Archive for June, 2011

Waterloo’s scientific scene was well represented in the tiny Middle Eastern nation of Qatar today, as representatives from the Institute for Quantum Computing and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics delivered presentations at the World Conference of Science Journalists.

IQC’s Executive Director Raymond Laflamme kicked things off this morning as part of a panel discussion dubbed Let’s Get Physical (which had nothing to do with a 1981 hit single by Olivia Newton-John, and everything to do with the next big advancements in physics research).  His talk, which was accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation projected onto a screen of near-IMAX proportions, provided a glimpse into how quantum information processing will shape the future of technology.

Next up, Julie Wright and Wilson DaSilva of the Waterloo Global Science Initiative — an international symposium hosted by the Perimeter Institute and the University of Waterloo — discussed the planning and execution of the Equinox Summit, which wrapped up just three weeks ago. “No meeting quite like this has been held anywhere in the world before,” DaSilva said of the summit, which brought together leading energy experts to draft real solutions to the mounting global energy crisis.

Lisa Lambert, external relations manager at Perimeter Institute, produced the final session of the day: a fascinating discussion about the transformative power of science — and science journalism — in developing African nations. Given that roughly half of the 726 delegates at the conference came to Qatar from developing countries, the session was timely and powerful.

As for me, I’ve been talking about quantum information research with anyone who will listen, and thankfully there are a lot of open ears. Quantum science seems to be intrinsically intriguing to most people (even if it’s not immediately understandable to everyone), which makes my job easier. Perhaps in Qatar, the only country in the world whose name starts with a Q, there is a special affinity to all things Quantum. I think I spotted a Quizno’s in Doha yesterday, but no Subway — food for thought….


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We think it’s safe to say we did something truly unprecedented last night:  a human-scale re-creation of the classic double-slit quantum experiment . . . on a moving train!

Chugga-lugging along the railway line between Waterloo and St. Jacobs, the Institute for Quantum Computing ushered human “photons” through a pair of “slits” constructed inside a vintage dining carriage. Inspired by the real double-slit experiment — an iconic demonstration of the wave-particle duality of light and other quantum oddities — projections on a screen captured the participants’ likenesses in unique “interference patterns.”  A number of guests were heard to holler: “I’m a wave! I’m a particle!”

The installation was one of many eclectic happenings aboard the second annual Steel Rail Sessions, a moving mash-up of arts, culture and science than unfolded during a two-hour choo-choo ride. The brainchild of Hilary Abel, editor of RQ Magazine, the event saw hundreds of people walking the length of the entire train, mingling and drinking and painting and singing and handling snakes (yes, there were Snakes on a Train!) and passing through our life-sized double-slit apparatus.

While we here at the Quantum Factory came up with the idea for the double-slit contraption, it could never, ever have happened without the monumental effort and dedication of Darin and David White — the D.I.Y. impresarios behind MakeBright. When asked what MakeBright is all about, Darin tends to reply: “We make stuff!”  And make stuff they did!  They spent countless hours cutting, hammering, drilling, sewing, programming, testing, gluing and otherwise making the double-slit experiment from scratch. Perhaps for next year’s Steel Rail Sessions they’ll help us build a human teleportation machine!

Stay tuned to the Quantum Factory for a video of the Steel Rail Sessions and all the quantummy fun we had aboard.

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These photon trajectories are dope, yo.

It’s a big deal to get a research paper published in the journal Science. And it’s great when that paper gets noticed by media outlets around the world and creates buzz in the scientific blogosphere. But when somebody writes a hip hop song about it, that’s when you know your breakthrough has really, well, broken through.

IQC researcher Krister Shalm and colleagues from the University of Toronto recently enjoyed all the usual attention that accompanies a publication in Science. Their paper, which outlined their technique of mapping the trajectories of quantum particles through the iconic “double-slit experiment,” garnered attention in print, on the radio and all over the internet.

Now, in a rather unexpected twist, the experiment has been immortalized in hip hop. This past Friday’s broadcast of BBC Radio’s Friday Night Comedy featured what might be the world’s first rap track to funkily explain Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, wave-particle duality and the technique of weak measurement. It’s only a matter of time before Kanye West hops on this bandwagon.

Click to listen to The Double-Slit Rap
(Skip ahead about five minutes to get straight to the song).

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We’re delighted to have another guest blogger on the Quantum Factory today. This time, Angela Ruthven of the University of British Columbia shares her perspectives on the Undergraduate School on Quantum Information Processing (USEQIP), a two-week quantum crash course that wraps up this Friday. From liquid helium to road hockey, from superconducting qubits to ping pong — as you’ll see, Angela and her 18 fellow USEQIP participants have had no shortage of experiences at IQC…


Snowmen Dressed Up as Scientists (and other quantum adventures), by Angela Ruthven

Maybe when you hear the words “all-expenses-paid trip,” a two-week summer school is not the first thing that comes to mind. But so far, USEQIP has been every bit as exciting as any exotic vacation.  A typical day here at USEQIP includes six hours of labs or lectures interspersed with three-and-a-half hours to ask questions, get to know fellow students and eat the delicious food that frequently appears in the hallway.  Our lecturers are IQC researchers at the forefront of their fields.  Without exception, they all are very approachable and enthusiastic about sharing their knowledge with us.  We have been introduced to a wide range of topics, including NMR, optics, quantum algorithms, and quantum cryptography.  Every night, I arrive back at my room utterly exhausted, my mind bulging with new ideas.

They clean up real nice -- USEQIP particpants suited-up to explore IQC's cleanroom

Yesterday we had no lectures, and instead spent the entire day in labs.  First, my group suited up for a morning in the cleanroom, where the qubits used in superconducting qubit experiments at IQC are made.  These devices are extremely small – for example, a flux qubit is only a few micrometres in length, and contains nanometre-sized components.  Because of this, a speck of dust or grain of pollen landing on the circuit during the fabrication process can completely ruin the qubit.  To minimize the amount of dust floating around, nanocircuit fabrication is done in the cleanroom, which uses special ventilation systems to keep the room, well, extremely clean.  IQC’s cleanroom is an ISO 6 (Class 1000) cleanroom, which means it contains roughly 1000 times fewer particles per unit volume than an ordinary room.  Because we humans collect a significant amount of dirt, dust, and other contaminants over the course of a day,  we had to put on special cleanroom suits before we could enter.  These include white shoe covers, full-body suits, rubber gloves, hairnets and safety glasses.  In the end, we all looked like snowmen dressed up as scientists!

In the afternoon, we explored another important aspect of superconducting quantum computing – the phenomenon of superconductivity itself.  Superconductors are strange materials that, when cooled below a certain critical temperature, have zero electrical resistance, allowing them to sustain a current indefinitely.  We checked this behaviour out for ourselves in the lab.  To cool our superconductor, we used liquid helium, which has a temperature of 4K (that’s -269ºC — and you thought Canadian winters were cold!).  As we cooled it, we measured the superconductor’s resistance.  Sure enough, below 10K, the resistance abruptly decreased to almost nothing.

It’s not all work here at USEQIP.  At the end of the day, I participated in my first game of ball hockey since elementary school.  Due to the hot, humid weather, we stopped after 10 minutes, and instead played ping-pong indoors!

Today will be another busy day – three labs are scheduled!  I’m especially excited for the quantum key distribution lab.  Last week, we had an interesting lecture in quantum cryptography – sending secret messages securely using quantum systems.  Some interesting methods were discussed – I’m looking forward to implementing some of them experimentally!

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We’re pleased to welcome a guest blogger to the Quantum Factory today — Miriam Diamond, a participant in the Undergraduate School in Experimental Quantum Information Processing (USEQIP), which is now in its second week at IQC. Miriam, a physics undergrad at Ottawa’s Carleton University, has become fully entangled in the quantum realm, and written a piece that boldly goes way beyond classical blogging. Enjoy!


A Qulog, by Miriam Diamond

Writing a classical blog at the Institute for Quantum Computing just wouldn’t seem appropriate.  No, this place calls for a quantum version – clearly, a qulog.  What, you may ask, are the properties of a qulog?  Actually, the details are uncertain, even to the author.  But I’m working things out as I go along, and here’s what I’ve got so far.  Firstly, one can never assign the qulog an exact position and exact momentum at any given time, meaning one can never know exactly where the train of thought is at and exactly where it’s going.  Conveniently for me, this means I can’t be blamed any for rambling or confusing passages.   Secondly, it’s perfectly acceptable for the qulog to run around over multiple literary paths at once, and then interfere with itself at the end.  Which makes it rather difficult for the reader to criticize the writing style.  Thirdly, the qulog is in a superposition of saying all possible things at once, until you observe it.  If you don’t like what it’s saying, don’t worry, there are many alternate universes in which the qulog is saying something you do like.  Finally, if you really love the qulog and want to send it to a friend, you ought to transmit it only over a quantum-encrypted system – so, better go pay a visit to the IQC’s wonderfully talented QKD experts!

Working with fellow USEQIP participants in the IQC optics lab

Speaking of the IQC’s wonderfully talented experts, they have absolutely blown my mind this week.  Not just with their brilliant ideas and deep understanding of their research fields, but also with their willingness to give their time and energy to students.  Throughout my time as an undergrad, I had seen journal papers by these researchers, marvelling at their achievements and never imagining I would get the chance to even meet them.  I could hardly believe it when these wizards stood up at the whiteboard and gave lectures to USEQIP, patiently explaining the difficult concepts step-by-step and cheerfully answering questions from us beginners.  Their passion for their work quickly diffused through the room, and was rapidly absorbed by osmosis.  Interference, decoherence, NMR, quantum algorithms, QKD… I could previously only get a fuzzy layman’s glimpse of the landscape, but now I had a tour guide to show me the details of what’s actually going on.  Welcome to Alice (and Bob’s) Adventures in Quantum Wonderland!  Hang on for a thrilling ride, and don’t be shy to ask questions.

It wasn’t just the lectures that were awesome this week.  I also got the opportunity to do some lab work, in Optics and in NMR.  It was an amazing feeling to rotate a beam displacer and watch the little laser dot disappear, or to put a sample into the NMR machine and watch the spectrum pop up on the computer screen.  The quantum world is often considered highly esoteric and displaced from the experience of our everyday lives — but here was the power of the quantum world right at my fingertips, and under the guidance of expert magicians, I myself was holding the magic wand!

And of course, this qulog entry would be woefully incomplete without a mention of my fellow USEQIP participants, and the camaraderie I experienced this week.  Up until now, I have often been the only person in the room fascinated by quantum mechanics.  People would nod their heads politely at my attempts to explain the wonders of a wavefunction, while privately wondering what was with this bizarre obsession of mine.  But at USEQIP, everyone else in the room is fascinated with the quantum world, too.  Someone will mention a specific interpretation of quantum mechanics or a recent experimental result, and immediately, several other people will jump on the topic and start a lively discussion.  And people even laugh at my quantum jokes!  Well, some of them groan, but that’s beside the point.  The point is that the entire institute has a wonderful atmosphere of, well, coherence.  This was perhaps most evident at the Friday wine-and-cheese gathering, and at Thursday’s hockey game.  (Quantum ball hockey: no penalties for interference, the playing field is discrete, and you’d better keep your eye on the ball since it goes into a superposition unless someone is observing it.  Hey, I did warn you about my quantum jokes.)  And there are people from various different disciplines – physics, computer science, math, engineering, etc. – each with their own contribution to bring to the Institute.  Many individual particles, one powerful ensemble.

All in all, this week was a dream come true for me.  Not just the lectures and lab setups (and free food), but also the little things.  A faculty member taking the time to give me some valuable career advice, a grad student going out of his way to show me a piece of equipment, a table of people sharing a beer over a discussion of the double-slit experiment.  I even got a picture with Freeman Dyson (an amazingly witty and brilliant man) when he dropped in to visit the NMR lab.  And, I have now written my very first qulog — thanks for observing it!

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For the past three years, IQC has hosted undergraduate students for the two-week Undergraduate School on Experimental Quantum Information Processing (USEQIP). This year, 19 extremely talented students from across North America, Europe and Asia flew to Waterloo to participate in the school.

I think this year we have definitely reached new heights in terms of the amount of hands-on experiments the students get to try. On top of  classroom lectures on the fundamentals of experimental quantum information — such as nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), optics, quantum cryptography, superconducting qubits, quantum dots and many more — the students will spend over 25 hours in various labs carrying out experiments. I wish this program had been around when I was a math/physics undergraduate myself about a decade ago.  I would have loved to tinker with this kind of experimental equipment!

USEQIP_NMRThis week, the participants spent a lot of time in NMR and optics. Nuclear magnetic resonance is a great test-bed quantum computer, and the students were challenged to describe the dynamics (Hamiltonian, decoherence rate, etc) of a 2-qubit system made from the hydrogen and carbon spin of a chloroform molecule. Under the supervision of IQC’s students Sarah Sheldon and Mohamad Niknam (and to some extent yours truly), they also learned to coherently control the spins and control the interaction between them. What they’ve learned this week in NMR will help them for the ultimate challenge next Friday — independently envision, design and implement the quantum algorithm of their choice!

USEQIP_opticsOn the optics side, we locked the students in a dark room and let them play around with lasers, polarizers, beam splitters, beam displacers, quarter wave plates — you know, optics stuff! They built a Michelson interferometer and did several experiments involving light polarization. The highlight of the lab was without contest the violation of Bell’s inequality using a pair of entangled photons coming out of our in-house Segnac source. Let’s just say that the students were pretty excited with the idea of re-creating the experiment that led John Clause, Alain Aspect and Anton Zeilinger to win the Wolf Prize 2010 (arguably the 2nd most prestigious prize in physics) and probably (hopefully) earn them a Nobel prize in the near future.

Although USEQIP is primarily an academic activity aimed at developing students’ interest and intuition about quantum technologies, it is also about creating a vibrant, fun and collaborative atmosphere. And since the students have come to Canada to learn about quantum technology, we figured we’d give them another quintessentially Canadian experience: a game of ball hockey!


Before starting another experiment-filled second week, the USEQIP students will take in the wondrous sights of Niagara Falls, and then spend Sunday doing something they’ve really earned: giving their bodies and their brains a rest.

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The first rule of quantum mechanics is that you do not talk about quantum mechanics.

No, wait — that’s Fight Club.

The first rule of quantum mechanics — or one of its foundational laws, anyway — is that you cannot observe a quantum system without changing it. It’s a bit like how you can’t open the oven door to look at a souffle while it’s baking, lest the souffle collapse into a doughy glop (note: in a different, more accurate sense, it’s not really like that at all).

Basically, quantumness happens when you’re not looking at it. By peeking, you bully your system into a mundanely unquantum state. But IQC postdoc Krister Shalm and colleagues at the University of Toronto recently figured out a clever way to peek without ruining the souffle, so to speak, and just published their results in Science. They used a technique called “weak measurement” to track the paths that photons (particles of light) traveled through an experiment, providing an unprecedented glimpse inside the black box of the quantum world.

And thankfully, unlike Fight Club, Krister is allowed — and eager — to talk about it.

In an interview with the Waterloo Region Record, Krister used the analogy of a child (or overzealous grown-up) shaking a wrapped Christmas present in an effort to discern the contents. In a sense, Krister and his colleagues discerned the hidden goings-on within their “double-slit” experiment (in which light is beamed through a pair of narrow slits and quantumness ensues) without actually looking inside the experiment.

“This is our equivalent of shaking the box,” Krister said.

A "snapshot" of the photon trajectories through the experiment

The result was a never-before-seen snapshot of the paths that quantum particles blazed while zipping through the double-slit experiment — a snapshot that physics textbooks have long declared unsnappable.

The ingenuity and success of the experiment has already garnered a lot of attention since yesterday’s publication of the Science paper.

News articles about the breakthrough have been published in Science, CBC News, Nature and more.

Tomorrow at noon, Krister will be interviewed on the CBC Radio science show Quirks and Quarks (the interview was actually recorded a couple of days ago and was a big thrill for Krister, a long-time listener of the show, who blogged about it here).

We here at the Quantum Factory congratulate Krister and his colleagues for shaking the quantum box so successfully, giving us a look at its contents (thankfully, the gift inside is way cooler than a Christmas sweater or socks).

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