The Quantum Pontiff

Fortune has put out its list of the top 100 companies to work for. The Google Monster is number one. Washington state does pretty good, as it is in a tie for fourth in the total number of companies on the list with headquarters in the state. (Per capita it comes in third, losing to Delaware and D.C.)

Looking through their article on “10 fascinating Googlers” I found Wei-Hwa Huang. Hey, he was in my class at Caltech! Indeed Wei-Hwa was responsible for one of my favorite stories about the many-worlds interpretation of quantum theory. Huh?

Wei-Hwa, you see, is a world class puzzle solver (he was a world puzzle champion while I was at Caltech.) One day I was sitting with a friend (a fellow physicist who lost on Jeopardy) on the Olive Walk at Caltech, enjoying the wonderful California weather, when a man approached us with one of those wood and string puzzles where you try to take the puzzle apart. While we played with the puzzle the guy talked with us. Turns out he was looking for Wei-Hwa. Okay, nothing strange there: he had a puzzle, and Wei-Hwa was the guy to go to for that. Then we asked him why he wanted to see Wei-Hwa. He told us that when he was a child he had this very puzzle that we were playing with. And when he was a kid he remembers that he could solve the puzzle. But now, for the life of him, he couldn’t figure out how to solve the puzzle.

“So,” we said, “you want to have Wei-Hwa show you how to solve the puzzle?”

“No, he said, “what I really want is for Wei-Hwa to show that solving the puzzle is impossible. Because then that would prove the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics!”

At which point my fellow physicist and I quickly gave the puzzle back to the man and quickly made haste for fear he might start really raving.


  1. #1 JohnQPublic
    January 23, 2008

    So, in another world the puzzle was solvable and now, in this one, it is not. I hate when that happens!

  2. #2 John McKay
    January 23, 2008

    I know how that guy feels. I used to live in an alternate quantum state where I was gainfully and respectably employed. Then some weird-ass frippery happened and I found myself here.

  3. #3 rod
    January 23, 2008


    When you were at Tech, in which house did you live in? North Houses or South Houses? I would bet you were not at Ricketts 😉

  4. #4 NE1
    January 23, 2008

    Is google still the best place to work if you want to work 9-5? I would doubt it.

  5. #5 Dave Bacon
    January 23, 2008

    Rod: Hey what are you saying about scurves? I was in Ruddock.

  6. #6 Rod
    January 23, 2008


    I have nothing against Scurves. In fact, I lived at Ricketts for some time, and have pretty good memories from it 🙂

  7. #7 Jonathan Vos Post
    January 23, 2008

    Unsolvable 3-dimensional puzzle is key to spacetime? Right!

    Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, by Douglas Adams. It is described on its cover as a “thumping good detective-ghost-horror-whodunnit-time-travel-romantic-musical-comedy-epic”.

    Wikipedia summarizes one plot element:

    “Richard MacDuff, lead software engineer for Way Forward Technologies II, has programmed his Apple computer to find out how to remove a stuck sofa from his flat’s staircase. The computer says it is impossible to remove the sofa. Then, after Richard re-programs the application, the computer says it is impossible for the sofa to be wedged in its current position in the first place.”

    Not to be confused with the 2-dimensional Moving Sofa Problem, where MathWorld begins:

    “What is the sofa of greatest area S which can be moved around a right-angled hallway of unit width? Hammersley (Croft et al. 1994) showed that
    S >= pi/2 + 2/pi = 2.2074…

    (Sloane’s A086118). Gerver (1992) found a sofa with larger area and provided arguments indicating that it is either optimal or close to it. The boundary of Gerver’s sofa is a complicated shape composed of 18 arcs…

    Wei-Hwa Huang is cool. Dave Bacon is Cool. Caltech is cool. And this is invariant under permutation of undergraduate houses, an many of the many-worlds.

  8. #8 Dave Bacon
    January 23, 2008

    I was kidding, of course 🙂 My grandfather was a scurv (I think all off campus people were scurvs…the houses were built while he attended Caltech.)

  9. #9 Dave Briggs
    January 24, 2008

    I know how that guy feels. I used to live in an alternate quantum state where I was gainfully and respectably employed. Then some weird-ass frippery happened and I found myself here.

    Posted by: John McKay | January 23, 2008 2:10 PM

    I know how you feel! The same thing happened to me! LOL!
    Dave Briggs :~)

  10. #10 Ian Durham
    January 24, 2008

    So this guy transcends worlds then – or was hoping there was proof that he did? I’m thinking Quantum Leap or Sliders here.

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