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The Entropic Price of Building the Perfect Clock: Q&A with Natalia Ares
Experiments investigating the thermodynamics of clocks can teach us about the origin of time's arrow.

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Physicists lay out blueprints for running a 'Wigner's Friend' experiment using an artificial intelligence, built on a quantum computer, as an 'observer.'

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Using a brain-computer interface to create a consciousness 'add-on' to help test Integrated Information Theory.

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A quantum computer composes chart-topping music, programmed by physicists striving to understand consciousness.

The Math of Consciousness: Q&A with Kobi Kremnitzer
A meditating mathematician is developing a theory of conscious experience to help understand the boundary between the quantum and classical world.

February 6, 2023

Lockdown Lab Life
Grounded physicists are exploring the use of online and virtual-reality conferencing, and AI-controlled experiments, to maintain social distancing. Post-pandemic, these positive innovations could make science more accessible and environmentally-friendly.
by Colin Stuart
June 19, 2020
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Virtual Blackboards
FQXi is exploring how VR headsets can help scientists collaborate,
during lockdown and beyond.

Credit: ismagilov
John Bechhoefer, a physicist at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, arrived at his cousin’s house in Denver, Colorado on 29th February, before heading out for a Mexican meal with the family. He was expecting a busy morning of networking at the American Physical Society’s annual meeting, with the pre-events due to start the next day, and where his student and post-doc would be giving a talk. Only when he got home and asked his cousin for the Wi-Fi password did he realise what was happening. "I was about to go to bed when I found out that everything I was going to do tomorrow had been cancelled," he says.

The APS’s multi-day international conference is a show-piece event in the academic calendar, regularly attracting over 10,000 researchers. The whole event was scrapped just twelve hours before some of the pre-event sessions were set to start—after many participants had already travelled from around the world to the venue. The cancellation sent a message to academics round the globe that things were about to drastically change. It’s an experience that was starting to be echoed in all walks of life, as large scale events were dropped in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Everything I
was going to
do tomorrow
had been
- John Bechhoefer
The novel coronavirus has now reached every corner of the globe, with few us untouched by the effect it has had on our personal and professional lives. For university scientists, labs have been mothballed, lectures stopped, campuses closed and many researchers forced to juggle Zoom calls and home schooling their children. Bechhoefer is one of the the grant winners in FQXi’s Information as Fuel research program—designed to support cutting-edge experiments that explore how the laws of heat and energy transfer may need to be modified in nanoscale devices, where quantum effects come in to play. These experiments have inevitably been delayed. But while scientists have been frustrated by the obstacles brought on by the pandemic, they have also had to innovate to maintain their international collaborations, while grounded. Some of those new practices have had unexpected benefits—potentially increasing the accessibility of conferences and events—and scientists are now considering incorporating some of the changes into their usual routines, in the long term.

The Information as Fuel program hinges on a well-established but weird effect in standard classical physics that says that knowledge is, in some very literal sense, power. This is typified by a thought experiment developed by the nineteenth century physicist James Clerk Maxwell, who posited that a hypothetical demon might create a working engine from a box of gas particles, just by exploiting his knowledge of the speed of the particles to separate the slow-moving particles from the fast-moving ones. Over time, the side of the box with the fast-moving particles would become hotter, while the other side became cooler, creating a temperature difference between the two halves—one that could potentially be used to extract work. This seemed to violate the laws of thermodynamics, although physicists have since determined it does not. (See "Thermo-Demonics".)

Maxwell’s Demon
By choosing when to open and close the door, the demon causes one chamber to warm
up and the other to cool.

Credit: Htkym, Wikicommons
Nonetheless, the Maxwell’s demon paradox shows that information can have a physical effect. "There may be ways that you can use knowing information about a physical system as a key to extracting energy from that system," say FQXi’s science program director, Dave Sloan. "If that’s true, then it is a potential new source of fuel—that’s why we’re really excited to be behind this."

The demon effect is not one that can be readily exploited in macroscale steam engines. But as physicists and engineers make devices ever smaller, it may come into play. At the same time, theoretical physicists have long noted that at the nanoscale, quantum effects also become more important. So physicists have been trying to develop a new framework of "quantum thermodynamics," to help them calculate the cases in which the new effects may boost a tiny device’s performance, and when they might hinder it.

It’s only in recent years that nanotechnology has advanced enough for physicists to build real working Maxwell demon nanodevices, to carry out tests of quantum thermodynamics. The current FQXi drive shares US$8 million between seven research labs, scattered from Asia to Europe to North America to Australia. The contracts were signed and the money awarded to the grant winners at the start of 2020. Team members excitedly organised a launch conference, planned to take place in early April 2020—until global lockdowns scuppered their plans. Since then, we have seen different countries employ various strategies in an effort to stop the virus or to mitigate its effects; some have fared better than others, but most have suffered devastating losses of life and huge economic downturns.

New Normal

Now, many countries are beginning to ease their lockdowns and scientists are emerging into the ’new normal.’ So how are Bechhoefer and his fellow awardees coping with the biggest upheaval in civic life since the Second World War?

When Bechhoefer returned to his university in Burnaby, from Denver, the reality of the global pandemic started to sink in. "The situation went from being more or less normal to everything being shut down within the space of two weeks," he says. His project focuses on building a device that creates a potential energy landscape for a particle to move around in. For example, the particle can be corralled into one of two different energy regions to mimic the binary options of zero and one, used so heavily in computing.

I turned them off
one by one and
the lab fell silent.
It was so sad.
- Natalia Ares
The first order of business was to secure the delivery of specialist equipment needed for these complicated experiments, before lockdowns were enforced. Bechhoefer and his team scrambled to order equipment so that there’d be minimal delay when things do eventually start up again. But labs also need people to run them. "We’d also hired a post-doc to be the glue between our research groups," he says. The post-doc started on 1st March—barely enough time to get his feet under the table. "I do worry about his transition," Bechhoefer says.

Bechhoefer’s anxiety is shared by other grant winners. Natalia Ares is a physicist at the University of Oxford, UK. She’s designed an experiment to build a nano-version of a steam engine, in which the ’steam’ is one or two electrons, while the piston is a tiny semiconductor wire in the form of a carbon nanotube, a mere 1/50,000 of a hair’s breadth. The nanotube can be made to vibrate by the electron, to test whether the standard laws of thermodynamics apply or need to be modified. "We can play it like a guitar string," says Ares.

By February, Ares’ team had reached a stage where the system could be exquisitely controlled and the displacement of the string measured to within 50 atomic diameters. "We were at a really exciting point," she says. But they had to close the lab and halt the experiment on 25th March as the UK went into lockdown. "We have dilution refrigerators which make a characteristic sound, and it’s the sound of the lab working. When we had to close, I turned them off one by one and the lab fell silent," says Ares. "It was so sad."

The Oxford team has kept up its spirit with twice-weekly video calls to work on refining the theory and experimental protocols ahead of the lab reopening. "There’s a good vibe in the team," says Ares. One issue they will have to deal with when the lab re-opens is social distancing. Ares is confident they will be handle it, though, because their lab already uses artificial intelligence to monitor and help control experiments, reducing the need for many people to be in the lab at any one time.

Lifting Restrictions

Countries have not been equally affected by COVID-19. While the UK has been one of the worst hit, suffering a death toll of over 40,000, resulting in a prolonged lockdown, Australia—which began locking down on 12th March and shut its borders on 20th March—kept the number of deaths to the hundreds. Unlike many of his colleagues elsewhere in the world, physicist Arkady Federov can now access his laboratory at the University of Queensland, as restrictions gradually lift. "We are allowed to keep some critical infrastructure running," he says.

Natalia Ares
Oxford University
The campus is still quiet, though. Federov’s experiment involves building a clock that is governed by the laws of thermodynamics and the team are able to work on the theoretical aspects of the project via weekly Zoom meetings. They have, however, temporarily lost one team member: Sally Shrapnel is also a qualified medical doctor and has been helping the Australian government with their COVID-19 response. "I don’t think COVID-19 will have a long-lasting effect on the project," Federov says. But while he is optimistic about the prospects for his experiment, he notes that there will be wider-scale repercussions; the lack of overseas students in coming months will likely have a huge impact on universities’ balance sheets.

Meanwhile, Swedish authorities have taken a markedly different approach to most other countries, making Peter Samuelsson’s experience at Lund University somewhat different from the other grant winners. Rather than locking everything down, social distancing measures were encouraged in Sweden, but not enforced. That meant that Samuelsson has continued to work relatively unimpeded over the past few months. He and his colleagues are developing a machine capable of trapping electrons in one of two boxes, just like Maxwell’s demon. "Using only information about where the electron is, we can tune the system to make the electron move between one box and the other, doing work in the process," Samuelsson says.

While Sweden has been relatively relaxed, science is necessarily an international effort, and one of Samuelsson’s collaborators and fellow awardees, Ville Maisi, was locked down in Finland and couldn’t return to help with the experiment. The team got by, by bringing in some PhD students to take over essential tasks. But the loss of international personnel due to COVID-19 is having a big impact on Swedish research. "Recruiting people is taking a lot more time," Samuelsson says. One of the post-docs is an Iranian citizen and getting a non-EU visa during a pandemic has made things more complicated.

Quantum Friction

Franco Nori, from RIKEN in Japan, fears the pandemic will damage the careers of young scientists. "It will have negative effects that will be felt for a long time," he says. Nori’s grant centres on quantum friction—the unwanted slowing down of an engine’s performance due to quantum effects. His team is building two devices, one in Finland and one in Japan, to experiment with techniques that are, in effect, quantum lubrication to get around this friction.

At the same time, however, Nori argues that the global pandemic could be an excellent time to take stock of the way the machinery of academia currently operates. "In the middle of so much bad news, some positive aspects have been felt by many people," he says. "Less time commuting from home to work is priceless. There’s also less time wasted in useless meetings and a shift to more electronic channels."

The cost of a headset
is about the same
cost as a single
flight, but you only
pay that once.
- Dave Sloan
The current travel restrictions and the boom in online video conferencing could be a wake up call for scientists. "There are way too many conferences out there," says Nori. "Scientists from poor countries who cannot afford to go to expensive locales can now easily interact with other scientists, from their homes." In the long term, the shift to digital conferencing could lead to more diversity of thought when tackling the foundational questions in physics. "It’s a better way to exchange ideas, without cramming hundreds of people into long-haul airplanes," Nori argues.

Digital meetings may well become more commonplace, even after the pandemic passes. But as users complain of Zoom fatigue, FQXi is exploring ways to make remote conferencing more comfortable and more productive. "We’re looking at using virtual reality devices to replace or supplement in-person meetings," explains Sloan. Many physicists and mathematicians relish hammering out equations on a blackboard—something that’s tough to do on a video call. But virtual reality enables collaborators to gather around a virtual blackboard. "We were already working on this, but coronavirus is spurring us on," notes Sloan.

With the cost of air travel likely to spike in the immediate aftermath of the virus, it’s also a financially smart move in the long term. "The cost of a headset is about the same cost as a single flight," says Sloan, "but you only pay that once." More importantly, the carbon footprint of physics would also be lower. It should also help with accessibility issues, notes Sloan, helping those unable to travel because they are disproportionally affected by personal, physical or political reasons. That includes female researchers who tend to face a higher childcare burden.

Virtual meetings may never totally replace in-person workshops, where many new and unexpected collaborations are sparked over coffee between talks. The FQXi grant winners have rescheduled their Austrian Alps meeting to February 2021, when they hope to be able compare notes about their experiments. But the hope is that as researchers think about how they will do things differently in a post-COVID world, they will be able to blend in the benefits of remote conferencing. That way, those who cannot travel, can still contribute to the goal of cracking some of physics’ thorniest puzzles.

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