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.