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Coffee with cream can teach us a lot about the quantum realm

In the same way that cream blends into coffee, transforming it from a whirl of white to a uniform brown, quantum computer chips face a challenge.

These devices operate on the minuscule scale of the universe’s fundamental particles, where data can quickly become chaotic, limiting memory efficiency.

However, new research spearheaded by Rahul Nandkishore, an associate professor of physics at the University of Colorado Boulder, suggests a groundbreaking approach that could revolutionize data retention in quantum computing.

Coffee, creamer and the quantum world

Nandkishore and his team, through mathematical modeling, propose a scenario akin to cream and coffee that never mix, regardless of how much they are stirred.

This concept, if realized, could lead to significant advancements in quantum computer chips, providing engineers with novel methods for storing data in extremely small scales.

Nandkishore, the senior author of the study, illustrates his idea using the familiar sight of cream swirling in coffee, imagining these patterns remaining dynamic indefinitely.

“Think of the initial swirling patterns that appear when you add cream to your morning coffee,” said Nandkishore. “Imagine if these patterns continued to swirl and dance no matter how long you watched.”

This concept is central to the study, which involved David Stephen and Oliver Hart, postdoctoral researchers in physics at CU Boulder.

Quantum computing: The challenge

Quantum computers differ fundamentally from classical computers. While the latter operate on bits (zeros or ones), quantum computers use qubits, which can exist as zero, one, or both simultaneously.

Despite their potential, qubits can easily become disordered, leading to a loss of coherent data, much like the inevitable blending of cream into coffee.

Nandkishore and his team’s solution lies in arranging qubits in specific patterns that maintain their information even under disturbances, like magnetic fields.

“This could be a way of storing information,” he said. “You would write information into these patterns, and the information couldn’t be degraded.”

This arrangement could allow for the creation of devices with quantum memory, where data, once written into these patterns, remains uncorrupted.

Mathematical model used in the study

The researchers employed mathematical models to envision an array of hundreds to thousands of qubits in a checkerboard pattern.

They discovered that tightly packing qubits influences their neighboring qubits’ behavior, akin to a crowded phone booth where movement is severely limited.

This specific arrangement might enable the patterns to flow around a quantum chip without degrading, much like the enduring swirls of cream in a cup of coffee.

Nandkishore notes that this study’s implications extend beyond quantum computing.

“The wonderful thing about this study is that we discovered that we could understand this fundamental phenomenon through what is almost simple geometry,” Nandkishore said. 

Real world applications from ‘quantum coffee’

It challenges the common understanding that everything in the universe, from coffee to oceans, moves toward thermal equilibrium, where differences in temperature eventually even out, like ice melting in a warm drink.

His findings suggest that certain matter organizations might resist this equilibrium, potentially defying some long-standing physical laws.

While further experimentation is necessary to validate these theoretical swirls, the study represents a significant stride in the quest to create materials that stay out of equilibrium for extended periods.

This pursuit, known as “ergodicity breaking,” could redefine our understanding of statistical physics and its application to everyday phenomena.

As Nandkishore puts it, while we won’t need to rewrite the math for ice and water, there are scenarios where traditional statistical physics might not apply, opening new frontiers in quantum computing and beyond.

The full study was published in the journal Physical Review Letters.


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