell you what you use: a  steel bucket on your head.


Remember how the excimer laser was in the other room? How do you think the laser light got into the magic show room of tremendous grad student danger? Well, I couldn’t tell you exactly how this happened, but there was a convenient hole in the wall. I heard a rumor someone rented an electric jackhammer and blew a hole in the (load bearing) wall over a long weekend. The past is a foreign country, and the late 20th century was different, I tell you.


There’s all kinds of interesting little details here; how do you build something to hold the vacuum chamber up while you’re baking it? It can’t be well thermally connected to anything or all the heat will bleed out where you don’t want it. It can’t expand or contract at much different rates from the vacuum chamber steel. Oh yeah, and since you have two chambers made of of stainless steel, and barely touching each other, you needed to thermally link them together with a big spring loaded bar of OFHC copper.  Finally, how do you make an oven which bakes the thing to those kind of temperatures? Turns out, rockwool blankets and big ceramic resistors I found in a junkpile fed by silica coated wires worked pretty good.  If I happen to die of mesothelioma, I’ve always harbored the view that rockwool can cause this as easily as asbestos -feel free to name it after me. I won’t even mention the microwave feed throughs and  high-Q niobium microwave cavity that was supposed to fit into the thing, as I never really believed it possible to do this. All of this was done using two line equations and graphing paper rather than the preposterous finite element analysis people waste time with now, and it worked just fine.  на коленки.

Finally an illustrative anecdote: at one point I was putting liquid nitrogen into the trap for a vacuum test, and did so too rapidly. Just like they said it might in the manual, the trap cracked from cooling it too fast, rendering it a leaky paperweight. I knew there was another trap of identical manufacture hooked up to a chamber in an abandoned lab across the hallway (physics departments in them days had all kinds of weird stuff across the hallway; punched tape CP/M machines, weird pumps, high voltage DC generators, farad tier high voltage capacitors with no internal resistance, depleted uranium bricks, etc). I considered just pulling it out of the other setup. I thought about it for a few minutes, and realized I should manfully admit my blunder to the PI first, because who knows what kind of bonkers shit was going on in that old lab across the hall when it was active. Well the PI was real understanding, as he had blown up a nitrogen trap or two in his day, and thought it was a swell idea to nick the nitrogen trap across the hall to save a few bucks and some leadtime on a new trap … oh wait a minute, that might have been the chamber they used for the atmospheric plutonium experiments. Here’s the stack of (60s vintage, probably slightly radioactive) safety sheets on plutonium, and go borrow the mica-window Geiger from Jimmy down in the other building.  I did my best on the safety front; I wore a HEPA dust mask, some gloves and a baseball umpire vest I found somewhere. I gingerly stuck the mica business end around the inside of the vacuum chamber with the matching nitrogen trap bolted onto it.  Plutonium is weird shit; I think it’s an alpha emitter. I know you have to get right on top of it with the counter or you can’t see it at all. Well, I found some plutonium all right; so much it actually shorted out the Geiger tube -you could hear it shorting out bzzz bzzz bzzz. I gingerly shut the thick plexiglass door and tried to never go into that abandoned lab again.


My experience wasn’t particularly dangerous or weird, but it was from a bygone era. I mean, pretty much everyone in that lab (including me at the time) smoked. In the lab. Next to the mercury diffusion pumps and poisonous shit. By the time I arrived at LBNL, a mere year or two later, I was doing nonsense like attending weekly safety circle, and signing up for  classes on how to safely use the sonicator and a beaker of acetone for cleaning UHV parts. LBNL had plenty of dangerous stuff around, and jerks would regularly create dangerous conditions; mostly because they were visitors and tragedy of the commons, so it was probably necessary. It felt oppressive though. You could tell it wasn’t always thus; I distinctly remember a photo of someone (probably Owen Chamberlain, though somehow I remember Segre or Luis Alvarez) smoking a pipe next to 1000 gallons of liquid hydrogen bubble chamber.


not the photo, but like it

I don’t know if there are lessons to be learned here. The project fizzled out a few months after I joined it because the Clinton administration were weasels who preferred to spend the “peace dividend” putting factory workers in prison while they outsourced the industrial base to China. Maybe the way we used to do things was ridiculously super dangerous and we’re all lucky to be alive. Maybe it is OK to play fast and loose with safety, because frankly time is more precious than a 2% higher probability of dying prematurely. All I know was it was fun living like this, just like it was more fun riding a bicycle before they made you wear a helmet.  The attitude was healthy, even if the environment objectively wasn’t. I am pretty sure people routinely do vastly more dangerous things in unsavory hobbies. I’ll probably never do experimental physics again; if I do it will be at least this ridiculously awesome.

Ave Atque Vale: Marty Halpern

Posted in history by Scott Locklin on March 12, 2019

My pal Marty Halpern died over a year ago now. He was one of my oldest and closest pals who still had some presence in Berkeley. Though he was only a quarterly visitor to Berkeley in recent years, we kept in touch as best we could, and it was always like old times when we’d talk on the phone or see each other in person for some red meat and man talk.

Our first meeting was very Berkeley, and is still one of my favorite “Locklin being an idiot” stories. I was still a long haired grad student, just getting started on deadlifts and presses in the Berkeley 24 hour fitness place; it must have been late 2002 or early 2003. Marty Gutzwiller’s book on quantum chaos fell out of my locker while I was showering; it was one of those yellow Springer-Verlag books immediately recognizable as a physics text. When I got out of the showers, a large nude man was standing there reading the other Marty’s book. It’s not every day I’m confronted with large nude men reading books that fell out of my locker, so I probably said something somewhat rude like,

“What are you doing.”

“Oh, is this yours”

“Yes, it was in my locker”

“You know something about physics?”

“Yes, I study physics.”

“I know some physics too.”

At this point my eyes are rolling, and I figure I’m confronted with some Berkeley loon who is going to tell me how his quartz crystal gives him psychic powers. As soon as he introduced himself, I knew who he was; Marty Halpern, the eminent high energy physicist from UC Berkeley who helped invent the second generation of supersymmetric string theory.


As fellow physics nerds who enjoy lifting weights we became fast friends. We didn’t have even vaguely similar tastes in physics; his stuff was all high energy, tending towards noodle theory. Mine was experimental low energy. I don’t think either one of us understood each other very well when we talked about such things, and of course, my own knowledge of my field was ridiculously shallow compared to his. Yet we had some spirited conversations on the topic, as well as my later topics of quantitative finance and data science. Mostly though, that was work talk. Guys who do mathy things who also like lifting weights, shooting guns, eating red meat, being guys  and not taking shit from any pasty  nincompoops; that’s real talk.

Marty and I both appreciated our Robert E. Howard Conan books and our John Carter of Mars novels. In our own ways we lived these science fiction ideals in our daily lives as best we could in this degenerate age. Neither one of us cared much for the state and trajectory of modern life; America and western civilization in general was looking pretty weedy and green about the gills. Even physics wasn’t looking real healthy. It’s tough having such opinions while living in Berkeley. Berkeley is a place where the prevailing wisdom seems to be that everything is gonna be awesome because … cell phones or intersectionality or whatever. Then again, it’s great having proper friends in such places; a friend is a friend at all times, it is for adversity that a brother is born.

His hat, not mine

He was also a link to the physics past for me. I never got the chance to meet Heisenberg, Feynman, Abdus Salam, Schwinger; Marty did. Physics people love to hear about the stories of the great heroes of that era -ole Marty actually knew these guys in some capacity. I remember once he pulled out a Koran to make some point at a dinner party -turned out Salam gave that to him. That was pretty cool.


I think the below eulogy from the physics department captures some of his personality; the Limberger cheese incident being particularly choice (though his practical jokes … they were much better, actually), but it seems to be biased towards his early achievements on the career front.


One of the things they left out: Marty’s thesis adviser was Walter Gilbert, a Nobel Prize winner. Gilbert started as a physicist, but ultimately went into medical research, winning the Nobel for DNA research, and as I understand things making a decent pile of loot for learning to make insulin from toilet water. Oddly, Marty started as a sort of pre-med biologist himself (his dad was a doctor who served in WW-2), and ended as a physicist out of curiosity. Marty always told the stories about how Gilbert figured he and Marty were pretty smart, but guys like Schwinger were SO DAMN SMART he might as well go into biology for lack of competition. Marty just liked dat physics though.


To add a little color to what they describe as his early career; I think his Westinghouse prize project was actually building a tic tac toe “computer” out of relays; a considerable achievement back in the 50s when all knowledge of computers and digital logic was pretty obscure.


Another thing I know about from Marty’s career, he spent quite a lot time at CERN, enjoying the convivial physics to be had there, as well as developing his palate in the local restaurants (pro tip from Marty; avoid the Michelin rated places with too many stars; they’re just phoning it in -2 stars are often the sweet spot). I think he was really happy there. He also had a deep fondness for the Niels Bohr institute. Amusingly, he told me about this guy Predrag Cvitanovic at the Neils Bohr who told similar jokes to mine. This was the only person at the Niels Bohr I had the vaguest chance of  knowing anything about. I read das book and exchanged a few bantz anyway. Should I ever make the ridiculous money, I’ll make sure there is some kind of Halpern fellowship at the NB Institute. To troll Marty’s ghost, which, considering the nature of our friendship, I think he’d appreciate, I’ll make sure the recipient of such a fellowship works on semiclassical physics.

FWIIW for all your electronics nerds who think you need whatsapp, slack, discord, ‘tardbook, texting or whatever ridiculous communication application to keep in touch with friends; after he retired, since he didn’t need to send LaTeX to collaborators any more, ole Marty didn’t even use email. He considered it a waste of his time. Friends use the telephone and meet in person.

Marty told me a lot of wise stuff; some of which I will never repeat.  He left his friends at a bad time, and we miss him terribly, but then, there never is a good time.


“Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus
advenio has miseras, frater, ad inferias,
ut te postremo donarem munere mortis
et mutam nequiquam adloquerer cinerem,
quandoquidem fortuna mihi tete abstulit ipsum,
heu miser indigne frater adempte mihi.
nunc tamen interea haec, prisco quae more parentum
tradita sunt tristi munere ad inferias,
accipe fraterno multum manantia fletu
atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.”



Professor Martin Brent Halpern – World Renown Theoretical Physicist died in Tucson, AZ on January 21, 2018.

As a child, Martin Brent Halpern was drawn to chemistry experiments and other physical concepts such as tesla coils, perhaps to the consternation of his parents, Dr. Melvin Halpern and Blanche Halpern. Marty enjoyed playing practical jokes with his pals, including an infamous stunt involving a pound of limburger cheese. He was also active in the Boy Scouts for many years.

As a teen, Marty focused on the sciences, winning the Westinghouse Science Talent Search at the age of sixteen. His work in the field of physics began as a chemistry and math major at the University of Arizona, where he was University Valedictorian. As Marty’s questions became more fundamental, his professors directed him to the physics department and Marty changed his focus from pre-med to physics, going on to earn a PhD in physics from Harvard in 1964.

During his post doctorate studies, he was awarded a NATO fellowship at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland (1964-1965), a post-doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley (1965-1966), and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton in 1966-1967. While at UC Berkeley finishing his post doctorate, he was invited by Julius Robert Oppenheimer to Princeton on a fellowship in the late 1960’s. He returned to UC Berkeley, quickly moving up the ranks from assistant professor to full professor, from 1972 until he retired as emeritus.

He greatly contributed to Quantum Field Theory, String Theory and Orbital Theory, among others. He was a co-discoverer of affine Lie Algebra with Korkut Bardakci. He returned to CERN most summers and for a one-year sabbatical in 1996 to continue his research.

Outside of physics, Martin was a life-long, avid weight lifter, a devotee of books, theater, film and music, as well as a passionate comic book collector. Armed with a sense of humor and a well-traveled passport, Martin Halpern was able to explain the laws of physics in creative and colorful ways to his daughter, the filmmaker Tamar Halpern, as well as to his grandson, and his second wife (of over 39 years) Penelope Dutton Halpern. Marty fulfilled a lifetime dream of retiring to his childhood hometown of Tucson, Arizona in 2012.


Quantum computing as a field is obvious bullshit

Posted in non-standard computer architectures, physics by Scott Locklin on January 15, 2019

I remember spotting the quantum computing trend when I was  a larval physics nerdling. I figured maybe I could get in on the chuckwagon if my dissertation project didn’t work out in a big way (it didn’t). I managed to get myself invited to a Gordon conference, and have giant leather bound notebooks filled with theoretical scribblings containing material for 2-3 papers in them. I wasn’t real confident in my results, and I couldn’t figure out a way to turn them into something practical involving matter, so I happily matriculated to better things in the world of business.

When I say Quantum Computing is a bullshit field, I don’t mean everything in the field is bullshit, though to first order, this appears to be approximately true. I don’t have a mathematical proof that Quantum Computing isn’t at least theoretically possible.  I also do not have a mathematical proof that we can make the artificial bacteria of K. Eric Drexler’s nanotech fantasies. Yet, I know both fields are bullshit. Both fields involve forming new kinds of matter that we haven’t the slightest idea how to construct. Neither field has a sane ‘first step’ to make their large claims true.

Drexler and the “nanotechnologists” who followed him, they assume because we  know about the Schroedinger equation we can make artificial forms of life out of arbitrary forms of matter. This is nonsense; nobody understands enough about matter in detail or life in particular to do this. There are also reasonable thermodynamic, chemical and physical arguments against this sort of thing. I have opined on this at length, and at this point, I am so obviously correct on the nanotech front, there is nobody left to argue with me. A generation of people who probably would have made first rate chemists or materials scientists wasted their early, creative careers following this over hyped and completely worthless woo. Billions of dollars squandered down a rat hole of rubbish and wishful thinking. Legal wankers wrote legal reviews of regulatory regimes to protect us from this nonexistent technology. We even had congressional hearings on this nonsense topic back in 2003 and again in 2005 (and probably some other times I forgot about). Russians built a nanotech park to cash in on the nanopocalyptic trillion dollar nanotech economy which was supposed to happen by now.

Similarly, “quantum computing” enthusiasts expect you to overlook the fact that they haven’t a clue as to how to build and manipulate quantum coherent forms of matter necessary to achieve quantum computation.  A quantum computer capable of truly factoring the number 21 is missing in action. In fact, the factoring of the number 15 into 3 and 5 is a bit of a parlour trick, as they design the experiment while knowing the answer, thus leaving out the gates required if we didn’t know how to factor 15. The actual number of gates needed to factor a n-bit number is 72 * n^3; so for 15, it’s 4 bits, 4608 gates; not happening any time soon.

It’s been almost 25 years since Peter Shor had his big idea, and we are no closer to factoring large numbers than we were … 15 years ago when we were also able to kinda sorta vaguely factor the number 15 using NMR ‘quantum computers.’

I had this conversation talking with a pal at … a nice restaurant near one of America’s great centers of learning. Our waiter was amazed and shared with us the fact that he had done a Ph.D. thesis on the subject of quantum computing. My pal was convinced by this that my skepticism is justified; in fact he accused me of arranging this. I didn’t, but am motivated to write to prevent future Ivy League Ph.D. level talent having to make a living by bringing a couple of finance nerds their steaks.

In 2010, I laid out an argument against quantum computing as a field based on the fact that no observable progress has taken place. That argument still stands. No observable progress has taken place. However, 8 years is a very long time. Ph.D. dissertations have been achieved, and many of these people have gone on to careers … some of which involve bringing people like me delicious steaks. Hundreds of quantum computing charlatans achieved tenure in that period of time. According to google scholar a half million papers have been written on the subject since then.


There are now three major .com firms funding quantum computing efforts; IBM, Google and Microsoft. There is at least one YC/Andreesen backed startup I know of. Of course there is also dwave, who has somehow managed to exist since 1999; almost 20 years, without actually delivering something usefully quantum or computing. How many millions have been flushed down the toilet by these turds? How many millions which could have been used building, say, ordinary analog or stochastic computers which do useful things? None of these have delivered a useful quantum computer which has even  one usefully error corrected qubit. I suppose I shed not too many tears for the money spent on these efforts; in my ideal world, several companies on that list would be broken up or forced to fund Bell Labs moonshot efforts anyway, and most venture capitalists are frauds who deserve to be parted with their money. I do feel sad for the number of young people taken in by this quackery. You’re better off reading ancient Greek than studying a ‘technical’ subject that eventually involves bringing a public school kid like me a steak. Hell, you are better off training to become an exorcist or a feng shui practitioner than getting a Ph.D. in ‘quantum computing.’

I am an empiricist and a phenomenologist. I consider the lack of one error corrected qubit in the history of the human race to be adequate evidence that this is not a serious enough field to justify using the word ‘field.’ Most of it is frankly, a scam. Plenty of time to collect tenure and accolades before people realize this isn’t normative science or much of anything reasonable.

As I said last year

All you need do is look at history: people had working (digital) computers before Von Neumann and other theorists ever noticed them. We literally have thousands of “engineers” and “scientists” writing software and doing “research” on a machine that nobody knows how to build. People dedicate their careers to a subject which doesn’t exist in the corporeal world. There isn’t a word for this type of intellectual flatulence other than the overloaded term “fraud,” but there should be.

Computer scientists” have gotten involved in this chuckwagon. They have added approximately nothing to our knowledge of the subject, and as far as I can tell, their educational backgrounds preclude them ever doing so. “Computer scientists” haven’t had proper didactics in learning quantum mechanics, and virtually none of them have ever done anything as practical as fiddled with an op-amp, built an AM radio or noticed how noise works in the corporeal world.

Such towering sperg-lords actually think that the only problems with quantum computing are engineering problems. When I read things like this, I can hear them muttering mere engineering problems.  Let’s say, for the sake of argument this were true. The SR-71 was technically a mere engineering problem after the Bernoulli effect was explicated in 1738. Would it be reasonable to have a hundred or a thousand people writing flight plans for the SR-71  as a profession in 1760? No.

A reasonable thing for a 1760s scientist to do is invent materials making a heavier than air craft possible. Maybe fool around with kites and steam engines. And even then … there needed to be several important breakthroughs in metallurgy (titanium wasn’t discovered until 1791), mining, a functioning petrochemical industry, formalized and practical thermodynamics, a unified field theory of electromagnetism, chemistry, optics, manufacturing and arguably quantum mechanics, information theory, operations research and a whole bunch of other stuff which was unimaginable in the 1760s. In fact, of course the SR-71 itself was completely unimaginable back then. That’s the point.


its just engineering!

its just engineering!

Physicists used to be serious and bloody minded people who understood reality by doing experiments. Somehow this sort of bloody minded seriousness has faded out into a tower of wanking theorists who only occasionally have anything to do with actual matter. I trace the disease to the rise of the “meritocracy” out of cow colleges in the 1960s. The post WW-2 neoliberal idea was that geniuses like Einstein could be mass produced out of peasants using agricultural schools. The reality is, the peasants are still peasants, and the total number of Einsteins in the world, or even merely serious thinkers about physics is probably something like a fixed number. It’s really easy, though, to create a bunch of crackpot narcissists who have the egos of Einstein without the exceptional work output. All you need to do there is teach them how to do some impressive looking mathematical Cargo Cult science, and keep their “results” away from any practical men doing experiments.

The manufacture of a large caste of such boobs has made any real progress in physics impossible without killing off a few generations of them. The vast, looming, important questions of physics; the kinds that a once in a lifetime physicist might answer -those haven’t budged since the early 60s. John Horgan wrote a book observing that science (physics in particular) has pretty much ended any observable forward progress since the time of cow collitches. He also noticed that instead of making progress down fruitful lanes or improving detailed knowledge of important areas, most develop enthusiasms for the latest non-experimental wank fest; complexity theory, network theory, noodle theory. He thinks it’s because it’s too difficult to make further progress. I think it’s because the craft is now overrun with corrupt welfare queens who are play-acting cargo cultists.

Physicists worthy of the name are freebooters; Vikings of the Mind, intellectual adventurers who torture nature into giving up its secrets and risk their reputation in the real world. Modern physicists are … careerist ding dongs who grub out a meagre living sucking on the government teat, working their social networks, giving their friends reach arounds and doing PR to make themselves look like they’re working on something important. It is terrible and sad what happened to the king of sciences. While there are honest and productive physicists, the mainstream of it is lost, possibly forever to a caste of grifters and apple polishing dingbats.

But when a subject which claims to be a technology, which lacks even the rudiments of experiment which may one day make it into a technology, you can know with absolute certainty that this ‘technology’ is total nonsense. Quantum computing is less physical than the engineering of interstellar spacecraft; we at least have plausible physical mechanisms to achieve interstellar space flight.

We’re reaching peak quantum computing hyperbole. According to a dimwit at the Atlantic, quantum computing will end free will. According to another one at Forbes, “the quantum computing apocalypse is immanent.” Rachel Gutman and Schlomo Dolev know about as much about quantum computing as I do about 12th century Talmudic studies, which is to say, absolutely nothing. They, however, think they know smart people who tell them that this is important: they’ve achieved the perfect human informational centipede. This is unquestionably the right time to go short.

Even the national academy of sciences has taken note that there might be a problem here. They put together 13 actual quantum computing experts who poured cold water on all the hype. They wrote a 200 page review article on the topic, pointing out that even with the most optimistic projections, RSA is safe for another couple of decades, and that there are huge gaps on our knowledge of how to build anything usefully quantum computing. And of course, they also pointed out if QC doesn’t start solving some problems which are interesting to … somebody, the funding is very likely to dry up. Ha, ha; yes, I’ll have some pepper on that steak.


There are several reasonable arguments against any quantum computing of the interesting kind (aka can demonstrate supremacy on a useful problem) ever having a physical embodiment.

One of the better arguments is akin to that against P=NP. No, not the argument that “if there was such a proof someone would have come up with it by now” -but that one is also in full effect. In principle, classical analog computers can solve NP-hard problems in P time. You can google around on the “downhill principle” or look at the work on Analog super-Turing architectures by people like Hava Siegelmann. It’s old stuff, and most sane people realize this isn’t really physical, because matter isn’t infinitely continuous. If you can encode a real/continuous number into the physical world somehow, P=NP using a protractor or soap-bubble. For whatever reasons, most complexity theorists understand this, and know that protractor P=NP isn’t physical.  Somehow quantum computing gets a pass, I guess because they’ve never attempted to measure anything in the physical world beyond the complexity of using a protractor.

In order to build a quantum computer, you need to control each qubit, which is a continuous value, not a binary value, in its initial state and subsequent states precisely enough to run the calculation backwards. When people do their calculations ‘proving’ the efficiency of quantum computers, this is treated as an engineering detail. There are strong assertions by numerous people that quantum error correction (which, I will remind everyone, hasn’t been usefully implemented in actual matter by anyone -that’s the only kind of proof that matters here) basically pushes the analog requirement for perfection to the initialization step, or subsumes it in some other place where it can’t exist. Let’s assume for the moment that this isn’t the case.

Putting this a different way, for an N-qubit computer, you need to control, transform, and read out 2^N complex (as in complex numbers) amplitudes of N-qubit quantum computers to a very high degree of precision. Even considering an analog computer with N oscillators which must be precisely initialized, precisely controlled, transformed and individually read out, to the point where you could reverse the computation by running the oscillators through the computation backwards; this is an extremely challenging task. The quantum version is exponentially more difficult.

Making it even more concrete; if we encode the polarization state of a photon as a qubit, how do we perfectly align the polarizers between two qubits? How do we align them for N qubits? How do we align the polarization direction with the gates? This isn’t some theoretical gobbledeygook; when it comes time to build something in physical reality, physical alignments matter, a lot. Ask me how I know. You can go amuse yourself and try to build a simple quantum computer with a couple of hard coded gates using beamsplitters and polarization states of photos. It’s known to be perfectly possible and even has a rather sad wikipedia page. I can make quantum polarization-state entangled photons all day; any fool with a laser and a KDP crystal can do this, yet somehow nobody bothers sticking some beamsplitters on a breadboard and making a quantum computer. How come? Well, one guy recently did it: got two whole qubits. You can go read about this *cough* promising new idea here, or if you are someone who doesn’t understand matter here.

FWIIW in early days of this idea, it was noticed that the growth in the number of components needed was exponential in the number of qubits. Well, this shouldn’t be a surprise: the growth in the number of states in a quantum computer is also exponential in the number of qubits. That’s both the ‘interesting thing’ and ‘the problem.’ The ‘interesting thing’ because an exponential number of states, if possible to trivially manipulate, allows for a large speedup in calculations. ‘The problem’ because manipulating an exponential number of states is not something anyone really knows how to do.

The problem doesn’t go away if you use spins of electrons or nuclei; which direction is spin up? Will all the physical spins be perfectly aligned in the “up” direction? Will the measurement devices agree on spin-up? Do all the gates agree on spin-up? In the world of matter, of course they won’t; you will have a projection. That projection is in effect, correlated noise, and correlated noise destroys quantum computation in an irrecoverable way. Even the quantum error correction people understand this, though for some reason people don’t worry about it too much. If they are honest in their lack of worry, this is because they’ve never fooled around with things like beamsplitters. Hey, making it have uncorrelated noise; that’s just an engineering problem right? Sort of like making artificial life out of silicon, controlled nuclear fusion power or Bussard ramjets is “just an engineering problem.”

engineering problem; easier than quantum computers


Of course at some point someone will mention quantum error correction which allows us to not have to precisely measure and transform everything. The most optimistic estimate of the required precision is something like 10^-5 for quantum error corrected computers per qubit/gate operation. This is a fairly high degree of precision. Going back to my polarization angle example; this implies all the polarizers, optical elements and gates in a complex system are aligned to 0.036 degrees. I mean, I know how to align a couple of beamsplitters and polarizers to 628 microradians, but I’m not sure I can align a few hundred thousand of them AND pockels cells and mirrors to 628 microradians of each other. Now imagine something with a realistic number of qubits for factoring large numbers; maybe 10,000 qubits, and a CPU worth of gates, say 10^10 or so of gates (an underestimate of the number needed for cracking RSA, which, mind you, is the only reason we’re having this conversation). I suppose it is possible, but I encourage any budding quantum wank^H^H^H  algorithmist out there to have a go at aligning 3-4 optical elements to within this precision. There is no time limit, unless you die first, in which case “time’s up!”

This is just the most obvious engineering limitation for making sure we don’t have obviously correlated noise propagating through our quantum computer. We must also be able to prepare the initial states to within this sort of precision. Then we need to be able to measure the final states to within this sort of precision. And we have to be able to do arbitrary unitary transformations on all the qubits.

Just to interrupt you with some basic facts: the number of states we’re talking about here for a 4000 qubit computer is ~ 2^4000 states! That’s 10^1200 or so continuous variables we have to manipulate to at least one part in ten thousand. The number of protons in the universe is about 10^80. This is why a quantum computer is so powerful; you’re theoretically encoding an exponential number of states into the thing. Can anyone actually do this using a physical object? Citations needed; as far as I can tell, nothing like this has ever been done in the history of the human race. Again, interstellar space flight seems like a more achievable goal. Even Drexler’s nanotech fantasies have some precedent in the form of actually existing life forms. Yet none of these are coming any time soon either.

There are reasons to believe that quantum error correction, too isn’t even theoretically possible (examples here and here and here -this one is particularly damning). In addition to the argument above that the theorists are subsuming some actual continuous number into what is inherently a noisy and non-continuous machine made out of matter, the existence of a quantum error corrected system would mean you can make arbitrarily precise quantum measurements; effectively giving you back your exponentially precise continuous number. If you can do exponentially precise continuous numbers in a non exponential number of calculations or measurements, you can probably solve very interesting problems on a relatively simple analog computer. Let’s say, a classical one like a Toffoli gate billiard ball computer. Get to work; we know how to make a billiard ball computer work with crabs. This isn’t an example chosen at random. This is the kind of argument allegedly serious people submit for quantum computation involving matter. Hey man, not using crabs is just an engineering problem muh Church Turing warble murble.

Smurfs will come back to me with the press releases of Google and IBM touting their latest 20 bit stacks of whatever. I am not impressed, and I don’t even consider most of these to be quantum computing in the sense that people worry about quantum supremacy and new quantum-proof public key or Zero Knowledge Proof algorithms (which more or less already exist). These cod quantum computing machines are not expanding our knowledge of anything, nor are they building towards anything for a bold new quantum supreme future; they’re not scalable, and many of them are not obviously doing anything quantum or computing.

This entire subject does nothing but  eat up lives and waste careers. If I were in charge of science funding, the entire world budget for this nonsense would be below that we allocate for the development of Bussard ramjets, which are also not known to be impossible, and are a lot more cool looking.



As Dyakonov put it in his 2012 paper;

“A somewhat similar story can be traced back to the 13th century when Nasreddin Hodja made a proposal to teach his donkey to read and obtained a 10-year grant from the local Sultan. For his first report he put breadcrumbs between the pages of a big book, and demonstrated the donkey turning the pages with his hoofs. This was a promising first step in the right direction. Nasreddin was a wise but simple man, so when asked by friends how he hopes to accomplish his goal, he answered: “My dear fellows, before ten years are up, either I will die or the Sultan will die. Or else, the donkey will die.”

Had he the modern degree of sophistication, he could say, first, that there is no theorem forbidding donkeys to read. And, since this does not contradict any known fundamental principles, the failure to achieve this goal would reveal new laws of Nature. So, it is a win-win strategy: either the donkey learns to read, or new laws will be discovered.”

Further reading on the topic:

Dyakonov’s recent IEEE popsci article on the subject (his papers are the best review articles of why all this is silly):


IEEE precis on the NAS report:

https://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/computing/hardware/the-us-national-academies-reports-on-the-prospects-for-quantum-computing (summary: not good)

Amusing blog from 11 years ago noting the utter lack of progress in this subject:


“To factor a 4096-bit number, you need 72*40963 or 4,947,802,324,992 quantum gates. Lets just round that up to an even 5 trillion. Five trillion is a big number. ”

Aaronson’s articles of faith (I personally found them literal laffin’ out loud funny, though I am sure he is in perfect earnest):



On the Empire of the Ants

Posted in brainz, information theory by Scott Locklin on July 2, 2013

The internet is generally a wasteland of cat memes and political invective. Once in a while it serves its original purpose in disseminating new ideas. I stumbled across Boris Ryabko‘s little corner of the web while researching compression learning algorithms (which, BTW, are much more fundamental and important than crap like ARIMA). In it, I found one of the nicest little curiosity driven  papers I’ve come across in some time. Ryabko and his coworker, Zhanna Reznikova, measured the information processing abilities of ants, and the information capacity of ant languages. Download it here. There was also a plenary talk at an IEEE conference you can download here.


In our degenerate age where people think cell phone apps are innovations,  it is probably necessary to explain why this is a glorious piece of work. Science is an exercise in curiosity about nature. It is a process. It sometimes involves complex and costly apparatus, or the resources of giant institutes. Sometimes it involves looking at ants in an ant farm, and knowing some clever math. Many people are gobsmacked by the technological gizmos used to do science. They think the giant S&M dungeons of tokomaks and synchro-cyclotrons are science. Those aren’t science; they’re tools. The end product; the insights into nature -that is what is important. Professors Ryabko and Reznikova did something a kid could understand the implications of, but no kid could actually do. The fact that they did it at all indicates they have the child-like curiosity and love for nature that is the true spirit of scientific enquiry. As far as I am concerned, Ryabko and Reznikova are real scientists. The thousands of co-authors on the Higgs paper; able technicians I am sure, but their contributions are a widows mite to the gold sovereign of Ryabko and Reznikova.

Theory: ants are smart, and they talk with their antennae. How smart are they, and how much information can they transfer with their antennae language? Here’s a video of talking ants from Professor Reznikova’s webpage:

Experiment: to figure out how much information they can transfer, starve some ants (hey, it’s for science), stick some food at random places in a binary tree, and see how fast they can tell the other ants about it. Here’s a video clip of the setup. Each fork in the path of a physical binary tree represents 1 bit of information, just as it does on your computer. Paint the ants so you know which is which. When a scout ant finds the food, you remove the maze, and put in place an identical one to avoid their sniffing the ant trails or the food in it.  This way, the only way for the other ants to find the fork the food was in is via actual ant communication. Time the ant communication between the scout ant and other foragers (takes longer than 30 seconds, apparently). Result: F. sanguinea can transmit around 0.74 bits a minute.  F. polyctena can do 1.1 bits a minute.


Experiment: to figure out if ants are smart, see if they can pass on maze information in a compressed way. LRLRLRLRLRLR is a lot simpler in an information theoretical sense than an equal length random sequence of lefts and rights. Telephone transmission and MP3 players have this sort of compression baked into them to make storage and transmission more efficient.  If ants can communicate directions for a regular maze faster than a random one, they’re kind of smart. Result: in fact, this turns out to be the case.

Experiment: to find out if ants are smart, see if they can count. Stick them in a comb or hub shaped maze where there is food at the end of one of the 25 or more forks (you can see some of the mazes here). The only way the poor ant can tell other ants about it is if he says something like “seventeenth one to the left.” Or, in the case of one of the variants of this experiment,  something more like”3 over from the one the crazy Russian usually puts the food in.” Yep, you can see it plain as pie in the plots: ants have a hard time explaining “number 30” and a much easier time of saying, “two over from the one the food is usually in.” Ants can do math.


The power of information theory is not appreciated as it should be. We use the products of it every time we fire up a computer or a cell phone, but it is applicable in many areas where a mention of “Shannon entropy” will be met with a shrug. Learning about the Empire of the Ants is just one example.

People in the SETI project are looking for  alien ham radios on other planets. I’ve often wondered why people think they’ll be able to recognize an alien language as such. Sophisticated information encoding systems look an awful lot like noise. The English language isn’t particularly sophisticated as an encoding system. Its compressibility indicates this. If I were an alien, I might use very compressed signals (sort of like we do with some of our electronic communications). It might look an awful lot like noise.

We have yet to communicate  with dolphins. We’re pretty sure they have interesting things to say, via an information theoretical result called Zipf’s law (though others disagree,  it seems likely they’re saying something pretty complex). There are  better techniques to “decompress” dolphin vocalizations than Zipf’s law: I use some of them looking for patterns in economic systems. Unfortunately marine biologists are usually not current with information theoretical tools, and the types of people who are familiar with such tools are busy working for the NSA and Rentech. Should I ever make my pile of dough and retire, I’ll hopefully have enough loot to strap a couple of tape recorders to the dolphins. It seems something worth doing.

The beautiful result of Ryabko and Reznikova points the way forward. A low budget, high concept experiment, done with stopwatches, paint and miniature plastic ant habitrails produced this beautiful result on insect intelligence. It is such a simple experiment, anyone with some time and some ants could have done it! This sort of “small science” seems rare these days; people are more interested in big budget things, designed to answer questions about minutae, rather than interesting things about the world around us. I don’t know if we have the spirit to do such “small science” in America any longer.  American scientists seem like bureaucratized lemmings, hypnotized by budgets, much like the poor ants are hypnotized by sugar water. The Rube-Goldberg nature of this experiment could only be done by a nation of curious tinkerers; something we no longer seem to have here.

Dolphin language could have been decoded decades ago. While it is sad that such studies haven’t been done yet, it leaves open new frontiers for creative young scientists today. Stop whining about your budget and get to work!