Robin posted this and then this a couple of days ago about a puzzling advance in quantum computing. Both posts confused most people who read them (even the writers at Nature seemed quite unsure of what exactly they were reporting, taking refuge in vague but dramatic language), so I turned to the smartest physicist I happen to be friends with, Sean Carrol, of Cosmic Variance for clarification. He has obliged (thanks Sean!) with a tour de force of scientific exposition. It is still not trivial (please, we are talking advanced quantum theory here!) to understand, but if you pay careful attention, you should get the basic idea. This is how he explains it:
Quantum mechanics, as we all know, is weird. It’s weird enough in its own right, but when some determined experimenters do tricks that really bring out the weirdness in all its glory, and the results are conveyed to us by well-intentioned but occasionally murky vulgarizations in the popular press, it can seem even weirder than usual.
Last week was a classic example: the computer that could figure out the answer without actually doing a calculation! (See Uncertain Principles, Crooked Timber, 3 Quarks Daily.) The articles refer to an experiment performed by Onur Hosten and collaborators in Paul Kwiat’s group at Urbana-Champaign, involving an ingenious series of quantum-mechanical miracles. On the surface, these results seem nearly impossible to make sense of. (Indeed, Brad DeLong has nearly given up hope.) How can you get an answer without doing a calculation? Half of the problem is that imprecise language makes the experiment seem even more fantastical than it really is — the other half is that it really is quite astonishing.
Let me make a stab at explaining, perhaps not the entire exercise in quantum computation, but at least the most surprising part of the whole story — how you can detect something without actually looking at it. The substance of everything that I will say is simply a translation of the nice explanation of quantum interrogation at Kwiat’s page, with the exception that I will forgo the typically violent metaphors of blowing up bombs and killing cats in favor of a discussion of cute little puppies.
So here is our problem: a large box lies before us, and we would like to know whether there is a sleeping puppy inside. Except that, sensitive souls that we are, it’s really important that we don’t wake up the puppy. Furthermore, due to circumstances too complicated to get into right now, we only have one technique at our disposal: the ability to pass an item of food into a small flap in the box. If the food is something uninteresting to puppies, like a salad, we will get no reaction — the puppy will just keep slumbering peacefully, oblivious to the food. But if the food is something delicious (from the canine point of view), like a nice juicy steak, the aromas will awaken the puppy, which will begin to bark like mad.
It would seem that we are stuck. If we stick a salad into the box, we don’t learn anything, as from the outside we can’t tell the difference between a sleeping puppy and no puppy at all. If we stick a steak into the box, we will definitely learn whether there is a puppy in there, but only because it will wake up and start barking if it’s there, and that would break our over-sensitive hearts. Puppies need their sleep, after all.
Fortunately, we are not only very considerate, we are also excellent experimental physicists with a keen grasp of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics, according to the conventional interpretations that are good enough for our purposes here, says three crucial and amazing things…
More here. [Photo shows Sean Carroll.]