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: 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.