Seth Lloyd, Quantum Entanglement, and Why it Matters Whether the President (and VP) Care About Science

One of the absolute best things about having a good gig at a place like MIT is that you get the quick word on things like this.

Short form: MIT’s resident quantum engineer Seth Lloyd, best known for his work on developing a functional quantum computer (you can see his mathematics/mechanical engineering course website here, an accessible interview here) has just published a paper in Science that describes a novel and extremely powerful design for detectors and imaging systems that make use of the quantum phenomenon dubbed entanglement.*

What makes Lloyd’s finding more exciting than the usual theoretical description of a hypothetical quantum machine is that Lloyd’s lab has already begun preliminary experiments to develop some of the apparatus needed to buile a quantum entanglement-based analogue to radar, and Lloyd himself is predicting laboratory-based proof of principle experiments within a year.

If the idea works, Lloyd suggests that it should be possible to increase the efficiency of radar systems by as much as a million-fold by using what he has dubbed quantum illumination.

Now partly this is just another very tasty technological idea that may never make it out of the “that sounds cool” file.

But looked at in a larger frame this story takes on a different meaning.

Choosing to fund fundamental research is political decision. It has not been the priority recently: see this post for the details.

To support such research requires a leap of the imagination — the ability to grasp the the fact that while it may not be possible to envision the consequences of answering any given abstract question, you can’t pick the winners in advance of following a line of inquiry through each required step. No one could have anticipated that the mysteries of the hydrogen spectrum could lead over time to the ideas that would ultimately make possible such brave new machines as the one on which I write this.

So to the point I’ve been telegraphing for a while: that in this context, it would help — more, it is vital — that we have a President and an administration that is more than just comfortable with science. We need an administration that actively gets the idea that it matters to the American economy, to its security, and to its culture to support open ended inquiry.

I had intended here to go into a lengthy argument about why John McCain and his people do not get it.  But I find that in the couple of days it has taken me to get going on this post that I can outsource most of what I would have said to Devilstower over at Daily Kos.

There, DT takes a swipe at McCain’s self-described science credentials in the candidates’ reply to Science Debate 2008’s 14 questions.  The post doesn’t do a complete fisking of that profoundly cynical and vapid document, but it gets to the essence of McCain’s completely instrumental view of science by teeing off on the Senator’s claim that

I am uniquely qualified to lead our nation during this technological revolution. While in the Navy, I depended upon the technologies and information provided by our nation’s scientists and engineers with during each mission.

As Devilstower points out, the fact that someone used technology forty years ago hardly counts, either way, as a qualification for leadership in the advance of technology.  More on point, someone who sees the role of science as simply producing the next widget misses what really goes into the development of ideas that yield major technological advance.  Who knew that an oddity in the behavior of paired photons might yield, — and soon — the kind of advance that could save the life of an American flyer, sailor or soldier?

Much has been made — and I’ve helped a little — of McCain’s email incapacity, of his bare “awareness” (his campaign’s word) of the internet.  But poking fun at a chisel and slate old guy misses the real issue here.  It’s not that McCain doesn’t use the latest technology; it is that he and his incurious advisors do not know what it took to make the possibility of email, of our whole modern, enwebbed world possible.**  And that’s no good in a President in 2008.

*Here’s a cartoon description of entanglement, glossed out of this Wikipedia entry on the subject: Any one particle in an entangled pair (or larger system) cannot be fully described without accounting for the other member or members of the system, even if the other particles are widely separated. Thus, a local observation of one particle can reveal information about certain physical characteristics of phenomena out of sight (or detection) of the observed part of the system.

**Please note that we get to this point in the argument without even mentioning the active anti-science strand in McCain’s campaign:*** you can’t avoid the fact that he choose a running mate who denied human involvement in climate change (before backing down a day or two ago, with a level of sincerity I beg leave to doubt) and who does not credit evolution as the explanation for biological origins and development.

***Not to mention the problem that McCain’s budget priorities leave essentially no room for any non-defense discretionary spending, rendering all the promises made in the Science Debate 2008 replies for increases in research funding essentially unfulfillable unless he is lying about his tax and defense priorities.

Explore posts in the same categories: Cool Tech, McCain, physics, Politics, Science Policy, Technology, Who needs science?

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One Comment on “Seth Lloyd, Quantum Entanglement, and Why it Matters Whether the President (and VP) Care About Science”

  1. […] party in recent weeks.  He lacks the temperament, the judgment, and even, this blog has argued, the right kind of experience to lead the United […]

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