The New Yorker and the Publicity Stunt

The wormhole publicity stunt story just keeps going. Today an article about the Google Santa Barbara lab and quantum computer used in the publicity stunt appeared in the New Yorker. One of the main people profiled is Hartmut Neven, the lab founder and a publicity stunt co-author. He is described as follows:

Neven, originally from Germany, is a bald fifty-seven-year-old who belongs to the modern cast of hybridized executive-mystics. He talked of our quantum future with a blend of scientific precision and psychedelic glee. He wore a leather jacket, a loose-fitting linen shirt festooned with buttons, a pair of jeans with zippered pockets on the legs, and Velcro sneakers that looked like moon boots. “As my team knows, I never miss a single Burning Man,” he told me.

The article explains what has been going on at the Google lab under Neven’s direction:

in the past few years, in research papers published in the world’s leading scientific journals, he and his team have also unveiled a series of small, peculiar wonders: photons that bunch together in clumps; identical particles whose properties change depending on the order in which they are arranged; an exotic state of perpetually mutating matter known as a “time crystal.” “There’s literally a list of a dozen things like this, and each one is about as science fictiony as the next,” Neven said. He told me that a team led by the physicist Maria Spiropulu had used Google’s quantum computer to simulate a “holographic wormhole,” a conceptual shortcut through space-time—an achievement that recently made the cover of Nature.

There are some indications given that the wormholes aren’t everything you’d like a wormhole to be:

Google’s published scientific results in quantum computing have at times drawn scrutiny from other researchers. (One of the Nature paper’s authors called their wormhole the “smallest, crummiest wormhole you can imagine.” Spiropulu, who owns a dog named Qubit, concurred. “It’s really very crummy, for real,” she told me.) “With all these experiments, there’s still a huge debate as to what extent are we actually doing what we claim,” Scott Aaronson, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who specializes in quantum computing, said. “You kind of have to squint.”

I took another look at the Nature article and realized that at the end it has a section explaining the contributions of each author (I’ll reproduce the whole thing as an appendix here). For Neven it has

Google’s VP Engineering, Quantum AI, H.N. coordinated project resources on behalf of the Google Quantum AI team.

Two physicists profiled are John Preskill and Alexei Kitaev. Academia in this field is seeing a big impact of quantum computing jobs and funding. According to the article:

Preskill and Kitaev teach Caltech’s introductory quantum-computing course together, and their classroom is overflowing with students. But, in 2021, Amazon announced that it was opening a large quantum-computing laboratory on Caltech’s campus. Preskill is now an Amazon Scholar; Kitaev remained with Google. The two physicists, who used to have adjacent offices, today work in separate buildings. They remain collegial, but I sensed that there were certain research topics on which they could no longer confer.

Someone told me that the Amazon lab where Preskill works has postdoc-type positions for theoretical physicists, salary about 250K.

Theoretical physics hype and quantum computing hype come together prominently in the article. Besides Shor’s algorithm and its implications for cryptography, here’s the rest of what quantum computers promise:

A quantum computer could open new frontiers in mathematics, revolutionizing our idea of what it means to “compute.” Its processing power could spur the development of new industrial chemicals, addressing the problems of climate change and food scarcity. And it could reconcile the elegant theories of Albert Einstein with the unruly microverse of particle physics, enabling discoveries about space and time.

How long until quantum computers unify GR and the Standard Model? We just need better, fault-tolerant, qubits, and then:

A thousand fault-tolerant qubits should be enough to run accurate simulations of molecular chemistry. Ten thousand fault-tolerant qubits could begin to unlock new findings in particle physics.

The hype here is far hypier than any of the string theory hype I’ve been covering over the years, and it looks like it’s got a lot more money and influence behind it, so will be a major force driving the field in coming years and decades.


The Nature contributions section is:

J.D.L. and D.J. are senior co-principal investigators of the QCCFP Consortium. J.D.L. worked on the conception of the research program, theoretical calculations, computation aspects, simulations and validations. D.J. is one of the inventors of the SYK traversable wormhole protocol. He worked on all theoretical aspects of the research and the validation of the wormhole dynamics. Graduate student D.K.K.47 worked on theoretical aspects and calculations of the chord diagrams. Graduate student S.I.D. worked on computation and simulation aspects. Graduate student A.Z.48 worked on all theory and computation aspects, the learning methods that solved the sparsification challenge, the coding of the protocol on the Sycamore and the coordination with the Google Quantum AI team. Postdoctoral scholar N.L. worked on the working group coordination aspects, meetings and workshops, and follow-up on all outstanding challenges. Google’s VP Engineering, Quantum AI, H.N. coordinated project resources on behalf of the Google Quantum AI team. M.S. is the lead principal investigator of the QCCFP Consortium Project. She conceived and proposed the on-chip traversable wormhole research program in 2018, assembled the group with the appropriate areas of expertise and worked on all aspects of the research and the manuscript together with all authors.

Update: John Horgan’s take on the stunt is Physicists Teleport Bullshit Through a Wormhole.

Update: Quanta is still actively promoting their story that

Physicists have purportedly created the first-ever wormhole, a kind of tunnel theorized in 1935 by Albert Einstein and Nathan Rosen that leads from one place to another by passing into an extra dimension of space.

with nothing on their site that indicates that this story has gotten an almost universally negative reaction from knowledgeable scientists. The one exception I’ve seen is Lubos Motl, who comments on the Quanta story. Lubos also engaged in a long exchange here with Matt Strassler. I had been worried about how Lubos was doing, it’s reassuring to see that he’s still out there, still himself, and still reliably defending the most indefensible products of string theory hype in his characteristic style.

Update: A surprising number of theorists seem willing to help hype the publicity stunt. See for instance this from Penn. It seems to me full of misinformation, for instance

Heckman: In fact, the entire experiment could have been done on a classical machine; it just would have taken a lot more time.

In fact, the “experiment” was actually done on a classical computer, in a very short amount of time. For studying this kind of model, classical computers are hugely faster and more capable than any current quantum computer. Here they were used to search for a simplified version of the real problem that was easy enough that it could be done by the quantum computer.

Update: Dan Garisto on his blog has an article about the wormhole fiasco, originally intended for publication in SciAm. Garisto explains that SciAm was originally not taken in by the publicity stunt:

I should tell you, when my editor at Scientific American sent me the embargoed press release on Thanksgiving with the subject line “Hmmm,” I responded dubiously. “They used 9 qubits! What the hell could that possibly tell you?” We chose not to cover it—initially.

He also gives a correct description of what this really was:

…the supposed bombshell dropped by the Nature paper is a calculation of an approximation of a model conjectured to be equivalent to a lower-dimensional gravity for a universe that isn’t ours. 

and challenges the misleading messaging from the scientists and from Quanta:

Quantum message discipline is sorely needed. Clarifying their headline change, Quanta noted that “The researchers behind the new work — some of the best-respected physicists in the world — frequently and consistently described their work to us as ‘creating a wormhole.’” 

When reached for comment, the study’s co-leader Maria Spiropulu pointed to a Caltech FAQ in her team’s defense. “Did we claim to have produced or observed a wormhole deformation of 3+1-dimensional spacetime?” the FAQ asks. The answer it then offers is a firm “No.” The FAQ further elaborates that what the researchers saw was only “consistent with the dynamics of a traversable wormhole.” The Nature paper is less absolute. There, Spiropulu and her co-authors describe their research as “the experimental realization of traversable wormhole dynamics on nine qubits” and discuss how they used a quantum teleportation protocol to “insert another qubit across the wormhole from right to left.” 

And in a video produced ahead of publication by Quanta, several researchers spoke gushingly, saying, “This is a wormhole” and “I think we have a wormhole, guys.” This is at best, deeply misleading.

He also has a quote from Natalie Wolchover which tries to explain the point of view which she (and others like Susskind) take that a quantum computer calculation of a toy mathematical model of a physical system is somehow really creating and doing a laboratory experiment on the physical system being modeled:

Natalie Wolchover, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer at Quanta, argues that when a quantum computer simulates a toy model of quantum matter, such as the SYK model, it is really “creating” the quantum system it asks about. “It’s profound but somehow I can’t put my finger on what it means about the difference between ‘real’ and ‘simulated,’” she wrote in an email.

This is complete nonsense, as Scott Aaronson tried to explain in the quote he gave for the NYT article about this:

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.

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29 Responses to The New Yorker and the Publicity Stunt

  1. Pascal says:

    I have finally watched the quanta video. On top of all the other problems, they have their history of wormhole physics completely wrong. They claim that Einstein was frustrated that the ER bridge was not traversable. But the idea to use wormhole to connect distant points in space time is not due to Einstein-Rosen’35 at all. It came much later, in the sixties, with the work of Wheeler and collaborators. The notion of a “non-traversable wormhole” is also due to these guys. In ER’35, a wormhole was a model of an elementary particle. Unfortunately, a neutron is much too small for Einstein or Nathalie Wolchover to jump through.

  2. By the usual standards for quantum computing popular articles that have prevailed for 20+ years, this one’s not so bad. At least it talks clearly about the difficulty of beating classical computers in a fair comparison, and it focuses much more on quantum physics and chemistry simulation (which is indeed the best bet for near-term applications) than on doubtful uses in optimization, finance, and machine learning.

    For the record, in the quote from me, I wasn’t talking about the wormhole claim, which hadn’t even come out yet when Stephen Witt interviewed me, and about which I probably would’ve had stronger words! I was talking specifically about the quantum supremacy experiments based on BosonSampling and Random Circuit Sampling.

  3. John Pohl says:

    “Someone told me that the Amazon lab where Preskill works has postdoc-type positions for theoretical physicists, salary about 250K.” Is this true? That is amazing money for a postdoc position.

  4. Peter Woit says:

    Scott (or anyone else),

    Any guess for the source for the claim about “ten thousand fault-tolerant qubits” as the threshold for getting something new in particle physics? Presumably this wasn’t a randomly chosen number, but corresponds to some particular calculation on a quantum computer. Which one?

  5. Peter Woit says:

    John Pohl,
    Someone told me the 250K number. I just checked on Glassdoor, which shows,38.htm
    231K (141K base, 27K bonus, 63K stock).

    Yes, that’s amazing money for a postdoc position. Also according to Glassdoor,39.htm
    the salary for a more conventional postdoc is 55K.

    In the string theory hype story I never thought that money was what was motivating people to engage in hype. In this case I think it’s clear money is a factor.

  6. @Peter Woit: I was wondering that too! I think it’s plausible that, supposing you had 10,000 fault-tolerant qubits, you could do all sorts of simulations of interest for HEP. But I have no idea why the article gave that specific number.

  7. Peter Woit says:

    I just realized this could refer to either simulating QCD better than usual Monte-Carlos, which could be a significant thing. But it might also be something like the SYK calculation, which supposedly was “quantum gravity in a lab”, but wouldn’t really tell you anything about the real world.

  8. At my university, “coordinating project resources” isn’t enough to officially be allowed to be an author. It has guidelines around how much people need to contribute to be an author on a paper, and merely bringing funding isn’t enough, but I suspect these guidelines are sometimes treated as such, or else grant holders have a high-level project meeting once or twice, and give comments, and count themselves as having ‘contributed’ to the research.

  9. Peter Woit says:

    David Roberts,
    Maybe rules are different when you’re creating wormholes.

  10. Meticulous Reader says:

    I read John Horgan’s piece. It’s a nice one, but even that one contains some of the roots behind the issue. Journalists should meticulously choose their words and not fall into the trap of repeating what people in a certain group keep telling each other. As long as journalists keep referring to those people as “quantum gravity experts”, hype around what those people are doing can only grow and receive wide acceptance. Calling people quantum gravity experts when those people spend their careers playing with toy models that have nothing to do with real gravity is in itself a big contribution to feeding the hype.

  11. Davide Castelvecchi says:

    “Soon, in what many consider the most bizarre scientific result of all time, the physicists realized that whether an electron behaved more like a particle or more like a wave depended on whether or not someone was observing it. The field of quantum mechanics was born.”
    — I’m not sure that’s how the history of quantum mechanics went? 🙂

  12. Peter Woit says:

    Meticulous Reader,
    I do agree there are some problems with the Horgan piece. For instance, he does not make clear that while the scientists involved produced unprecedented amounts of bullshit, none it actually got teleported anywhere.
    Since this whole subfield is based on Susskind’s 2017 GR=QM paper, a more accurate description of those involved than “quantum gravity experts” would be “people pursuing an increasingly outlandish failed 40 year old research program”.

  13. Peter Woit says:

    Davide Castelvecchi,
    Does make one wonder about the New Yorker fact-checking. If they got that so wrong, how could you trust them about the really hard to believe stuff, like what Hartmut Neven was wearing?

  14. “There’s literally a list of a dozen things like this, and each one is about as science fictiony as the next,”

    Except in science fiction novels they can actually do something with the technology, rather than just publish papers about its interpretations in scientific magazines.

  15. David Thurman says:

    Peter, the identical behavior is playing out in the crypto world right now. Which BTW is a nice place for mathmaticians, computer science majors, and physics majors from MIT such as the ftx founder to make a quick billion.

    Ethics is that actually science? I don’t think it comes under that domain directly it manifests in it indirectly. So the article isn’t all that shocking, and now it’s internet hard science fact which you have to battle.for years.

    Sometimes the one fooling others is the biggest fool or an idiot. Other times they lack ethics and then it becomes evil. Hard to tell here on this topic in regards to are they evil or idiots. Ethics, interesting topic, it’s not science, but is profoundly and deeply relevant to good healthy science, which appears to becoming sicker by the day.

  16. Peter says:

    I did some superficial checking here in NW-Europe where I live. The Guardian in England mentioned it, but wrote “Experts who were not involved in the experiment cautioned that it was important to note that a physical wormhole had not actually been created, but noted the future possibilities” and quoted Daniel Harlow in the NYT.

    A search on “trou de ver” (wormhole in French) didn’t show results in the leading French newspapers (Le Monde, Le Figaro, Libération). Same for “Wurmloch” in German.

    Nothing, as far as I can see, in the leading newspapers in the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, although in the French-speaking part there’s an article on the website of the public broadcaster RTBf. It’s uncritical and ends with the message that the wormhole is not one we’ll perhaps find in space, “but it allows progress in the unification of the theories of quantum entanglement, spacetime and quantum gravity” (my translation).

    A leading newspaper in the Netherlands, de Volkskrant, had an article about the experiment but it focused on the controversy and gave a lot of space to the critics. It mentioned a critic who says “if they had given their paper a realistic title (…) nobody would have batted an eyelid” (my translation).

    My search wasn’t very thorough, but I have the impression the recent experiments on nuclear fusion got more attention.

  17. jonW says:

    Peter, Quanta has just put out a review of the most significant (in their view) stories of the year in Physics. It’s written by Natalie Wolchover, who is much less gushing (almost backpedalling) about wormholes in this new article:

    “The holographic wormhole spawned endless opinions among physicists and lay readers alike. Some physicists thought the quantum simulation was too pared down compared to the theoretical model it was based on to have a holographic dual description as a wormhole. Many felt that the physicists behind the work, and we, the journalists who covered it, should have better emphasized that this was not an actual wormhole that could transport people to Andromeda. Indeed, to open up a wormhole in real space-time, you’d need negative-energy material, and that doesn’t seem to exist. ”

    It’s at

  18. Peter Woit says:

    Thanks, that’s a lot less over the top than the original article video. Still, listing this as one of the five great discoveries in physics this year has no relation to reality.

  19. French Dip says:

    Hi Peter,

    I’m not sure you’re referencing the Penn article accurately as there’s a fair amount of criticism in there. See e.g.

    Heckman: Insinuating that there is an actual wormhole traversal happening in our world is quite misleading. The authors of the article and the press covering it are engaging in very irresponsible representations of the work.

    Balasubramanian: Once again, they have not built a wormhole in our world. To say that they done so requires some mental gymnastics.

  20. Marvin says:

    Peter W and French Dip,

    About the Penn article, instead of dissipating the controversy, there is overall more hype in the article, making the experiment look a piece of reality that can be constructed from it after all:

    “The black holes in question don’t exist in our world. Rather, they are present in an alternative, ‘dual,’ description of their quantum computing system in terms of a theory of gravity in a different number of dimensions. So, in a sense, they used this ‘dual’ notion of gravity to imagine a traversable bridge, or wormhole, connecting two different quantum mechanical systems, and translated this back into equivalent phenomena in the actual system they built on their quantum computer.”

    So, these black holes that don’t exist (wormlike connected) are represented with a gravity theory in multi-dimension (not 4 as in GR) that don’t exist. What is this? A ridiculous toy model that pretend to have quantum computer properties. This trivial experiment and hype really don’t help physic make progress.

  21. Peter Woit says:

    French Dip/Marvin,
    The problems with the way the publicity stunt was covered go way beyond the problem of no actual wormhole creation. The quantum computer calculation was of zero scientific value, it added nothing to our understanding of anything. The publicity stunt was in the end a huge success: its goal was to convince people (from the public to lab and institute directors) not that a wormhole had been produced, but that the organizers had accomplished something of scientific importance, that they were doing “quantum gravity in a lab”. Besides the outright wrong things in the Penn article (no, this is not a quantum computer doing something better than a classical computer), it just completely mystifies what this calculation really was.

  22. Davide Castelvecchi says:

    @Peter Woit:
    Sorry I only saw your reply now. Perhaps one way to interpret “quantum mechanics was born” is that they were thinking of Einstein’s 1905 paper on the photon? We knew already that light can have wavelike behavior, and this paper showed it can act like a particle, too…

  23. Alan Roxdale says:

    It seems pretty clear that the fuel driving all this stuff is funding pressure, and the pressure to game funding agencies by hook or by crook. A tale as old as post 1980 economic reforms.

    I recall a long number of years ago this blog described a particular incident in Physics as a “reverse Sokal hoax”. This one feels at at least about that magnitude …

    A surprising number of theorists seem willing to help hype the publicity stunt

    …and probably more. Maybe we’ll get a full-blown “N-ray redux” before it all fizzles out (it is going to fizzle out right?)

  24. tulpoeid says:

    I think you are wrong in attacking the Penn article. Yes, it got the quantum computing efficiency part right, but in everything else it was the complete opposite of “help hype the publicity stunt”. Actually I’m a bit surprised to read that you think it contributes to the hype, while it is attacking it without mincing words.

  25. Peter Woit says:

    I read the article again, and I’ll stick to the position that the Penn article misinforms and contributes to the hype. The answers to the questions about the role of quantum computers in this are just completely backwards and designed to further the hype. Saying
    “No, they haven’t created a wormhole, or a shortcut connection between two distant points in space. But what they’ve been able to achieve here is still very impressive and a good step forward for quantum computing.”
    shows the problem. Yes, Balasumbranian is correcting the nonsense about actually creating wormholes, but he’s furthering the hype about this calculation (“still very impressive”). Claiming this as a “good step forward for quantum computing” is just hype and nonsense.

    The point of the publicity stunt was not to convince people of the crazy idea that they had created real wormholes in the lab, but to convince the public, their colleagues, and those responsible for their funding that they had made impressive progress on quantum gravity by doing “quantum gravity in a lab”. Balasumbrananian and Heckman (and many others) have decided to support this. For a more appropriate response, see Garisto’s article. It’s remarkable that here many science journalists are doing a much better job of getting the science right than the physicists commenting on this.

    Alan Roxdale,
    The danger here is that, like with string theory, this is not going to fizzle out, but instead become a dominant part of the field in the future. If funders can be convinced that where money should go is to bogus “quantum gravity in the lab experiments”, that’s going to be the future of the field.

  26. clayton says:

    I tend to agree that a lot of the coverage of this has been dreadful, but this Penn article seems to be one of the best — Heckman goes as far as to say “Insinuating that there is an actual wormhole traversal happening in our world is quite misleading”, and Balasubramanian says “Once again, they have not built a wormhole in our world. To say that they done so requires some mental gymnastics.” They use a lot of technical language which, honestly, I’m a bit surprised made it to this popular webpage. (Er, “popular.”) Not sure what more they could have done, honestly.

  27. Peter Shor says:

    One final comment, although it’s probably too late for anybody to read it.

    Natalie Wolchover, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer at Quanta, argues that when a quantum computer simulates a toy model of quantum matter, such as the SYK model, it is really “creating” the quantum system it asks about.

    My response to this is that the quantum computer isn’t even simulating a qubit going through a wormhole. If I understand the experiment correctly, the wormhole is in a static state; for a qubit to actually go through a wormhole, the wormhole has to have dynamics. It seems to me that is going on is that they are grabbing a qubit on one side of the wormhole, using standard teleportation to send it to the other side, and claiming that it went through the wormhole. This is a very bizarre interpretation of through.

  28. Geoff Penington says:

    @Peter Shor:

    They’re not doing standard teleportation. Instead what they do is evolve one side backwards in time, throw in a qubit, and evolve it forwards in time again. Then they turn on a simple coupling between the two sides (the “teleportation” part is that this could in theory be implemented by measuring one side and then evolving the other based on the measurement outcome), evolve the other side forwards in time, and magically the qubit pops out on the other side.

    From a QI perspective the mechanism for why this works is not at all obvious, and actually relies on the dynamics of the theory creating something called “size winding”. (Actually you don’t need size winding to send one qubit through – any scrambling dynamics will do – but more than one qubit requires size winding.) In fact, the effect was only discovered at all by looking at holographic theories, where it literally describes a particle falling causally through a traversable wormhole.

    The nontrivial “interesting” content of the nature paper involved finding sparse dynamics on only nine qubits that still exhibited signatures of size winding. This let them run the dynamics on Sycamore which is fun I guess.

    Obviously this didn’t push the limits of what’s achievable on a quantum computer in any way. It’s trivial and has been for years. I think the source of Vijay and Jonathan’s confusion on this front (and I think it is confusion or at most academic politeness – not them trying to contribute to the hype) is that simulating a traversable wormhole in a meaningful way was supposed to be really quite hard – and so it’s natural to think that its achievement would involve the real cutting edge of Sycamore’s power. Instead the nature article just found a way to declare the bar for victory to be so low that they could step over it without really trying.

  29. Peter Woit says:

    Geoff Penington,

    I didn’t mean to accuse the Penn string theorists of intentionally trying to contribute to hype. The problem with outrageous claims like “physicists create wormholes” appearing in well-respected places like Quanta and the cover of Nature is that even quite sophisticated readers tend to assume that there must be some significant result behind the dubious headline. It looks to me like Heckman just made this assumption, without looking into what the actual result was.

    Back in the days when string theory was getting this kind of hype treatment, the underlying theoretical results were very hard to understand without a lot of complicated background. But here it was very easy to see that the quantum computer business was an irrelevant stunt, it’s remarkable that any theorists were taken in by it.

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