This morning Quanta Magazine informs us that Physicists Create a Wormhole Using a Quantum Computer, promoting the article on Twitter with BREAKING: Physicists have built a wormhole and successfully sent information from one end to the other and Physicists have used Google’s quantum computer to send a signal through a wormhole, a shortcut in space-time first theorized by Einstein and Rosen in 1935.
This work is getting the full-press promotional package: no preprint on the arXiv (unless I’m missing something?), embargoed info to journalists, with reveal at a press conference, a cover story in Nature, accompanied by a barrage of press releases (see here, here, here, with Harvard, MIT and Google to come). This is the kind of PR effort for a physics result I’ve only seen before for things like the Higgs and LIGO gravitational wave discoveries (OK, and the primordial gravitational wave non-discovery). It would be appropriate I suppose if someone actually had built a wormhole in a lab and teleported information through it, as advertised.
An additional part of the package is the Quanta coverage, with a very long article by Natalie Wolchover and an over-the-top seventeen minute film How Physicists Created a Wormhole in a Quantum Computer, with abstract
Almost a century ago, Albert Einstein realized that the equations of general relativity could produce wormholes. But it would take a number of theoretical leaps and a “crazy” team of experimentalists to build one on Google’s quantum computer.
The two senior physicists behind this, Joe Lykken and Maria Spiropulu, have histories that go way back of successfully promoting to the press nonsense about exotic space-time structures appearing in experiments that have nothing to do with them. Back in 1999, the New York Times published Physicists Finally Find a Way to Test Superstring theory, which featured Joe Lykken. In 2003, they featured Maria Spiropulu explaining how she was going to find extra dimensions (or “something just as ‘crazy””) at the Tevatron, or failing that, the LHC.
I just saw that the New York Times also has a big story about this: Physicists Create ‘the Smallest, Crummiest Wormhole You Can Imagine’. At least this article has some sensible skeptical quotes, including:
“The most important thing I’d want New York Times readers to understand is this,” Scott Aaronson, a quantum computing expert at the University of Texas in Austin, wrote in an email. “If this experiment has brought a wormhole into actual physical existence, then a strong case could be made that you, too, bring a wormhole into actual physical existence every time you sketch one with pen and paper.”
An odd thing about the Quanta article is that it contains a couple quotes from me, that aren’t at all about the wormhole business. They’re about the attempt to use AdS/CFT to either solve QCD or get a viable theory of quantum gravity. Back in June Wolchover contacted me with some questions about AdS/CFT. It seems that she was planning a long piece on AdS/CFT, one which somehow many months later got amalgamated with the wormhole nonsense. I had forgotten that I was thinking of turning what I sent her back then into a blog posting but never got around to it, so just earlier today posted it here.
On the substance of what is really going on here, it’s exactly the same as what was discussed extensively a month ago in this posting and in its comment section. The claim that “Physicists Create a Wormhole” is just complete bullshit, with the huge campaign to mislead the public about this a disgrace, highly unhelpful for the credibility of physics research in particular and science in general.
Update: Here’s the promotional piece from Google, and Will Kinney’s reaction.
Update: Physics World has Quantum teleportation opens a ‘wormhole in spacetime’ with a quote from Witten saying positive things about this experiment (“a ‘milestone’ in developing control over microscopic quantum systems”), nothing about the wormholes.
Update: I tried reading the paper in some more detail. Almost all the calculations in the paper were done on paper or on a classical computer. As far as I can tell, all they did was perform elaborate SYK calculations on a classical computer, together with simulations of noise on the Google quantum computer, trying to find a possible calculation on the quantum computer that would have signal, not just noise. Once such an N=7 SYK calculation was identified, they used a 9 qubit quantum computer and the noisy result matched the simulation result from the classical computer, exactly as expected. Seeing the completely expected match between results from a 9 bit noisy quantum computer and the results of the simulation of this on a classical computer caused Maria Spiropulu to say that “I was shaken” and “It was nuts. It was nuts”, while Joe Lykken felt that the moment was on a par with discovery of the Higgs particle.
I hadn’t noticed that the Nature issue comes with an article by Brown and Susskind, A holographic wormhole traversed in a quantum computer. Amidst the hype, they do at least point out:
because nine qubits can be easily simulated on a classical computer, the results of this experiment cannot teach us anything that could not be learnt from a classical computation, and will not teach us anything new about quantum gravity.
New Scientist is the sober one here, with their headline the relatively reasonable A quantum computer has simulated a wormhole for the first time
Update: MSN is going for the larger context: physicists didn’t just create a wormhole in a lab, also This tiny 2D wormhole could finally solve the biggest problem in physics
Update: Andreas Karch on Twitter I think has an accurate characterization of this “mostly a publicity stunt”:
Experimentally it’s of course cool they can do SYK – as a demonstration they have control over their device. They can couple 9 qbits in a pre-specified way. But I guess we knew they could do this before. Going after SYK in particular, in my mind, is mostly a publicity stunt.
Update: Quanta has changed the title of their article from “Physicists Create a Wormhole” to “Physicists Create a Holographic Wormhole”.
The MIT press release is out, and it’s comical in the other direction, explaining the huge breakthrough as MIT researchers use quantum computing to observe entanglement.
Chad Orzel is getting flashbacks to 2006, which I can well understand. Many of the worst offenders in this hype campaign were hard at work doing the same thing back then (and earlier), and I was, as now, ineffectually trying to do something about it (the first edition of “This Week’s Hype” dates back to that year).
Update: Quanta has also deleted the original “BREAKING: Physicists have built a wormhole and successfully sent information from one end to the other” tweet. Davide Castelvecchi at Nature as a more sober story, ending with
The theory tested at the Google lab “only has a very tangential relationship to any possible theories of quantum gravity in our Universe”, says Peter Shor, a mathematician at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.
Update: More coverage of this here, here, here and here. Quanta and Wolchover are, quite appropriately, blaming the “some of the best-respected physicists in the world” who sold them this nonsense, see here, here and here.
The original arguments in the “ER = EPR” paper would imply that a wormhole exists between two correlated toy bits in the Spekkens toy model, which would be farcical.
The very thing that makes AdS spacetime a “good box to put gravity in” — a boundary that a geodesic can reach in finite proper time — is what makes it unlike the universe we live in. You can have toroidal black holes in AdS! “De Sitter space looks like anti-de Sitter locally” also ignores stability. Like, the answer to the question “if I do this, will my lab implode into a black hole” is different between the two.
I could buy that the research sold under the “it from qubit” slogan may yield an interesting and useful geometric description of entanglement in some multipartite quantum states. That’s a far cry from a physical theory of quantum gravity, however. And I say this as a quantum information specialist who’d love to see my own specialization unlock the mysteries of the cosmos!
Good on Scott Aaronson actually pushing back on this incredible hype. Let’s see how many other responsible QC researchers and quantum gravity researchers do the same. Peter, do you think the actual researchers are the drivers of this hype or is it more likely the institutions (Google, CalTech, etc) + Natalie Wolchover are the drivers and the actual researchers are complicit by not pushing back on the over-the-top hype?
Can’t say much until I have read the paper which I hope appears tomorrow. But the wormhole they are talking about is of course a fictitious one, the question is whether the experiment that they do has any tell-tale signs of the wormhole, which apparently they do, and that is all that matters. AdS/CFT tells you that a gravity description is sometimes more useful in discerning what is going on than the underlying strongly coupled quantum system, hobbled too much by strength of the coupling, to be amenable to analysis. The SYK system is of course one where the two descriptions are demonstrably in agreement, and yet there could be features that are easily explained by the gravity description than the quantum one, and that is what’s in contention, I guess. However through this, no wormhole will ever open up in ordinary spacetime, if that’s what people are pondering over.
I don’t think the journalists are blameless, this is not Quanta’s finest hour. Overbye at the New York Times did a much better job (although I’d argue it would have been better to not cover this at all, or as a story not about physics, but about an out-of-control hype problem).
The main people responsible though are the researchers involved. In the case of several of them, if physicists could be brought up on malpractice charges, they’d be in trouble.
The paper is up on the Nature site, released same time as the hype campaign. Funny thing is I suspect you’re talking about when it will be on the arXiv. New rule, don’t take anything in Nature seriously, until it’s on the arXiv…
I was aware of the Nature paper, but I don’t have access. The New Scientist article is good. Thanks.
Thanks for the explanation. It does seem that publishing in a commercial venue like Nature and not putting on the arXiv makes your paper inaccessible to a lot of its scientific audience.
I was hoping for something “real” but it’s just a sim. And doing the sim on a quantum computer made it a publicity stunt. The video was a bit flashy in the sales sense. Note that tech companies included Google are under some financial strain now and the accountants are looking at chopping non-revenue producing entities. I’m not sure who is playing whom.
Blogs are great, but where else do I go for science journalism now?
Peter, what do you think about this surrogate model they found. As someone with a very limited background in this kind of physics, it’s hard for me to understand whether their checks are sufficient: to wit “winding size”, various properties of mutual information between qubits, and some properties between the correlation functions of the state (which I guess in this context are amplitudes for the state to return to itself at time t?).
Thanks for your post!
Peter writes: «if physicists could be brought up on malpractice charges». This is excessive. Just pay their analogous wormhole work with analogous Monopoly money.
Unfortunately Natalie Wolchover didn’t seem to realize that this hype was merely hype: on Twitter she wrote: “Curious to see so many people approve of the article but bristle at the headline. Can someone (who has actually read our article or the Nature paper) articulate *why* they don’t think it’s valid to say the experiment created a wormhole?”
Various people who know what’s going on tried to explain it carefully and gently. But I think one has to be brutally clear in situations like this, so I replied:
They did an simulation that crudely, roughly mimicked a system dual to a 2d wormhole. So it’s like a kid scrawls a picture of an inside-out building and the headline blares
BREAKING NEWS: CHILD BUILDS TAJ MAHAL!
I came to this blog (after not visiting for a while) expecting I would find the story surrounding this article featured in a “This Week’s Hype” post and Peter did not disappoint me.
As a condensed matter/ultracold atom theorist who works on non-equilibrium dynamics of strongly correlated systems, who has been following the activity on SYK from a bit of a distance, and saw the emergence of the first theory papers talking about wormholes in SYK appear and being reported in workshops and seminars a couple of years ago, I have only one thing to say about this whole business:
Yuck! And the way the media has been dealing with work is appalling and makes me really ashamed of being in the “same” community as the authors…
Clearly Wolchover was fed some garbage by the scientists involved and believed it uncritically. She writes that simulating stuff with quantum computers is fundamentally different than simulating stuff with classical computers, because on quantum computers “the system evolves according to the actual laws of nature”.
I guess then that the classical computer I’m writing this comment with doesn’t run on the actual laws of nature. Maybe it’s a cellular automaton? Or an abstract Turing machine, coming straight from Platonic heaven? Whereas the rest of the world runs on regular physics?
Now, if you believe this nonsense, it makes sense to get excited by the simulation on a quantum computer and not by the much easier and better simulations one can do on classical computers.
Or, to be a bit more charitable, she believes that a simulation with an analogical computer is “more real” than a simulation with a digital, programmable computer. She just missed the fact that Sycamore is not an analogical computer, but in fact a digital, programmable computer.
Which, incidentally, is why people are interested in Sycamore in the first place!
Even if the headline isn’t strictly accurate (a topic for another time, although I think you’re splitting hairs here), what’s the harm? It’s a cool-sounding result which gets people interested in theoretical physics, science more generally. As long as science journalists are driving interest and engagement, I think they’re doing a good job. If you want to discuss bad science journalism, surely a better use of your time would be all the anti-science fake news coming from the populist right in the U.S.
Today, Quanta did a 10 tweet thread explaining and (to some degree) walking back yesterday’s hype:
To avoid further confusion with wormhole in the sci-fi sense of a passageway that a person can fly through, we have changed our headline to read “Physicists Create a Holographic Wormhole Using a Quantum Computer.”
“She writes that simulating stuff with quantum computers is fundamentally different than simulating stuff with classical computers, because on quantum computers “the system evolves according to the actual laws of nature”
I think what she meant is simulating stuff with classical computers you are solving the Schrodinger equations whereas with quantum computers you are actually performing a quantum experiment.
I also like Sabine Hossenfelder’s blunt response to Natalie Wolchover’s Twitter query “Curious to see so many people approve of the article but bristle at the headline. Can someone (who has actually read our article or the Nature paper) articulate *why* they don’t think it’s valid to say the experiment created a wormhole?”.
Sabine wrote the following on Twitter in an attempt to clarify the difference in understanding (in the lay-person’s mind) between the hype in the article’s headline, and the nature of the experiment that was actually performed:
“To say the hopefully obvious, when the average person reads “wormhole” they don’t think “the [holographic] dual of an AdS2 wormhole”, because they know neither what “dual” means, nor what “AdS2” is.”
Am I the only one to notice that publicized “breakthroughs” etc. in physics are becoming more and more esoteric?
On one side, there’s a quantum mechanical system doing its expected quantum mechanical things. One the other side, there’s a description, based on toy models and all kinds of speculative assumptions. It suggests there may be a relation between the quantum mechanical system and gravity, if gravity would be something that can be described by these toy models and assumptions – which remains to be seen, but actually is very hard to see at the moment.
Is that a breakthrough? It smacks of desperation, to be honest.
Very striking is the Witten quote you mention. I think it’s called “damning with faint praise” in English. It’s a level above “hmmm, nice, thanks” but not by much.
If there were a “Hall of fame” for this sort of thing, then surely this would be at the top? I can’t think of a more egregious example of over-egging a paper.
A reader: Ah indeed, that’s probably what she had in mind. Still it’s a weird mysticism about quantum computers. It doesn’t really mesh with how much the computation is abstracted from the physical subtract. The correspondence is on the logical level, not physical.
I found a 2017 newspaper announcing that the first wormhole for time travel was built in Napoli using graphene. This raises an issue of scientific priority. Please add an “update” to recognise that wormholes, like pizza, have been invented in Napoli, and we will return your integrity by offering a 50% discount on Trevi Fountain.
Trevi Fountain is free 😉 Nice try. The great breakthrough would be wormhole with ananas.
Theorist at UC Irvine,
I think your attitude explains one source of the whole problem and the behavior of people like Lykken, Spiropulu and Jafferis. They likely are thinking “as long as this gets people excited about our field and our research, that’s good for them (and good for us). So, doesn’t matter if what we’re saying is false or misleading.”
Besides the minor matter of scientists being supposed to be concerned about what is true and what is false, engaging in outrageous behavior like this discredits the whole field. In this case they may have gone so far as to destroy their own credibility with their colleagues. Joe Lykken may have thought that appearing on a video claiming this result was as important as the Higgs discovery was a good way to get attention, but it also means a lot of people are no longer going to take seriously anything he says.
Let me second Peter’s response to “Theorist at UC Irvine”. The purpose of science and science journalism is to either communicate what is true or suitably describe controversy. Neither of these attributes are true about these articles – the “science” here is total bullshit .
The average person who reads this sort of garbage and then learns it is garbage does not get “excited about science”. Rather they (correctly ) develop skepticism about scientists as a group and this becomes deeply problematic for both society and science.
I used to respect a lot of people who are involved in this hype. Shame on them.
A very diplomatic reality check on Ars…
Diplomatic to a fault, I’d say, but helpful nonetheless.
Not claiming to have created a wormhole is good, the problems with the claims about this work go far beyond that, and articles like this one are still heavily hype-laden. The fact of the matter is that all that was done here was running a simple quantum-mechanical calculation on a nine qubit machine, with results that exactly matched what was expected. Beyond being a check that the google machine works as expected, this has no actual relation to quantum gravity, wormholes or any such. The endless verbiage about the relation of a bunch of coupled qubits to quantum gravity is still nothing but hype.
I thought hard about an analogy to tell your non-physicist friends what a „dual wormhole“ is, so here it is: an angel is dual to a fishing rod, because in German the meaning of the word „angel“ is fishing rod. So the analogous newsflash might have read as follows:
„Breaking: Scientists finally managed to study an angel in the lab.
Physicists from Caltech partnered with their friends from Guugle‘s fishing store to finally study the mysterious creature widely known as angel in their lab for the very first time. Indeed, linguists recently found out that an angel is dual to a fishing rod and thus they are basically the same thing, because the German word „angel“ means „fishing rod“.
Guugle provided their newest fishing gear, but some essential parts were missing, unfortunately. So instead of a fishing rod they could only provide a fishing line. However, Caltech‘s physicists immediately realized that the essential part of a fishing rod, and thus of an angel, is the fishing line. By studying the tension of the fishing line, they found unambiguous signals indicative of an angel. It was nuts.“
Maybe that helps to contextualize the achievement of these very special scientists.
A pity! When I saw you were quoted I said, “Great! Even Peter Woit is on board!”
Finally, they’ll have to give Susskind his Nobel Prize!
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I took Ouellette’s article to be pretty clear about the tenuousness of the connection to quantum gravity, and it states explicitly “the atoms behaved exactly how one would predict they would using traditional 1920s-era quantum mechanics”. A commensurately diplomatic way to characterize some of her judgements about how “exciting” or “interesting” this “new dual way to speak about certain specific systems” might be to note these are subjective terms.
But you’re probably right, and I’m grasping at straws. I’m a big fan of good science journalism, and Ouellette and Wolchover have produced some of the finest, in my opinion. I’d like to think Quanta and those involved got played here, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. So, again, depressing.
Your currently last update has twice link to Matt Strassler’s comment.
I guess that the second case is for the Twitter thread, or its 6/10 part.
PS This comment is only meant as a “typo” notice, not as a real comment.
In your latest update the first link in the second set of links doesn’t seem to point where you intended. (It’s identical to the last link in the first set of links, and doesn’t contain any remarks by Natalie Wolchover.)
Link in update fixed.
Wolchover has pinned her tweet about her story. I.e., she is not backing down from her part in the hype.
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