The Quantum Pontiff

Andrew Landahl (who really should have a blog because he is certainly one of the most interesting people I get to talk to when I attend a conference) sends me a note about recent appearances of quantum computing on prime time TV which he has graciously let me post below.

I thought you’d be amused to know that quantum information has finally made it to prime time. Using TiVo, I just caught up on back-to-back episodes of CBS’s “Big Bang Theory” from the past two weeks that make prominent references to quantum teleportation and Shor’s algorithm. The week before last, the episode opened with a discussion by one of the characters about how he would never undergo quantum teleportation because “The original Sheldon would have to be disintegrated in order to create a new Sheldon.” A 58-second clip of the discussion is at the
following link
, if you’d like to embed it in your blog:

The episode last week has a “Physics Bowl” in which one of the questions was “How does a quantum computer factor large numbers?” The answer given was “Shor’s algorithm,” which was amusingly translated by my closed-captioning as “Shorts algorithm.”

I couldn’t find a clip of just that segment on the CBS website, but it seems that entire episodes of the show are available online, which is pretty decent of CBS. You’ll have to watch the ads, which I suppose is a fair tradeoff, but after them you can zip to about 14:00 into the episode to start the Physics Bowl itself. On the other hand, if you have the time, the entire show is funny and worth a watch.

Here are the other questions from the TV show’s version of the Physics Bowl:

What is the isospin singlet partner of the pi_0 meson?
What is the lightest element on Earth with no stable isotopes?
What is the force between two uncharged plates due to quantum vacuum fluctuations?

How many can you answer? If you miss all three, I’m calling Arnold Schwarzenegger and having your physics PhD revoked.

More amusingly, here are answers given by the teams but without questions explicitly stated. Can you make reasonable guesses for the questions?

4.1855 x 10^7 ergs/calorie.
Prevost’s theory of exchanges.
lambda = “One over pi r-squared n.” (Ambiguous how to parse the formula from the show’s dialogue.)
760 degrees Celsius.
A sigma particle.
Yes, assuming the hypothetical planet has a mass greater than the Earth.

The final question was a tree-level Feynman integral for ee -> mu mu that had to be evaluated in real time. I burst out laughing when I saw it. It’s pretty funny who ends up answering the question.

In general, I’ve been very impressed with the technical level of correctness on the show. For example, I had another laugh in a previous episode when Sheldon was made to be embarrassed by the string theory landscape problem of 10500 false vacua by a 14-year old upstart.


I would gladly have my physics Ph.D. revoked if Arnold did it personally. “Ahhsta lah vista, Davey.”


  1. #1 Carl Brannen
    April 22, 2008

    Well I know the last one cold, the first I’ve got a guess (but the mesons are such a mess, I know the baryons much better), and on the middle one, I’m not sure.

    The problem is that this is basically a trivia question of interest only to those who care about heavy metals and that is only a very small number of physicists. For some reason, I seem to recall reading that the answer is a certain rather useful metal some of which’s isotopes are so close to stable that one could imagine using it as a replacement for lead.

  2. #2 Blake Stacey
    April 23, 2008

    Ummm, the most stable isotope of technetium has a half-life of 2.6 million years. What’s so obscure about that?

  3. #3 A. Mused
    April 23, 2008

    eta, technetium, Casimir effect.