The Quantum Pontiff

Quantum LSD

Oh man sometimes even I, a staunch Caltech grad, wish I could be at MIT. The MIT QIP seminar this next Monday looks…intriguing (Monday 10/26 at 4:00 in 36-428 silly MITers and their numbered buildings, so cold.):

David Kaiser (MIT)

How the Hippies Saved Physics


In recent years, the field of quantum information science-an amalgam of topics ranging from quantum encryption, to quantum computing, quantum teleportation, and more-has catapulted to the cutting edge of physics, sporting a multi-billion-dollar research program, tens of thousands of published research articles, and a variety of device prototypes. This tremendous excitement marks the tail end of a long-simmering Cinderella story. Long before the big budgets and dedicated teams, the field smoldered on the scientific sidelines. In fact, the field’s recent breakthroughs derive, in part, from the hazy, bong-filled excesses of the 1970s New Age movement. Many of the ideas that now occupy the core of quantum information science once found their home amid an anything-goes counterculture frenzy, a mishmash of spoon-bending psychics, Eastern mysticism, LSD trips, CIA spooks chasing mind-reading dreams, and comparable “Age of Aquarius” enthusiasms. For the better part of two decades, the concepts that would,in time, blossom into developments like quantum encryption were bandied about in late-night bull sessions and hawked by proponents of a burgeoning self-help movement-more snake oil than stock option. This talk describes the field’s bumpy transition from New Age to cutting edge.

I knew that the hippies drove the computer revolution but did not know that they are also responsible for quantum information science 🙂


  1. #1 Ian Durham
    October 23, 2009

    Oh, haha, I know Dave Kaiser. He’s a great speaker too. We’ve had him up here to Saint A’s a couple of times both to speak and to run a seminar. He allegedly does cosmology for a living, but spends a lot of his time on the history of physics and likes to collect interesting anecdotes. He’s worth listening to for anyone in proximity to MIT on Monday.

  2. #2 Jon
    October 23, 2009

    I think we’re the only field with an “LSD theorem”. This is the proof, attributed to Lloyd, Shor and Devetak, that the coherent information is an achievable rate for quantum communication over quantum channels.

  3. #3 Kaveh
    October 23, 2009

    It’s a nice talk actually. He explains where the esoteric/spiritual notions about quantum mechanics culturally come from.

  4. #4 Matt Leifer
    October 24, 2009

    I guess I was not the only one expecting this post to be about the Lloyd-Devatek-Shor theorem. Anyway, it is an interesting premise and I am sure the talk would be fun, but I’m also pretty sure that it is factually incorrect. The ideas that made quantum information take off in the physics community come to us primarily via John Wheeler. Just look at the number of QI founders that passed through his research group: Deutsch, Schumacher, Wootters, etc. Wheeler was not exactly a raging hippie – he continued to work on nuclear weapons for many years after WWII for example. In fact, given the role that defense interests play in motivating much qinfo research, e.g. cryptography, there is probably an equal argument that it is driven by conservatism.

  5. #5 Tyson
    October 27, 2009

    The talk at MIT today was excellent, and funny as well. (It would make a great dinner-talk at QIP, actually.)

  6. #6 Matt Leifer
    June 6, 2010

    Found some audio of an NPR broadcast of a talk by David Kaiser on this topic:

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