Perhaps because my 40th wedding anniversary is just a few weeks away, I have been thinking about anniversaries lately, which reminded me that we are celebrating the 20th anniversary of a number of milestones in quantum information science. In 1995 Cirac and Zoller proposed, and Wineland’s group first demonstrated, the ion trap quantum computer. Quantum error-correcting codes were invented by Shor and Steane, entanglement concentration and purification were described by Bennett et al., and there were many other fast-breaking developments. It was an exciting year.
But the event that moved me to write a blog post is the 1995 appearance of the word “qubit” in an American Physical Society journal. When I was a boy, two-level quantum systems were called “two-level quantum systems.” Which is a descriptive name, but a mouthful and far from euphonious. Think of all the time I’ve saved in the past 20 years by saying “qubit” instead of “two-level quantum system.” And saying “qubit” not only saves time, it also conveys the powerful insight that a quantum state encodes a novel type of information. (Alas, the spelling was bound to stir controversy, with the estimable David Mermin a passionate holdout for “qbit”. Give it up, David, you lost.)
For the word “qubit” we know whom to thank: Ben Schumacher. He introduced the word in his paper “Quantum Coding” which appeared in the April 1995 issue of Physical Review A. (History is complicated, and in this case the paper was actually submitted in 1993, which allowed another paper by Jozsa and Schumacher to be published earlier even though it was written and submitted later. But I’m celebrating the 20th anniversary of the qubit now, because otherwise how will I justify this blog post?)
In the acknowledgments of the paper, Ben provided some helpful background on the origin of the word:
The term “qubit” was coined in jest during one of the author’s many intriguing and valuable conversations with W. K. Wootters, and became the initial impetus for this work.
I met Ben (and other luminaries of quantum information theory) for the first time at a summer school in Torino, Italy in 1996. After reading his papers my expectations were high, all the more so after Sam Braunstein warned me that I would be impressed: “Ben’s a good talker,” Sam assured me. I was not disappointed.
(I also met Asher Peres at that Torino meeting. When I introduced myself Asher asked, “Isn’t there someone with a similar name in particle theory?” I had no choice but to come clean. I particularly remember that conversation because Asher told me his secret motivation for studying quantum entanglement: it might be important in quantum gravity!)
A few years later Ben spent his sabbatical year at Caltech, which gave me an opportunity to compose a poem for the introduction to Ben’s (characteristically brilliant) talk at our physics colloquium. This poem does homage to that famous 1995 paper in which Ben not only introduced the word “qubit” but also explained how to compress a quantum state to the minimal number of qubits from which the original state can be recovered with a negligible loss of fidelity, thus formulating and proving the quantum version of Shannon’s famous source coding theorem, and laying the foundation for many subsequent developments in quantum information theory.
Sometimes when I recite a poem I can sense the audience’s appreciation. But in this case there were only a few nervous titters. I was going for edgy but might have crossed the line into bizarre.. Since then I’ve (usually) tried to be more careful.
(For reading the poem, it helps to know that the quantum state appears to be random when it has been compressed as much as possible.)
On Quantum Compression (in honor of Ben Schumacher)
He showed me how to fit
In a small box.
I wonder how it feels
To be compressed.
And then to pass
A fidelity test.
Or does it feel
At all, and if it does
Would I squeal
Or be just as I was?
If not undone
I’d become as I’d begun
And write a memorandum
On being random.
Had it felt like a belt
And might it be predicted
That I’d become addicted,
Longing for my session
To Ben again.
“Put down your pen!
Make me small!”