Physics, quantum computing and the joys of interdisciplinarity

As a child there were two things I really enjoyed – football (or, soccer in Australian) and astronomy.  These days my mum teaches physics at a high school, but when I was younger she was studying for her degree and then teacher training while bringing my brother and I up.  We were often guinea pigs for potential teaching exercises and she was enthusiastic about physics, maths and astronomy and we, in turn, were too (nobody knows where the football bit came from).

I studied physics and maths to A-level and my performance in these was always better than that of geography, which I eventually went on to study at university (I have always been a little contrary).  I have remained interested in developments around physics and other so called “harder” sciences which is interesting to some people as a contrast to the academic work that I do which is often more interpretive in nature.

Personally I have never really seen this as a contradiction and more a sign that I am interested in a whole range of “stuff”.  I have never really viewed the “harder” sciences as being any more “objective” than social sciences and think that both are built on constructed belief systems and are therefore subject to similar forms of fallibility (not always a popular perspective).

Over the past month or so I have been indulging in a bunch of different books that focus on physics and in particular on the implications and applications of quantum theory.  I had seen this mostly as taking a break from the political science and public management-type books that tend to inevitably dominate my reading when I’m not reading marvellous music memoirs that is (most enjoyable ones of the last 6 months Carrie Brownstein’s Hunger makes me a modern girl, Viv Albertine’s Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys Boys and a re-read of Patti Smith’s Just Kids).  Anyway, a recent article suggests that this reading might be more than simply an indulgence on my part and could actually be an indication of my research ‘orientation’ and have implications for the quality of research and its potential impact.  More of that later.

On my “to read” list for some time has been Richard Feynman’s Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman which is essentially a series of anecdotes about the life and thinking of the Nobel Prize-winning physicist.  It is an entertaining and engaging book full of funny stories and incidents and certainly lived up to what I would expect from a thinker as great as Feynman.  But the really fascinating stuff was getting an insight into how he thought.  Feynman wasn’t interested in knowledge for the sake of it and was only really interested in things that had a real world application.  This meant that Feynman often went beyond the confines of conventional approaches.

In his book Feynman describes difficulties he had in helping a friend with a particular piece of maths.  The reason for this problem was not because Feynman didn’t understand the maths but that he had essentially taught himself and had developed his own process of notation (for sin, cos, tan etc) that didn’t match the standard approach.  Although he felt his own approach to notation was superior, he realised at this point the limitations of personal notation and the importance of a common approach if one is to be able to successfully communicate about this.

Feynman  was a curious individual who learned by being interested in things and wanting to understand them and wouldn’t give up on something once it had got his attention.  In some senses there are similarities here with Alan Turing, who is the subject that begins John Gribbin’s Computing with quantum cats .  There is a now-famous story about Turing and a bike chain that kept slipping.  He realised that this happened after a certain number of pushes on his bike peddles and so counted these resetting his position so to avoid this happening and even installing a counter on the bike so he would not miss this.  He eventually realised that this was related to the number of revolutions of the wheels and finally discovered that this was due to a bent spoke in one of the wheels.  A bicycle repair person would have been able to diagnose and fix this in a matter of minutes, but Turing went through a long and meticulous process to identify this himself.  This is an interesting example in the sense that it indicates the way sin which his mind worked and the processes that underpinned his thinking around issues.

One of the joys of Gribbin’s book is that it isn’t just simply a description of quantum computing or the potentials of this application.  It tells the story of computers and their development from Turing and the need to decode ciphers in World War Two up to recent attempts to apply insights from quantum theory to computing.  I am completely fascinated by, and in awe of the potential of this sort of technology, and what the implications of quantum theory are for how we think about our everyday world.  I don’t understand all of it and it has been a test to revisit the quantum mechanics that was on my A-level physics syllabus and have a bunch of other books on my bedside table waiting to be read in the hope that this will help me better grasp some of these concepts.

What I did find gripping in Gribbin’s account are the dynamics of power and politics (with a small ‘p’) that have contributed to the development of quantum computing.  In one such example, the darling of physics and quantum theory – Johnny von Neumann – published a book on quantum mechanics setting out an important proposition that was based on some unusually shaky mathematics.  This was refuted almost straight away by Grete Hermann who pointed out to Heisenberg and colleagues that there were some inappropriate assumptions in the mathematics underpinning van Neumann’s work.  But these concerns never appear to have been taken seriously  and people continued to believe van Neumann’s perspective simply on the basis that he told them this was the case – rather than engaging with the work itself.  He was so revered in this field that it was out of the question that he might not be right.  There are any number of things going on here relating to charismatic leadership, belief, gender, subject specialism and other factors too that point to the importance of politics in the creation of knowledge (in addition to the constant big ‘p’ politics of the world wars that play out in the backdrop to the development of computing).  These accounts clearly demonstrate the impact that a range of these factors have for the production and re-production of knowledge in even in “harder” sciences.

Richard Feynman tells in his book about how he took a range of different subjects while studying at university in many things besides physics, maths and the compulsory English subjects.  He describes being involved in metallurgy, biology and other areas to expand his studies – which may seem unusual for an individual who was already starting to make significant contributions to the field of physics at a relatively early stage.  However, perhaps Feynman was able to make such significant contributions to the advancement of physics precisely because he went beyond the confines of his own discipline.

A recent study found that having a “transdisciplinary orientation”, that is a predisposition to engage in cross-disciplinary work, can have implications for the quality of interdisciplinary research.  Those more open to ideas outside of their own discipline were found to be more able to synthesise concepts, ideas or methods from different disciplines and to produce scientific outputs that have greater translational, policy and practical relevance.  A transdiciplinary orientation was also seen to have a slight positive impact on ratings of creativity and intellectual quality of work.  For someone who works in a interdisciplinary school and who has always drawn quite liberally on different areas of literature this is good news indeed.  For those who aren’t naturally predisposed to this way of working, don’t worry – the research team believe that this isn’t a fixed trait and can be developed.

In the mean time I’ll continue on reading outside of my ‘home’ area and being open to all sorts of ideas.  Next up is John Butterworth’s Smashing Physics , an account of how the Higgs particle was discovered at CERN.







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