05/04/2022 07:00 a.m. EST • Last Updated 05/04/2022 01:32 p.m.
While most of us might not understand how quantum computing works, we do understand the need for more precise and useful weather forecasts, more reliable airline scheduling, and the need for lifesaving drugs to be created faster.
Right now, tech behemoths like Google and IBM are duking it out for quantum computing supremacy, to build bigger and better and faster quantum supercomputers that one day will be able to solve these kinds of problems.
Much of the work the tech giants are doing rests squarely on the shoulders of men and women who have toiled away for decades in New Haven who, mostly unnoticed by the average everyday person, made groundbreaking discoveries in basic quantum information science and computing. Wrestling with atoms, subatomic particles, entangled qubits, and concepts like quantum superposition and quantum algorithms, they painstakingly made discoveries that laid the groundwork for the commercial opportunities that promise to change problem-solving, and many aspects of society, as we know it today.
The small revolution that began at Yale in the 1990s is now the subject of an art exhibit at the New Haven Museum, 114 Whitney Avenue, New Haven called The Quantum Revolution: Handcrafted in New Haven, which will remain on view through Sept. 16.
History Repeats Itself
New Haven Museum Director of Photo Archives Jason Bischoff-Wurstle says The Quantum Revolution is a perfect fit for an exhibit and for the museum, which counts among its collection information and artifacts ranging from the earnest, poetic, and heartbreaking handwritten journal of a young father from Connecticut who died while serving in the Continental Army fighting for the country’s independence; photos of a large May Day rally in 1970 that followed the arrest of nine Black Panthers; and a video that recounts the tale of a decadent “sex ball” held in an abandoned New Haven clock factory in the 1980s.
“We are actively collecting what you might call modern history,” he says, in addition to more traditional historical collections from the 1800s and early 1900s. “So The Quantum Revolution fits with that and it happened here in New Haven.”
In the same way that the New Haven Museum has a replica of the first telephone switchboard, invented in New Haven, it now is exhibiting a six-foot device called Badger, a highly specialized refrigerator capable of super-low temperatures that made possible some of superconducting quantum experiments. In addition to Badger, also on display are smaller devices named Jellyfish, Hedgehog, Hippopotamus, and Octopus,
Florian Carle, the manager of the Yale Quantum Institute (YQI) who curated the New Haven Museum exhibit, says the exhibit is particularly timely, precisely because quantum computing is in this transition period right now.
“The technology invented here in New Haven is getting adopted by the tech giants,” he says.
It is something like the switchboard, invented here, and then adopted worldwide.
“So, it’s like, history repeats itself,” he says. “There is a cluster of innovation, and then the commercialization happens.”
The exhibit had its genesis in an earlier effort by YQI to help demystify the intricacies of quantum physics and science. Martha W. Lewis, a New Haven-based visual artist, curator, and educator was enlisted to connect quantum science with contemporary art with illustrations. As an artist-in-residence, working with YQI scientists, she created an interactive installation called “I’ll be your qubit.”
When she started her residency, Lewis had absolutely no training in or experience with quantum physics or the complex highly technical equipment that was being developed as discoveries were made. What she did have were her own tools: graphite pencils, notebooks, erasers, a ruler, an intensely curious mind, and a desire to share the results of delving into that curiosity through her art.
For a year, she sat next to the scientists in their labs and scrutinized single-qubit unitaries and linear combinations of standard basis states being scribbled on white boards. She spent hours studying complex machines made with shiny gold, gleaming copper, and sparkling sapphires.
She was captivated.
“The objects themselves, they’re really complicated and beautiful and wonderful. They’re gold and copper and have all of these intricate little wires,” she says, and much of the early work was handcrafted. “You know when you think of quantum computing, you might think of someone pushing a button or working with electronics. But you’ve got these two things happening. You’ve got these theorists working out the numbers and the equations and trying to solve problems that way. They’re drawing on whiteboards and, yes, they use computers. But they’re also busy working it out in a very analog way. So you’ve got these people busy making the machines.”
Her residency at the lab coincided with the time when the work was shifting from machines like Badger, a dilution refrigerator that was “handmade, bespoke, and a little weird,” toward machines developed to become industry standards that could be scaled and mass produced.
“And I didn’t quite realize while I was doing it that it was at that crucial moment,” she says. “What really got to me was the handmade nature of it, and the way they named their machines, and the kind of complicated relationship they had with them, which was sort of beautiful and funny.”
She says it’s really thrilling to be able to show this work to the public in the New Haven Museum exhibit.
“That’s what science is,” she says. “Science is a sort of creative, collective process and it involves a lot of hard work and labor. As an artist, I definitely responded to that. And there’s something kind of pleasing about having a really analog pencil drawings on paper of all of this.”
So what, given all of that, was she actually looking at and recording while she was creating this art? In other words, what, exactly, is quantum mechanics?
Carle offers to make an explanation.
“Well that’s a big part of the show,” he says, “because, really, a lot of people don’t really know about that, right?”
A Coin Being Flipped in the Air
“So quantum mechanics is basically just the field of physics that describes the property of nature, just at a different scale. We’re used to the classic physics where if you grab something and you drop it, it goes on the floor because, gravity,” he says. “But when you go at the scale of atoms, almost the smallest scale of matter that you can find, the physics tends to have different kinds of reactions.”
For example, different parts of the atom can be thought of as existing in different states at the same time, rather than just one state, as in a typical physical object.
Lewis jumps in with an analogy.
“The image I really like is that say you’ve got a coin with two sides on it. If you imagine it being flipped in the air, you can see all of the sides of your assets at once, right?” she says. “And that’s what’s going on.”
What this means for us in the real world perhaps can be understood by comparing a typical clock or watch, say the kind of clock with a pendulum that might have been made in the New Haven Clock Factory in the 1800s (the clock factory that was later the site of that sex ball).
Then compare that to the quantum-logic clock at the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology. While the typical clock is constantly losing or gaining seconds and has to be reset, the quantum-logic clock, loses or gains a second every 3.7 billion years. An even more advanced clock promises to be accurate for 5 billion years, a development that has implications for GPS navigation, telecommunications, and surveying, among other fields, according to an article in Smithsonian Magazine (www.smithsonianmag.com).
Solving Problems, Or Making Them Worse?
So why is it important for the average person to understand the basics of quantum computing, and how it’s evolving?
For one thing, it promises to lead to the development of all sorts of consumer objects that might change everyday life. It also could help lead to the development of military systems that could kill people more efficiently. It also might transform cybersecurity, for better or worse.
Even more important, says Lewis, is that quantum computing also holds the promise of helping to make the world a better place.
“I mean, I know that people are going to make money-making gadgets and things, but the point also is to solve some very serious problems that we actually need to address,” she says. “And it’s important to understand how far we’ve come already and also to understand how much we totally do not know.”
For example, improving the ability of forecasters to understand weather patterns might help avert humanitarian disasters that might help reduce mass migrations, which might help stabilize some of the world’s political problems.
Carle says he hopes that is right, that quantum computing has the ability to solve the world’s problems.
Right now, he’s not so sure that is the case.
“This scientist is very bitter about the future,” he says, softening his comment with laughter at the end of it. “I really don’t have the same view on that. So the hope is that people will use them to develop better drugs, cure rare diseases…There is definitely the potential to solve a lot of the world’s problems.”
The truth is that he sounds a little bit pessimistic about the future.
A Community Conversation
In an ideal world, exhibits like the one now on view at the New Haven Museum might allow the average person to better understand what’s coming in a way that will allow us to weigh in on the conversation about future uses of this advanced technology in an informed way.
That is how New Haven Museum’s Bischoff-Wurstle sees it. He agrees that it might allow people, people who care about the future of civilization rather than just making money off of a high-tech watch, to have conversations with a congressional representative or, as shareholders, with the CEO of a company.
“Right. And you will be part of that conversation before that conversation has already left the station. That’s a wonderful point,” he says.
He says exhibits like these can also help create and build communities.
“And then you’re interested and you might want to know more about what’s happening in the other labs, rather than just taking it for granted, rather than ‘Oh, that’s just Yale stuff,’” he says. “No! It’s for everybody. Right?”
Helping people understand and appreciate The Quantum Revolution is all part of the museum’s work as it documents the past and helps people understand what might be coming in the future, he says. He says he’s thrilled to be able to offer this as an in-person exhibit, adding that the museum is open Wednesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturdays noon to five. He encourages people to stay tuned for future exhibits.
“I’ve got a few more tricks up my sleeve,” he says.
Carle says the museum’s exhibit is the kind of thing that can expand people’s notions of what is possible.
“Dumbing down the information to make it more palatable does not help. I think this exhibit will show people that, yes, it’s hard, but it’s interesting, and so don’t censor yourself on topics that you think are too hot,” he says.
Lewis adds that it also shows that the role of the artist, and collaborations between artists and experts, are essential. “Art is not something that is just done separately in a studio,” she says. “Everybody should have an artist in residence.”
Editor’s Note: Florian Carle was the curator for the New Haven Museum exhibit. This article was updated on Wednesday, May 4 to reflect that.