Upending my equilibrium

Few settings foster equanimity like Canada’s Banff International Research Station (BIRS). Mountains tower above the center, softened by pines. Mornings have a crispness that would turn air fresheners evergreen with envy. The sky looks designed for a laundry-detergent label.

Doesn’t it?

One day into my visit, equilibrium shattered my equanimity.

I was participating in the conference “Beyond i.i.d. in information theory.” What “beyond i.i.d.” means is explained in these articles.  I was to present about resource theories for thermodynamics. Resource theories are simple models developed in quantum information theory. The original thermodynamic resource theory modeled systems that exchange energy and information.

Imagine a quantum computer built from tiny, cold, quantum circuits. An air particle might bounce off the circuit. The bounce can slow the particle down, transferring energy from particle to circuit. The bounce can entangle the particle with the circuit, transferring quantum information from computer to particle.

Suppose that particles bounced off the computer for ages. The computer would thermalize, or reach equilibrium: The computer’s energy would flatline. The computer would reach a state called the canonical ensemble. The canonical ensemble looks like this:  e^ - beta H   /  Z .

Joe Renes and I had extended these resource theories. Thermodynamic systems can exchange quantities other than energy and information. Imagine white-bean soup cooling on a stovetop. Gas condenses on the pot’s walls, and liquid evaporates. The soup exchanges not only heat, but also particles, with its environment. Imagine letting the soup cool for ages. It would thermalize to the grand canonical ensemble, e^ - beta (H - mu N)  /  Z . Joe and I had modeled systems that exchange diverse thermodynamic observables.*

What if, fellow beyond-i.i.d.-er Jonathan Oppenheim asked, those observables didn’t commute with each other?

Mathematical objects called operators represent observables. Let hatH represent a system’s energy, and let hatN represent the number of particles in the system. The operators fail to commute if multiplying them in one order differs from multiplying them in the opposite order: hatH  hatN  neq  hatN  hatH.

Suppose that our quantum circuit has observables represented by noncommuting operators hatH and hatN. The circuit cannot have a well-defined energy and a well-defined particle number simultaneously. Physicists call this inability the Uncertainty Principle. Uncertainty and noncommutation infuse quantum mechanics as a Cashmere GlowTM infuses a Downy fabric softener.

Downy Cashmere Glow 2

Quantum uncertainty and noncommutation.

I glowed at Jonathan: All the coolness in Canada couldn’t have pleased me more than finding someone interested in that question.** Suppose that a quantum system exchanges observables hatQ_1 and hatQ_2 with the environment. Suppose that hatQ_1 and hatQ_2 don’t commute, like components hatS_x and hatS_y of quantum angular momentum. Would the system thermalize? Would the thermal state have the form e^ mu_1 hatQ_1 + mu_2 hatQ_2  /  Z ? Could we model the system with a resource theory?

Jonathan proposed that we chat.

The chat sucked in beyond-i.i.d.-ers Philippe Faist and Andreas Winter. We debated strategies while walking to dinner. We exchanged results on the conference building’s veranda. We huddled over a breakfast table after colleagues had pushed their chairs back. Information flowed from chalkboard to notebook; energy flowed in the form of coffee; food particles flowed onto the floor as we brushed crumbs from our notebooks.

Coffee, crumbs

Exchanges of energy and particles.

The idea morphed and split. It crystallized months later. We characterized, in three ways, the thermal state of a quantum system that exchanges noncommuting observables with its environment.

First, we generalized the microcanonical ensemble. The microcanonical ensemble is the thermal state of an isolated system. An isolated system exchanges no observables with any other system. The quantum computer and the air molecules can form an isolated system. So can the white-bean soup and its kitchen. Our quantum system and its environment form an isolated system. But they cannot necessarily occupy a microcanonical ensemble, thanks to noncommutation.

We generalized the microcanonical ensemble. The generalization involves approximation, unlikely measurement outcomes, and error tolerances. The microcanonical ensemble has a simple definition—sharp and clean as Banff air. We relaxed the definition to accommodate noncommutation. If the microcanonical ensemble resembles laundry detergent, our generalization resembles fabric softener.

Detergent vs. softener

Suppose that our system and its environment occupy this approximate microcanonical ensemble. Tracing out (mathematically ignoring) the environment yields the system’s thermal state. The thermal state basically has the form we expected, gamma = e^ sum_j  mu_j hatQ_j  /  Z .

This exponential state, we argued, follows also from time evolution. The white-bean soup equilibrates upon exchanging heat and particles with the kitchen air for ages. Our quantum system can exchange observables hatQ_j with its environment for ages. The system equilibrates, we argued, to the state gamma. The argument relies on a quantum-information tool called canonical typicality.

Third, we defined a resource theory for thermodynamic exchanges of noncommuting observables. In a thermodynamic resource theory, the thermal states are the worthless states: From a thermal state, one can’t extract energy usable to lift a weight or to power a laptop. The worthless states, we showed, have the form of gamma.

Three path lead to the form gamma of the thermal state of a quantum system that exchanges noncommuting observables with its environment. We published the results this summer.

Not only was Team Banff spilling coffee over gamma. So were teams at Imperial College London and the University of Bristol. Our conclusions overlap, suggesting that everyone calculated correctly. Our methodologies differ, generating openings for exploration. The mountain passes between our peaks call out for mapping.

So does the path to physical reality. Do these thermal states form in labs? Could they? Cold atoms offer promise for realizations. In addition to experiments and simulations, master equations merit study. Dynamical typicality, Team Banff argued, suggests that gamma results from equilibration. Master equations model equilibration. Does some Davies-type master equation have gamma as its fixed point? Email me if you have leads!


Experimentalists, can you realize the thermal state e^ sum_j mu_j hatQ_j  / Z whose charges hatQ_j don’t commute?


A photo of Banff could illustrate Merriam-Webster’s entry for “equanimity.” Banff equanimity deepened our understanding of quantum equilibrium. But we wouldn’t have understood quantum equilibrium if questions hadn’t shattered our tranquility. Give me the disequilibrium of recognizing problems, I pray, and the equilibrium to solve them.


*By “observable,” I mean “property that you can measure.”

**Teams at Imperial College London and Bristol asked that question, too. More pleasing than three times the coolness in Canada!