Happy Holidays!

As I don’t expect to be able to blog again before the Xmas break, I’d like to wish all readers of QQ a happy whateveryou’recelebrating.

The holidays are one of those times of year when relatives get the opportunity to ask you, “So, what exactly is it that you do research on?”. This dreaded question will come with certainty, regardless of how many times you have previously explained it to them. It’s not their fault because the average person does not have physics on their mind for any significant amount of time, so it’s easy to forget what it’s all about.

The question is especially bad if you spend any time thinking about the foundations of quantum theory, because it’s difficult to describe quantum theory accurately in a few words. Here’s my best shot at an answer at the moment.

Miscellaneous Relative: So, what is this quantum theory thing all about then?

Me: Well, it’s not exactly about the fact that particles sometimes behave like waves and waves like particles.

MR: Go on.

Me: There is this thing called the Heisenberg uncertainty relation, but strictly speaking it doesn’t say that a measurement of position necessarily disturbs the momentum and vice-versa.


Me: And it’s definitely not that there are multiple universes.

MR: That’s a shame. I enjoy science fiction, so that was the bit I liked the most.

Me: There are these things called wavefunctions, which can be in superpositions, but it’s not entirely clear what the true significance of that is.

MR: I’m not getting much insight into what you actually do from this by the way.

Me: It seems that John Bell proved that locality and realism are incompatible, but people are still debating the significance of that, so it’s definitely not the whole story either.

MR: Now I really have no clue what you are talking about.

Me: It’s not just about “finding the right language” with which to talk about physics. In particular, I don’t think that revising logic is really the right thing to do.

MR: That sounds sensible enough.

Me: Some people think the whole thing is just about doing something called “solving the measurement problem”, but I don’t think that’s an entirely helpful way of looking at things.

MR: So just what IS the whole thing about then?

Me: That’s the whole question. Welcome to my research programme.

6 responses to “Happy Holidays!

  1. Robin Blume-Kohout

    Hah! You’ve made my holiday season. Here I was, in a funk because I can never explain what a quantum information theorist does in less than 5 minutes (and even then, not satisfactorily). You’ve made me realize that it could be worse.

    On the other hand, at least you get to be honest. Me, I always take the “Oh, it’s got technological implications” approach… and end up with this vaguely dirty feeling. As if I’d just been talking to a funding agency.

    Happy Solstice,

  2. Thing is, I do also do quantum information (or at least I have to say that in case there are any funding agency people reading). This summer I spent about 15min carefully explaining RSA, complexity theory, Shor’s algorithm and quantum cryptography to a friend’s Mum. The response after all that was: “So, it’s about making faster computers then?” After that, I made a mental note that “It’s about making faster computers” is a good getout, although about as inaccurate as what most people would say about quantum foundations.

  3. The only thing I like less than trying to explain the area of my work (quantum foundations) to lay people, is trying to explain it to fellow mathematicians. A pretty typical response is, “Gee, that’s interesting … but tell me, where does one publish this sort of stuff?”

  4. I can sympathise. Right now my grandmother thinks that quantum mechanics is about studying “very very small things”. I’m quite happy; anything beyond this would be too much to ask.

    That being said, it’s quite an exercise to try and explain to a layperson what your research is about, but it’s a worthwhile exercise because it forces you to strip everything down to its most essential points. I’ve found a similar thing taking classes; I always felt I learned the most not by studying alone but by explaining the material to my fellow students.

  5. Thanks for a great post. I spent a good deal of time trying to explain to my grandmother what it is that I do, and all she had to say was: “but why would you want to do that?” Very frustrating, indeed.

    Anyway, thanks for a great blog.

  6. Hahaha, great post! Maybe the best way to explain your subject indeed is telling what “it is not exactly”… especially when you’re dealing with quantum foundations.

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