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Current Essay Contest

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Wandering Towards a Goal
How can mindless mathematical laws give rise to aims and intention?
December 2, 2016 to March 3, 2017
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Trick or Truth: The Mysterious Connection Between Physics and Mathematics
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How Should Humanity Steer the Future?
January 9, 2014 - August 31, 2014
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It From Bit or Bit From It
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Which of Our Basic Physical Assumptions Are Wrong?
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Is Reality Digital or Analog?
November 2010 - February 2011
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What's Ultimately Possible in Physics?
May - October 2009
Contest Partners: Astrid and Bruce McWilliams

The Nature of Time
August - December 2008

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Accounting for quantum fuzziness could help us measure space and time—and the cosmos—more accurately.

February 20, 2018

CATEGORY: What's Ultimately Possible in Physics? Essay Contest (2009) [back]
TOPIC: On the (im)possibility of quantum computing by Gheorghe Sorin Paraoanu [refresh]
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Author Gheorghe Sorin Paraoanu wrote on Oct. 2, 2009 @ 11:58 GMT
Essay Abstract

We are witnesses nowadays in physics to an intense effort to built a quantum computer. In this essay, I point out that the failure of this enterprize could be in fact more intellectually exciting than its success. I conjecture that, despite the fact that we do not know any law of nature that would prevent us from building such a machine, it might not be possible, after all, to scale up the few qubits that have been realized so far. If this turns out to be the case, the consequences could be truly amazing: it would mean that quantum mechanics is indeed an incomplete description of reality, as Einstein thought, and it would also imply that certain types of computation - and the knowledge derived from it - are fundamentally inaccessible.

Author Bio

The author has a background in philosophy (M.Sc. - Univ. of Bucharest, 1995) and physics (Ph.D. - Univ. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2001). He currently works as a senior scientist in the Low Temperature Laboratory, Helsinki University of Technology.

Download Essay PDF File

Owen Cunningham wrote on Oct. 2, 2009 @ 19:50 GMT
A truly excellent paper. Digital physics appears to be an uncomfortable subject for many in the theoretical physics community (especially string theorists), but you have thoughtfully and rigorously explored some of the puzzles it poses. Also, good writing. Bravo.

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Andreas Martin Lisewski wrote on Oct. 3, 2009 @ 21:44 GMT
While perhaps pleasant to read, I find the arguments narrow and not "up to date" with recent scientific progress.

For example, why does the author see quantum computation almost exclusively as a means to factorize numbers? For me, the discussion about number theory comes "out of the blue", unmotivated. This probably comes from the authors narrow premise that number theory is all about finding an efficient algorithm for factorization.

Also, recent (and quite spectacular) experimental evidence that molecular biological systems are using some kind of quantum computation (at least, they have a way to maintain macroscopic quantum coherence in noisy environments) is ignored. See, for example, Paul Davies recent review in Physics World (

Such claims about the "impossibility of quantum computation" might in fact be a good sign for its prosperous future.

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G.S.P. wrote on Oct. 6, 2009 @ 06:42 GMT
Hello Owen and Daryl - thanks a lot for the kind words.

Andreas - I am happy that you enjoyed the essay. I think I owe you some clarifications:

I am using factorization just as an example.

I am not saying that number theory is all about factoring numbers, but it is certainly a lot about primes and their properties. The same with quantum computing: while there are several quantum algorithms, not all of them are truly useful - the "killer application" for quantum computing is in the end factoring numbers.

I don't have access to the paper by Paul Davies, but I suppose it comments on these two important results that appeared 2 years ago:

*G. S. Engel et al., Evidence for wavelike energy transfer through quantum

coherence in photosynthetic systems, Nature 446, 782-784 (2007).

* H. Lee, Y.-C. Cheng, and G. R. Fleming, Coherence dynamics in photosynthesis:

protein protection of excitonic coherence. Science 316, 1462(2007)

These results have electrified the "quantum" community. It would be indeed fascinating if quantum effects were to play a role in making life tick. I mean quantum effects in the strong sense, that of producing and using entanglement and superpositions to make certain processes more efficient, like in a quantum computer. We are far from having any solid evidence that this is the case in biological systems. This whole discussion is too involved to be just mentioned or squeezed in a short essay. There is a very good review-style paper on arXiv addressing all the relevant issues in detail:

arXiv:0806.4552, Entanglement and intra-molecular cooling in biological systems? - A quantum thermodynamic perspective

Authors: Hans J. Briegel, Sandu Popescu

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Gheorghe Sorin Paraoanu wrote on Oct. 9, 2009 @ 08:03 GMT

Just a brief follow-up on the discussion above about factorization, which, in terms of mathematical beauty at least, looks like an ugly duck.

On the other hand, factorization is the mathematical equivalent of splitting matter: prime numbers are the "atoms" out of which any integer number is made of. Not being able to factorize efficiently numbers seems to be a ...

view entire post

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G.S.P. wrote on Oct. 9, 2009 @ 11:20 GMT
P.S. Apologies for the terrible editing of the comment above.

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Terry Padden wrote on Oct. 11, 2009 @ 07:07 GMT

A very interesting - and very well argued - essay, with a great surprise ending. Some comments:

1. You conclude with the words: "But surprising connections between number theory and physics have been discovered [15]. Something tells us that we are just scratching the top of the iceberg here, and the reason for saying so is that these connections seem to occur precisely in topics such as renormalizable field theories, low-dimensional field theories, etc., where (despite the success in comparison with experiments), we have the least intellectual confidence that the concepts we are using are the optimal ones".

I have just read another essay on Nuclear Physics by Norman Cook which - surprise surprise - features numerology as a fundamental issue. Numerology (unexplained numerical relationships e.g. the distribution of primes) is the raw material of Number Theory. No surprise, it is the concluding issue dealt with in my essay.

2. Your last sentence is "Maybe, after all [16], in the beginning was the number. ". I think you misunderstand the quotation in a scientific sense. Kronecker was only half right. Except for computers, words are not numbers.

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Author Gheorghe Sorin Paraoanu wrote on Oct. 13, 2009 @ 06:20 GMT
Hi Terry,

Thanks for the comments, first of all, and congratulations for the very thought-provoking essay you wrote!

I didn't know that Kronecker said something similar: namely, "God created the natural numbers, all else is the work of man", so thanks for making me check it out!

What I had in mind was something like this: it seems to me that the most elementary act of creation (assuming that some undifferentiated form of matter exists already) is that of separating one entity from another. This results in different objects - and therefore numbers are born.

Terry Padden wrote on Oct. 14, 2009 @ 06:02 GMT

I think your last paragraph is a good way to start looking at fundamentals (although its Biblical Garden of Eden overtones may frighten some around here and lose you a few friends).

Thanks for your kind words. People either like what I wrote very much, or not at all. Going by the ratings there are more of the latter. This does not surprise me. It was written to be enjoyed, especially by me. It's really only a form of therapy to keep my blood pressure down.

PS No one has yet refuted any of my 10 points - despite the low marks. Interesting insight on the psychology of the group.

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Author Gheorghe Sorin Paraoanu wrote on Oct. 14, 2009 @ 07:24 GMT
Hi Terry - indeed, this reference is meant as an invitation to start looking at the fundamentals. I am not too worried that it will scare people off. After all, I am not in a bad company: from Einstein to Hawking (not to mention those before), many have used them.

I am in fact quite amazed how this problem of quantum computation seems to be related in a very profound way to how the classical world emerges and to what we can ultimately learn about the Universe. It is truly a bridge between the classical and the quantum worlds.

As for my motivation: there are for sure thousands of very bright physicists working in this field, yet nobody has spelled out what is the alternative - and I think the alternative could be in fact quite interesting!

In general, by reading other people's essays, I am plesantly surprised by the air of fresh thinking and how they illuminate some concepts from an unexpected perspective ... This community is really cool!

I wonder if it would be possible to organize some type of conference or meeting with people involved in this contest ... this could be really fun and exciting.

Eckard Blumschein wrote on Oct. 25, 2009 @ 21:49 GMT
Dear Georghe,

When I got aware of basic mistakes in mathematics and its application to physics, I arrived at two serious suspicions:

- Apparent time symmetry of the wavefunction can be explained as an artifact due to improper interpretation for the result of complex calculus of equivalent mathematics. Maybe, even SUSY is affected. Let's wait for results from LHC.

- Complex representation of unilateral functions does not provide an additional degree of freedom but just additional redundancy. The EPR issue reiterates Buridan's ass. I suggest abandoning questionable, unnecessary, and belief-based rigor in mathematics and return to humble pragmatism instead. Because quantum entanglement was introduced by Schroedinger in reaction to EPR, I do not entirely exclude that all of the many (?) pieces of progress towards quantum computing as promised are possibly elusive.

May I ask you to check this?



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Eckard Blumschein wrote on Oct. 26, 2009 @ 08:19 GMT
I apologize for misspelling you Gheorghe.

Let me add some reasons why I tend to distrust:

We both have perhaps in common that we grew up within a communist country. Mutually contradicting ideologies cannot be true. Berlin was heavily punished for mistakes.

I wonder a bit how Nimtz does still manage to find experts who seem to accept his evidence for having measured propagation of signals with a speed in excess of c. While I did not deal thoroughly with his mistake, I realized that it relates to questionable but generally accepted mathematical basics.

Zeh commented in a blog at FQXi on one more allegedly sensational experimental evidence.

I feel embarrassed by how stubborn not just PRL ignores justified objections against a paper by Gompf et al. For a valid link and details see recent discussion on my essay. [/unlink]

In JASA "confirming evidence" was published although Ren provided compelling direct measurements that exclude the correctness of a Nobel price awarded tenet. .


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Eckard Blumschein wrote on Oct. 26, 2009 @ 14:45 GMT
Dear Gheorghe,

Let me guess: The letters h in your name make sure in Romanesc language that George is pronounced like a German, not French or English. Right? It happens that my guesses are correct.

I refer to your essay. As an expert you certainly right: Quantum computers do not yet exist. I recall that already several years ago an enterprise announced first available quantum computers. My guess was: This sounds like fraud.

You wrote:

Counting is perhaps the first mathematical trick we learn as children ...

--- I would like to object. I see the first step the recognition of a unity that then can be recognized repeatedly and thereafter be counted. Ancient Greeks understood that two is the first number.

You continued: ... Construction of the universe... . Maybe, after all [bible], in the beginning was the number.

--- Do not mystify a failure.

Do you absolutely exclude a third scenario?



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Nick Mann wrote on Oct. 31, 2009 @ 23:41 GMT
The most meaningful limit imposed by Nature would still be present even if quantum computation turns out to be a howling success: the fact that in the end, when the qubit is measured and its output read, to quote Hans C. von Baeyer: "all we've got is one lousy classical bit."

Maybe, for all we know, an uncollapsed, superposed qubit contains all the information in the cosmos, it might be a microcosm of the Mind of God, but a fat lot of good that'll do us. The human mind can't read the quantum code and never will. So since a quantum computer would simply be a very, very, very fast classical computer please at least let us have that much. Pretty please.

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G. S. Paraoanu wrote on Nov. 1, 2009 @ 10:07 GMT
Hello Eckard and Nick,

After reading your comments I started to wonder: what is in the end the most elementary process of knowledge - if you want, the "epistemological atom"? One guess is that it is the act of separation: the understanding of the difference. This is what newborns must do first: to figure out that the world is made of distinct objects. This makes possible counting and organizing the objects in sets.

It is very interesting that the possibility of differentiating is clearly allowed in the classical world but so much trickier in quantum physics, where, as we all know, we have indistinguishability and so on. Still, this doesn't seem to preclude our ability to count these indistinguishable particles. So it is possible to count without differentiating, which is one nice thing to wonder about ....

Best wishes,


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Nick Mann wrote on Nov. 1, 2009 @ 15:36 GMT
As Zeilinger puts it, "A photon is a click in a photon counter." Which led another physicist (forget exactly who) to wonder if AZ is a click in an Anton counter.

Must ponder that.

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Nick Mann wrote on Nov. 2, 2009 @ 17:08 GMT
It was David Mermin, who's often fun. The full quote:

"Photons are clicks in photon counters." A special case of Aage Bohr and Ole UIfbeck's rule that there are no particles, only clicks. Would Anton agree that electrons are clicks in electron counters? Are fullerenes clicks in fullerene counters? Is Anton a click in an Anton counter?

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Eckard Blumschein wrote on Nov. 27, 2009 @ 20:04 GMT
Dear Gheorghe,

"This is what newborns must do first: to figure out that the world is made of distinct objects. This makes possible counting and organizing the objects in sets."

-- Yes.

".... in quantum physics, where, as we all know, we have indistinguishability and so on. Still, this doesn't seem to preclude our ability to count these indistinguishable particles. So it is possible to count without differentiating, which is one nice thing to wonder about ...."

-- I do not attribute uncertainty just to quantum physics but to any pair of conjugate variables including time and frequency.

In order to hope for counting without having distinct objects, one must be at least as naive and insane as was Georg Cantor.

Will it be a nice thing to wonder about why neither aleph_2 nor quantum computers nor the search for SUSY with LHC were successful? Wouldn't it be better to check whether the arguments of a nobody like me might be not entirely unfounded?

Meanwhile I consider 3,000,000,000.00 € for the LHC experiment peanuts as compared to some bubbles on the finance market. Nonetheless, doesn't physics deserve honest realism?



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