Making Coffee With Qubits, a Memoir
A few years back I started jotting down some notes on my obsession with understanding the work being done in the field of quantum computing. I found that the roots of that obsession took me all the way back to when I first got excited about quantum mechanics at the ripe old age of twelve. The history of science is one of my favorite topics, and every now and then, I gobble up a bunch of titles on various subjects involving scientific discovery. Writing about science is all about making connections, fitting the pieces of the puzzle together in some coherent fashion, and that’s partly what I’m trying to do in this draft of a memoir.
1. Looking For Atoms, Digging Equations
One Saturday I found myself at the campus bookstore by Case Institute of Technology. I was twelve years old. And I liked atoms. Ever since I had heard about atoms as a young boy of seven I wanted to know more about them. So I ventured out on my own, frail and skinny as a beanpole, and rode my bike along Euclid Avenue until I landed at the front of the bookstore. At that time, Case had not yet merged with Western Reserve to become one big mega-school and was known mainly for its outstanding science and engineering departments. I wasn’t sure I wanted to become a scientist or engineer, but I had an appetite for learning that wouldn’t quit.
When I looked up at the sky at night and contemplated the distant stars and galaxies, I nodded and winked because I knew my origins were out there, somewhere, and over time had combined and mutated to create the boy I was on Earth. It was a no-brainer, as far as I was concerned. But atoms! I was made of atoms, my teachers in school told me, and these atoms were so tiny, so impossibly small as never to be seen. I needed to imagine their existence.
As a child, I stood on the precipice of knowing and imagining what I knew, or didn’t know. Imagination was my way of knowing more than I knew, and I cherished the gift. Just as every child is a Picasso up until the age of nine or ten, painting canvases with complete abandon, mixing and splashing all colors of the rainbow, and then some to create images of people and familiar places, I could feel the tug of knowledge away from imagination when I hit the bookstore on campus. Yet for some reason, imagination stayed with me, which is another part of my story.
The books I found on the shelves were paperbacks on Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and Planck’s Quantum Mechanics. They cost more than I could really afford, but I had saved up enough from delivering newspapers to shell out the dollars for the purchase. I had no idea if these books were what I was looking for on those shelves, and standing around, skinny and little, I felt somewhat out of place among the other students who were much older.
I looked for popularized versions of science, books that weren’t too difficult to understand or filled with mathematical equations, and there were a few I came across. These books, bought on a winter afternoon, changed my life. I feasted on George Gamow’s writing and his little sketches between paragraphs that he used so artifully to illustrate scientific principles in One, Two, Three...Infinity. (I later named my software company Infinity Software, Ltd, which seemed the right way to contain all those degrees of infinity that Georg Cantor had formulated at the turn of the last century. But I’m getting ahead of my story.)
The quest for knowledge and a hunger and thirst to understand the fundamentals of the universe haunted me as a child. Gamow made things clear and he took on big subjects, like the shape of the universe, Einstein’s theories, quantum mechanics, the micro and macros dimensions of the universe. And his books weren’t loaded up with lots of equations. Interestingly enough, it was the equations that obsessed me, the ones that brought matter and energy together, that described light as particles and waves. I started keeping a little brown spiral notebook, which I still have, containing all the important scientific equations I had grown up with.
Where did they come from? Were they acts of the imagination? Did they correspond to actual, physical events?
And then I made my first real scientific discovery: the equations were simply in the air. Walking from our apartment to a movie theatre at the corner of Euclid Avenue and Windermere, I snatched a few of them right out of the air, as if they were just waiting to be caught, like grasshoppers in a field. The equations were everything, in the mind of a child, containing all the secrets of the universe, and they were there for the taking.