Tag Archives: quantum cryptography

The poetry of physics from Canada’s Perimeter Institute

Dedicated to foundational theoretical physics, the Perimeter Institute (PI) has an active outreach programme. In their latest ‘newsletter’ (received via email on September 19, 2018) highlights poetry written by scientists, (from the ’12 poignant poems’ webpage),

It can be said that science and poetry share the common purpose of revealing profound truths about the universe and our place in it.

Physicist Paul Dirac, a known curmudgeon, would have dismissed that idea as hogwash.

“The aim of science is to make difficult things understandable in a simpler way; the aim of poetry is to state simple things in an incomprehensible way,” Dirac grouched to a colleague.  “The two are incompatible.”

The colleague to whom Dirac was grumbling, J. Robert Oppenheimer, was a lover of poetry who dabbled in it himself — as did, it turns out, quite a few great physicists, past and present. Physicists have often turned to poetry to express ideas for which there are no equations.

Here’s a look at some of the loveliest stanzas from physicists past and present, plus a few selections of rhyming silliness that get an A+ for effort.

Considering his reported distaste for poetry, it seems Dirac may have committed a few lines to verse. A four-line poem credited to Dirac laments the belief that, once past the age of 30, physicists have already passed their peak intellectual years.

dirac poetry

Perhaps the most prolific of all the poetic physicists was the Scottish genius [James Clerk Maxwell] whose equations for electromagnetism have been called “the second great unification in physics” (second to Isaac Newton’s marriage of physics and astronomy).

Maxwell’s best-known poetic composition is “Rigid Body Sings,” a ditty he used to sing while playing guitar, which is based on the classic Robbie Burns poem “Comin’ Through the Rye” (the inspiration for the title of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye). In terms of melding poetry and physics, however, Maxwell’s geekiest composition might be “A Problem in Dynamics,” which shows both his brilliance and sense of humour.

james clerk maxwell poem

Read the full poem

If Maxwell’s “A Problem in Dynamics,” is a little too technical for your mathematical comfort level, his fellow Scottish physicist William J.M. Rankine penned poetry requiring only a rudimentary understanding of algebra (and a peculiar understanding of love).

rankine physics poem

Richard Feynman was known for both his brilliance and his eclectic lifestyle, which included playing the bongos, safe-cracking, and, occasionally, writing poetry.

Read the full poem

Although theoretical physics is her specialty, Shohini Ghose is a true polymath. Born in India, educated in the US, and now a multi-award-winning professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, Ghose has delivered popular talks on subjects ranging from climate change to sexism in science. She recently joined Perimeter Institute as an affiliate researcher and an Equity, Inclusion & Diversity Specialist. On top of all that, she is a poet too.

Shohini poem

English mathematician James Joseph Sylvester was a prolific scholar whose collected works on matrix theory, number theory, and combinatorics fill four (large) volumes. In his honour, the Royal Society of London bestows the Sylvester Medal every two years to an early-career mathematician who shows potential to make major breakthroughs, just as the medal’s namesake did. It is only fitting that Sylvester’s best known work of poetry is an ode to a missing part of an algebraic formula.

sylvester poem physics

Read the full poem

Sonali Mohapatra is a Chancellor’s PhD Student at the University of Sussex and an alumna of the Perimeter Scholars International master’s program (during which she sang on the nationally broadcast CBC Radio program Ideas). She’s also the author of the poetry compilation Leaking Ink and runs an international magazine on creative resistance called Carved Voices. In her spare time — which, remarkably, she occasionally has — she delivers motivational talks on physics, feminism, and the juxtaposition of the personal and the professional.

sonali poem

Read the full poem

William Rowan Hamilton was an extraordinary mathematician whose research had long-lasting implications for modern physics. As a poet, he was a bit of a hack, at least in the eyes of his friend and renowned poet William Wordsworth. Hamilton often sent his poems to Wordsworth for feedback, and Wordsworth went to great pains to provide constructive criticism without hurting his friend’s feelings. Upon reading one of Hamilton’s poems, Wordsworth replied: “I do venture to submit to your consideration, whether the poetical parts of your nature would not find a field more favourable to their exercise in the regions of prose.” Translation: don’t quit your day job, Bill. Here’s one of Hamilton’s better works — a tribute to another giant of mathematics and physics, Joseph Fourier.

hamilton poetry

Read the full poem

For some lyrical physicists, poetry is not always a hobby separate from scientific research. For some (at least one), poetry is a way to present scientific findings. In 1984, Australian physicist J.W.V. Storey published a research paper — The Detection of Shocked Co/ Emission from G333.6-0.2 — as a 38-stanza poem. To any present-day researchers reading this: we dare you to try it.

storey poem

Caltech physicist John Preskill is one of the world’s leading researchers exploring quantum information and the application of quantum computing to big questions about spacetime. Those are extremely complex topics, but Preskill also has a knack for explaining complicated subjects in accessible (and, occasionally, rhyming) terms. Here’s a snippet from a poem he wrote called “Quantum Cryptography.”

john preskill poems

Read the full poem

Nitica Sakharwade is a PhD student who, when not tackling foundational puzzles in quantum mechanics and quantum information, writes poetry and performs spoken word. In fact, she’s performing at the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word in October 2018. Though her poems don’t always relate to physics, when they do, they examine profound ideas like the Chandrasekhar limit (the mass threshold that determines whether a white dwarf star will explode in a cataclysmic supernova).

chandrasekhar limit

David Morin is a physics professor at Harvard who has become somewhat legendary for sprucing up his lessons with physics-based limericks. Some are quite catchy and impressively whittle a complex subject down to a set of simple rhyming verses, like the one below about Emmy Noether’s landmark theorem.

noether symmetries

Other poems by Morin — such as this one, explaining how a medium other than a vacuum would affect a classic experiment — border on the absurd.

morin poems harvard

Lastly, we can’t resist sharing a poem by the brilliant Katharine Burr Blodgett, a physicist and chemist who, among other achievements, invented non-reflective “invisible” glass. That glass became very useful in filmmaking and was first put to use by Hollywood in a little movie called Gone With the Wind. After she retired from a long and successful career at General Electric (where she also pioneered materials to de-ice airplane wings, among many other innovations), she amused herself by writing quirky poetry.

katharine burr blodget

I’d usually edit a bit in an effort to drive readers over to the Perimeter website but I just can’t bear to cut this up. Thank you to Colin Hunter for compiling the poems and the write ups. For anyone who wants to investigate the Perimeter Institute further and doesn’t have a PhD in physics, there’s the Slices of PI webpage featuring “fun, monthly dispatches about science designed for social sharing.”

Quantum computing and more at SXSW (South by Southwest) 2018

It’s that time of year again. The entertainment conference such as South by South West (SXSW) is being held from March 9-18, 2018. The science portion of the conference can be found in the Intelligent Future sessions, from the description,

AI and new technologies embody the realm of possibilities where intelligence empowers and enables technology while sparking legitimate concerns about its uses. Highlighted Intelligent Future sessions include New Mobility and the Future of Our Cities, Mental Work: Moving Beyond Our Carbon Based Minds, Can We Create Consciousness in a Machine?, and more.

Intelligent Future Track sessions are held March 9-15 at the Fairmont.

Last year I focused on the conference sessions on robots, Hiroshi Ishiguro’s work, and artificial intelligence in a  March 27, 2017 posting. This year I’m featuring one of the conference’s quantum computing session, from a March 9, 2018 University of Texas at Austin news release  (also on EurekAlert),

Imagine a new kind of computer that can quickly solve problems that would stump even the world’s most powerful supercomputers. Quantum computers are fundamentally different. They can store information as not only just ones and zeros, but in all the shades of gray in-between. Several companies and government agencies are investing billions of dollars in the field of quantum information. But what will quantum computers be used for?

South by Southwest 2018 hosts a panel on March 10th [2018] called Quantum Computing: Science Fiction to Science Fact. Experts on quantum computing make up the panel, including Jerry Chow of IBM; Bo Ewald of D-Wave Systems; Andrew Fursman of 1QBit; and Antia Lamas-Linares of the Texas Advanced Computing Center at UT Austin.

Antia Lamas-Linares is a Research Associate in the High Performance Computing group at TACC. Her background is as an experimentalist with quantum computing systems, including work done with them at the Centre for Quantum Technologies in Singapore. She joins podcast host Jorge Salazar to talk about her South by Southwest panel and about some of her latest research on quantum information.

Lamas-Linares co-authored a study (doi: 10.1117/12.2290561) in the Proceedings of the SPIE, The International Society for Optical Engineering, that published in February of 2018. The study, “Secure Quantum Clock Synchronization,” proposed a protocol to verify and secure time synchronization of distant atomic clocks, such as those used for GPS signals in cell phone towers and other places. “It’s important work,” explained Lamas-Linares, “because people are worried about malicious parties messing with the channels of GPS. What James Troupe (Applied Research Laboratories, UT Austin) and I looked at was whether we can use techniques from quantum cryptography and quantum information to make something that is inherently unspoofable.”

Antia Lamas-Linares: The most important thing is that quantum technologies is a really exciting field. And it’s exciting in a fundamental sense. We don’t quite know what we’re going to get out of it. We know a few things, and that’s good enough to drive research. But the things we don’t know are much broader than the things we know, and it’s going to be really interesting. Keep your eyes open for this.

Quantum Computing: Science Fiction to Science Fact, March 10, 2018 | 11:00AM – 12:00PM, Fairmont Manchester EFG, SXSW 2018, Austin, TX.

If you look up the session, you will find,

Quantum Computing: Science Fiction to Science Fact

Quantum Computing: Science Fiction to Science Fact


Bo Ewald

D-Wave Systems

Antia Lamas-Linares

Texas Advanced Computing Center at University of Texas

Startups and established players have sold 2000 Qubit systems, made freely available cloud access to quantum computer processors, and created large scale open source initiatives, all taking quantum computing from science fiction to science fact. Government labs and others like IBM, Microsoft, Google are developing software for quantum computers. What problems will be solved with this quantum leap in computing power that cannot be solved today with the world’s most powerful supercomputers?

[Programming descriptions are generated by participants and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of SXSW.]

Favorited by (1128)

View all

Primary Entry: Platinum Badge, Interactive Badge

Secondary Entry: Music Badge, Film Badge

Format: Panel

Event Type: Session

Track: Intelligent Future

Level: Intermediate

I wonder what ‘level’ means? I was not able to find an answer (quickly).

It’s was a bit surprising to find someone from D-Wave Systems (a Vancouver-based quantum computing based enterprise) at an entertainment conference. Still, it shouldn’t have been. Two other examples immediately come to mind, the TED (technology, entertainment, and design) conferences have been melding technology, if not science, with creative activities of all kinds for many years (TED 2018: The Age of Amazement, April 10 -14, 2018 in Vancouver [Canada]) and Beakerhead (2018 dates: Sept. 19 – 23) has been melding art, science, and engineering in a festival held in Calgary (Canada) since 2013. One comment about TED, it was held for several years in California (1984, 1990 – 2013) and moved to Vancouver in 2014.

For anyone wanting to browse the 2018 SxSW Intelligent Future sessions online, go here. or wanting to hear Antia Lamas-Linares talk about quantum computing, there’s the interview with Jorge Salazar (mentioned in the news release),