More to come

John Wheeler. Photo by the New York Times/Redux.

As a sophomore at Princeton I took a class called Honors Physics from a man named Johnny Wheeler. He wore a suit and tie to class, loved explosions, and created vivid art in real time with colored chalk. Implausibly old, he had worked on nuclear fission with Niels Bohr. He was 61.

The lectures were long on inspiration and short on information about how to do the homework. I was in awe of Wheeler. Some students thought he sucked.

One day I arrived late to find Wheeler conducting a poll. We were voting on the future of science: is there “more to come” or “less to come”? I don’t remember the count, but “more to come” won handily. Wheeler was pleased.

Later, at a student-faculty lunch, Wheeler seemed troubled. He had been asked to explain the essence of quantum mechanics in five words or less, and was stumped. Frank Calaprice, a nuclear physicist within earshot, interjected helpfully, “What we expect to measure?” I was silent.

The question was absurd. It was fascinating. I still think about it. I can’t answer it.

This year I taught a course on quantum statistical physics to Caltech sophomores. I wore khakis and always used the white chalk. Though I’m 59, few students seemed awed. Some thought I sucked. Maybe I did sometimes.

Johnny Wheeler never blogged. If he had, some readers would have been awed. Some would have thought he sucked.

But Johnny would not have reminisced about a class he took 40 years ago. He knew there was more to come.

Welcome to Quantum Frontiers! We hope that the posts to come will be long on inspiration, even if short on information about how to do your homework. Enjoy!

40 Comments

  1. Steve July 7, 2012 at 1:24 pm - Reply

    And so it begins… welcome to the world of blogging, John!

  2. Stephen Preskill July 9, 2012 at 4:32 am - Reply

    Yes, the Steves of the world appear to be united in warmly welcoming you to the pleasures of blogging, John. We eagerly look forward to your future posts.

  3. Matt Leifer July 9, 2012 at 7:26 am - Reply

    Yes, welcome. Could you put a link to the RSS feed for this blog somewhere on the main page? It is http://www.quantumfrontiers.com/feed but I only know that because I am familiar with WordPress hacking. Most visitors would not be able to find it easily.

  4. Stephen Jordan July 9, 2012 at 8:07 am - Reply

    Yes, the Steves of the world applaud the formation of your new blog.

    “But Johnny would not have reminisced about a class he took 40 years ago. He knew there was more to come.”

    Kind of melancholy, no? Come on – we live in exciting times!

  5. preskill July 9, 2012 at 10:20 am - Reply

    Sorry, I meant to convey self-deprecation, not melancholia. Or is it the same thing?

    Steves: please hold your applause. This is the IQIM’s blog, not my blog, and I am as curious as you to see how it will evolve.

  6. rrtucci July 9, 2012 at 12:30 pm - Reply

    Welcome to John P and company.
    Thank God that Sean Carroll has been forbidden to write in this blog!

  7. Michael Nielsen July 9, 2012 at 2:14 pm - Reply

    5 words is hard. The best I thought of after 3 or 4 attempts: “Nature’s way of reasoning.”

  8. Dan Iezzi July 9, 2012 at 3:35 pm - Reply

    Quantum GR

  9. Steve Flammia July 9, 2012 at 4:50 pm - Reply

    I can do it in 3 words. 🙂

    Non-commutative Probability Theory.

  10. preskill July 9, 2012 at 5:38 pm - Reply

    “Theory” is superfluous.

  11. Brad Rubin July 9, 2012 at 5:57 pm - Reply

    I have discovered a truly marvelous statement of this, using only five words, which this reply box is too small to contain.

  12. John Sidles July 9, 2012 at 7:24 pm - Reply

    Here is a five-word haiku-form:

      Observability?
      feasiblity!
      hectic,
      symplectic,
      responsibility.

    Or perhaps (with minor rule-bending) … but the meter is OK …

      P. Shor?
      factor!
      Dirac
      bracket
      integer.

    Best wishes for a happy healthy long-lived weblog!

  13. quantumfrontiers July 9, 2012 at 7:36 pm - Reply

    We are very excited to have all of you be part of this blog! Please spread the word to friends and family (yes, we plan to post stories like John’s, which have personal elements to them). There are some pretty exciting posts in the pipeline, so click below to follow this blog, or go to http://quantumfrontiers.com/feed to subscribe to our feed.

  14. Graeme July 9, 2012 at 8:19 pm - Reply

    Unitary evolution, projective measurement.

  15. Paul Ginsparg July 9, 2012 at 8:41 pm - Reply

    > Though I’m 59, few students seemed awed.

    You’ll be thrilled to know that the $25 parking ticket near your hotel in Boston 1 March was pardoned. In my appeal, I explained that I was taking an elderly acquaintance to his hotel room, and he seemed both confused about its location and generally disoriented. A freak snowstorm then caused him to become even more agitated, and unable to remain in the car, so we parked, and in the confusion missed the meter.

    So at least the Massport Parking people were awed.

    • spiros August 1, 2012 at 1:53 pm - Reply

      Paul, I think it was the wine that night that was responsible for any disorientation. And, of course, Frank’s incisive questions about John’s simulation of QFTs paper during the cab ride back from Sofias.

  16. gv July 9, 2012 at 9:01 pm - Reply

    Because Graeme’s and Steve’s are so good, I’m going to change the rules and say that overly technical words are not allowed.
    Incompatible measurements, continuous reversible transformations (L. Hardy style)
    It would be awesome if you kept blogging, John!

  17. Dave Bacon July 9, 2012 at 9:19 pm - Reply

    Probabilities are complex numbers squared.

  18. Bilal Shaw July 9, 2012 at 10:49 pm - Reply

    Hermitian, Hermitian, my my Hermitians! 🙂

  19. John Sidles July 10, 2012 at 7:07 am - Reply

    (a dynamical version of Dave Bacon’s maxim)

    Observation drags being toward data

  20. John Sidles July 10, 2012 at 10:48 am - Reply

    … or as a simultaneous mini-tribute to John Wheeler, and to Nielsen & Chuang’s Quantum Computation and Quantum Information, and to Choi, Kraus, Lindblad, Ito, Stratonovich, and Carmichael:

    “Bit pulls it to fit”

  21. Steinn Sigurdsson July 10, 2012 at 11:02 am - Reply

    Yes, but do you still drink Diet Pepsi?

  22. preskill July 10, 2012 at 11:03 am - Reply

    Diet Coke. Always have. Always will.

  23. Quantum Pie (@QuantumPie) July 10, 2012 at 11:35 am - Reply

    Coming up with something non-technical is really hard. This is my best attempt so far:

    Quantum mechanics is nature’s casino.

    There are lots of suggestions flying around on Twitter as well after Sean Carroll posted it as a challenge. #5wordQM

  24. preskill July 10, 2012 at 11:39 am - Reply

    According to Sean, it was Michael NIelsen whose tweet got the ball rolling:
    https://twitter.com/#!/search/realtime/%235wordqm

  25. seandbarrett July 10, 2012 at 11:44 am - Reply

    I like “The dreams that stuff is made of” but I think I’m above the word limit.

  26. preskill July 10, 2012 at 11:53 am - Reply

    Omit “The” and “that”.

  27. […] Preskill, while talking about taking a quantum mechanics class with the late John Wheeler, mentions this […]

  28. […] Link. Physicist. by jgordon on July 10, 2012  •  Permalink Posted in share Tagged s […]

  29. Surjeet Rajendran July 18, 2012 at 7:44 pm - Reply

    Some years ago, I was a student in your Quantum class. You wore a gorilla suit that day (I believe it was halloween) and predicted that the only thing we would remember from that class was your costume. I believe I learned some quantum mechanics in that class, but I remember the gorilla suit vividly.

  30. preskill July 18, 2012 at 8:27 pm - Reply

    Aha, it worked!

  31. Nicole August 1, 2012 at 1:25 pm - Reply

    As a newcomer, I’m enjoying the blog. A writer once wrote about humankind’s salvation: “Tell them stories.” Thank you for helping to demonstrate that physics has engaging stories. But I’d appreciate, alongside the text, a Venn diagram. How does the IQIM differ from and overlap with the IQI (http://www.iqi.caltech.edu/)?

    • Nicole August 1, 2012 at 1:40 pm - Reply

      Continued Googling revealed “the new Physics Frontiers Center, CEQS, and IQI [were] merged into a single entity—the Institute for Quantum Information and Matter” (http://mr.caltech.edu/press_releases/13463). Sorry about the unnecessary question. But I stand behind my comments about stories!

    • preskill August 1, 2012 at 1:42 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Nicole. In the Venn diagram, the IQI is contained within the IQIM.

  32. Xezlec August 12, 2012 at 9:24 pm - Reply

    I’m no physicist, but how about just “particles are waves in fields”? You can pretty much reach all the major stuff from that, right? The fact that they act like particles means waves are quantized, etc. If you don’t like that one, then maybe “waves come in probabilistic chunks”.

  33. […] describing these two experiments, I want to introduce John Wheeler’s delayed choice thought experiment. As a primer, one should first be familiar with the double-slit […]

  34. […] mentioned before that John Wheeler was one of my heros during my formative years. Back in the 1950s, Wheeler held a […]

  35. lisadzcurto.skyrock.com August 6, 2014 at 10:14 pm - Reply

    Very great post. I simply stumbled upon your weblog
    and wished to mention that I’ve really loved browsing your
    blog posts. After all I will be subscribing for your feed and I hope you write
    once more very soon!

  36. […] Preskill, while talking about taking a quantum mechanics class with the late John Wheeler, mentions this […]

Leave A Comment