Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s apparently extemporaneous response to a joking (non)question about quantum computing by a journalist during an April 15, 2016 press conference at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada has created a buzz online, made international news, and caused Canadians to sit taller.
For anyone who missed the moment, here’s a video clip from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC),
Aaron Hutchins in an April 15, 2016 article for Maclean’s magazine digs deeper to find out more about Trudeau and quantum physics (Note: A link has been removed),
Raymond Laflamme knows the drill when politicians visit the Perimeter Institute. A photo op here, a few handshakes there and a tour with “really basic, basic, basic facts” about the field of quantum mechanics.
But when the self-described “geek” Justin Trudeau showed up for a funding announcement on Friday [April 15, 2016], the co-founder and director of the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo wasn’t met with simple nods of the Prime Minister pretending to understand. Trudeau immediately started talking about things being waves and particles at the same time, like cats being dead and alive at the same time. It wasn’t just nonsense—Trudeau was referencing the famous thought experiment of the late legendary physicist Erwin Schrödinger.
“I don’t know where he learned all that stuff, but we were all surprised,” Laflamme says. Soon afterwards, as Trudeau met with one student talking about superconductivity, the Prime Minister asked her, “Why don’t we have high-temperature superconducting systems?” something Laflamme describes as the institute’s “Holy Grail” quest.
“I was flabbergasted,” Laflamme says. “I don’t know how he does in other subjects, but in quantum physics, he knows the basic pieces and the important questions.”
Strangely, Laflamme was not nearly as excited (tongue in cheek) when I demonstrated my understanding of quantum physics during our interview (see my May 11, 2015 posting; scroll down about 40% of the way to the Ramond Laflamme subhead).
As Jon Butterworth comments in his April 16, 2016 posting on the Guardian science blog, the response says something about our expectations regarding politicians,
This seems to have enhanced Trudeau’s reputation no end, and quite right too. But it is worth thinking a bit about why.
The explanation he gives is clear, brief, and understandable to a non-specialist. It is the kind of thing any sufficiently engaged politician could pick up from a decent briefing, given expert help. …
Butterworth also goes on to mention journalists’ expectations,
The reporter asked the question in a joking fashion, not unkindly as far as I can tell, but not expecting an answer either. If this had been an announcement about almost any other government investment, wouldn’t the reporter have expected a brief explanation of the basic ideas behind it? …
As for the announcement being made by Trudeau, there is this April 15, 2016 Perimeter Institute press release (Note: Links have been removed),
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the work being done at Perimeter and in Canada’s “Quantum Valley” [emphasis mine] is vital to the future of the country and the world.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau became both teacher and student when he visited Perimeter Institute today to officially announce the federal government’s commitment to support fundamental scientific research at Perimeter.
Joined by Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan and Small Business and Tourism Minister Bardish Chagger, the self-described “geek prime minister” listened intensely as he received brief overviews of Perimeter research in areas spanning from quantum science to condensed matter physics and cosmology.
“You don’t have to be a geek like me to appreciate how important this work is,” he then told a packed audience of scientists, students, and community leaders in Perimeter’s atrium.
The Prime Minister was also welcomed by 200 teenagers attending the Institute’s annual Inspiring Future Women in Science conference, and via video greetings from cosmologist Stephen Hawking [he was Laflamme’s PhD supervisor], who is a Perimeter Distinguished Visiting Research Chair. The Prime Minister said he was “incredibly overwhelmed” by Hawking’s message.
“Canada is a wonderful, huge country, full of people with big hearts and forward-looking minds,” Hawking said in his message. “It’s an ideal place for an institute dedicated to the frontiers of physics. In supporting Perimeter, Canada sets an example for the world.”
The visit reiterated the Government of Canada’s pledge of $50 million over five years announced in last month’s [March 2016] budget [emphasis mine] to support Perimeter research, training, and outreach.
It was the Prime Minister’s second trip to the Region of Waterloo this year. In January , he toured the region’s tech sector and universities, and praised the area’s innovation ecosystem.
This time, the focus was on the first link of the innovation chain: fundamental science that could unlock important discoveries, advance human understanding, and underpin the groundbreaking technologies of tomorrow.
As for the “quantum valley’ in Ontario, I think there might be some competition here in British Columbia with D-Wave Systems (first commercially available quantum computing, of a sort; my Dec. 16, 2015 post is the most recent one featuring the company) and the University of British Columbia’s Stewart Blusson Quantum Matter Institute.
Getting back to Trudeau, it’s exciting to have someone who seems so interested in at least some aspects of science that he can talk about it with a degree of understanding. I knew he had an interest in literature but there is also this (from his Wikipedia entry; Note: Links have been removed),
Trudeau has a bachelor of arts degree in literature from McGill University and a bachelor of education degree from the University of British Columbia…. After graduation, he stayed in Vancouver and he found substitute work at several local schools and permanent work as a French and math teacher at the private West Point Grey Academy … . From 2002 to 2004, he studied engineering at the École Polytechnique de Montréal, a part of the Université de Montréal. He also started a master’s degree in environmental geography at McGill University, before suspending his program to seek public office. [emphases mine]
Trudeau is not the only political leader to have a strong interest in science. In our neighbour to the south, there’s President Barack Obama who has done much to promote science since he was elected in 2008. David Bruggeman in an April 15, 2016 post (Obama hosts DNews segments for Science Channel week of April 11-15, 2016) and an April 17, 2016 post (Obama hosts White House Science Fair) describes two of Obama’s most recent efforts.
ETA April 19, 2016: I’ve found confirmation that this Q&A was somewhat staged as I hinted in the opening with “Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s apparently extemporaneous response … .” Will Oremus’s April 19, 2016 article for Slate.com breaks the whole news cycle down and points out (Note: A link has been removed),
Over the weekend, even as latecomers continued to dine on the story’s rapidly decaying scraps, a somewhat different picture began to emerge. A Canadian blogger pointed out that Trudeau himself had suggested to reporters at the event that they lob him a question about quantum computing so that he could knock it out of the park with the newfound knowledge he had gleaned on his tour.
The Canadian blogger who tracked this down is J. J. McCullough (Jim McCullough) and you can read his Oct. 16, 2016 posting on the affair here. McCullough has a rather harsh view of the media response to Trudeau’s lecture. Oremus is a bit more measured,
… Monday brought the countertake parade—smaller and less pompous, if no less righteous—led by Gawker with the headline, “Justin Trudeau’s Quantum Computing Explanation Was Likely Staged for Publicity.”
But few of us in the media today are immune to the forces that incentivize timeliness and catchiness over subtlety, and even Gawker’s valuable corrective ended up meriting a corrective of its own. Author J.K. Trotter soon updated his post with comments from Trudeau’s press secretary, who maintained (rather convincingly, I think) that nothing in the episode was “staged”—at least, not in the sinister way that the word implies. Rather, Trudeau had joked that he was looking forward to someone asking him about quantum computing; a reporter at the press conference jokingly complied, without really expecting a response (he quickly moved on to his real question before Trudeau could answer); Trudeau responded anyway, because he really did want to show off his knowledge.
Trotter deserves credit, regardless, for following up and getting a fuller picture of what transpired. He did what those who initially jumped on the story did not, which was to contact the principals for context and comment.
But my point here is not to criticize any particular writer or publication. The too-tidy Trudeau narrative was not the deliberate work of any bad actor or fabricator. Rather, it was the inevitable product of today’s inexorable social-media machine, in which shareable content fuels the traffic-referral engines that pay online media’s bills.
I suggest reading both McCullough’s and Oremus’s posts in their entirety should you find debates about the role of media compelling.