“Once Upon a Time”…with a twist


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The Noncommuting-Charges World Tour (Part 1 of 4)

This is the first part in a four part series covering the recent Perspectives article on noncommuting charges. I’ll be posting one part every 6 weeks leading up to my PhD thesis defence.

Thermodynamics problems have surprisingly many similarities with fairy tales. For example, most of them begin with a familiar opening. In thermodynamics, the phrase “Consider an isolated box of particles” serves a similar purpose to “Once upon a time” in fairy tales—both serve as a gateway to their respective worlds. Additionally, both have been around for a long time. Thermodynamics emerged in the Victorian era to help us understand steam engines, while Beauty and the Beast and Rumpelstiltskin, for example, originated about 4000 years ago. Moreover, each conclude with important lessons. In thermodynamics, we learn hard truths such as the futility of defying the second law, while fairy tales often impart morals like the risks of accepting apples from strangers. The parallels go on; both feature archetypal characters—such as wise old men and fairy godmothers versus ideal gases and perfect insulators—and simplified models of complex ideas, like portraying clear moral dichotomies in narratives versus assuming non-interacting particles in scientific models.1

Of all the ways thermodynamic problems are like fairytale, one is most relevant to me: both have experienced modern reimagining. Sometimes, all you need is a little twist to liven things up. In thermodynamics, noncommuting conserved quantities, or charges, have added a twist.

Unfortunately, my favourite fairy tale, ‘The Hunchback of Notre-Dame,’ does not start with the classic opening line ‘Once upon a time.’ For a story that begins with this traditional phrase, ‘Cinderella’ is a great choice.

First, let me recap some of my favourite thermodynamic stories before I highlight the role that the noncommuting-charge twist plays. The first is the inevitability of the thermal state. For example, this means that, at most times, the state of most sufficiently small subsystem within the box will be close to a specific form (the thermal state).

The second is an apparent paradox that arises in quantum thermodynamics: How do the reversible processes inherent in quantum dynamics lead to irreversible phenomena such as thermalization? If you’ve been keeping up with Nicole Yunger Halpern‘s (my PhD co-advisor and fellow fan of fairytale) recent posts on the eigenstate thermalization hypothesis (ETH) (part 1 and part 2) you already know the answer. The expectation value of a quantum observable is often comprised of a sum of basis states with various phases. As time passes, these phases tend to experience destructive interference, leading to a stable expectation value over a longer period. This stable value tends to align with that of a thermal state’s. Thus, despite the apparent paradox, stationary dynamics in quantum systems are commonplace.

The third story is about how concentrations of one quantity can cause flows in another. Imagine a box of charged particles that’s initially outside of equilibrium such that there exists gradients in particle concentration and temperature across the box. The temperature gradient will cause a flow of heat (Fourier’s law) and charged particles (Seebeck effect) and the particle-concentration gradient will cause the same—a flow of particles (Fick’s law) and heat (Peltier effect). These movements are encompassed within Onsager’s theory of transport dynamics…if the gradients are very small. If you’re reading this post on your computer, the Peltier effect is likely at work for you right now by cooling your computer.

What do various derivations of the thermal state’s forms, the eigenstate thermalization hypothesis (ETH), and the Onsager coefficients have in common? Each concept is founded on the assumption that the system we’re studying contains charges that commute with each other (e.g. particle number, energy, and electric charge). It’s only recently that physicists have acknowledged that this assumption was even present.

This is important to note because not all charges commute. In fact, the noncommutation of charges leads to fundamental quantum phenomena, such as the Einstein–Podolsky–Rosen (EPR) paradox, uncertainty relations, and disturbances during measurement. This raises an intriguing question. How would the above mentioned stories change if we introduce the following twist?

“Consider an isolated box with charges that do not commute with one another.” 

This question is at the core of a burgeoning subfield that intersects quantum information, thermodynamics, and many-body physics. I had the pleasure of co-authoring a recent perspective article in Nature Reviews Physics that centres on this topic. Collaborating with me in this endeavour were three members of Nicole’s group: the avid mountain climber, Billy Braasch; the powerlifter, Aleksander Lasek; and Twesh Upadhyaya, known for his prowess in street basketball. Completing our authorship team were Nicole herself and Amir Kalev.

To give you a touchstone, let me present a simple example of a system with noncommuting charges. Imagine a chain of qubits, where each qubit interacts with its nearest and next-nearest neighbours, such as in the image below.

The figure is courtesy of the talented team at Nature. Two qubits form the system S of interest, and the rest form the environment E. A qubit’s three spin components, σa=x,y,z, form the local noncommuting charges. The dynamics locally transport and globally conserve the charges.

In this interaction, the qubits exchange quanta of spin angular momentum, forming what is known as a Heisenberg spin chain. This chain is characterized by three charges which are the total spin components in the x, y, and z directions, which I’ll refer to as Qx, Qy, and Qz, respectively. The Hamiltonian H conserves these charges, satisfying [H, Qa] = 0 for each a, and these three charges are non-commuting, [Qa, Qb] 0, for any pair a, b ∈ {x,y,z} where a≠b. It’s noteworthy that Hamiltonians can be constructed to transport various other kinds of noncommuting charges. I have discussed the procedure to do so in more detail here (to summarize that post: it essentially involves constructing a Koi pond).

This is the first in a series of blog posts where I will highlight key elements discussed in the perspective article. Motivated by requests from peers for a streamlined introduction to the subject, I’ve designed this series specifically for a target audience: graduate students in physics. Additionally, I’m gearing up to defending my PhD thesis on noncommuting-charge physics next semester and these blog posts will double as a fun way to prepare for that.

  1. This opening text was taken from the draft of my thesis. ↩