Quantum Arts Visualize The Unseen

Michel Devoret, Martha W Lewis and Florian Carle in front of YQI display case
New Haven Independant
Wednesday, September 20, 2017

They stood beside a sparkling display case holding folded and inked paper in organic-looking crumples, side by side with a small rectangle of superconducting aluminum that knows how to catch a single photon and once did.

The physicist said the crumples reminded him of hard to visualize quantum fluctuations. The artist said she wanted the papers to remain just as they are, slowly unfolding, or changing shape, being both what they are and something else they had just been. Or, as she put it, “multiple universes.”

Just like in quantum physics.

Professor Michel Devoret, one of the founders of Yale University’s Quantum Institute, and Martha Lewis, the institute’s first artist resident, were having that conversation in the YQI’s new home on the fourth floor of the former Yale Health Center on Hillhouse Avenue near Sachem Street.

Allan Appel Photo


Lewis by the wall that eventually will hold her mural.

As the institute’s very first resident artist, one of Lewis’s goals is for her and the institute’s 130 members—theoretical and applied physicists and their students—to have more and more conversations like the one between her and Devoret.

“We value collaboration with an artist. It’s a challenge to visualize” said Devoret, meaning the unseen world of quantum particles.

Lewis’s work long before the residency already dealt with ideas where art and science cross, and she also has an enduring interest in the history of science.

So she was a natural, said the institute’s manager Florian Carle. Lewis prevailed in a competition that attracted about 25 participants, both in Yale and throughout New Haven’s artistic community.

In addition to that work-in-progress display case, Lewis, also quite busy at the curator of the Institute Library’s gallery, said she’ll be creating a mural as well as other work throughout the academic year that emerges from talking and interacting with all the institute’s members.

Photon catcher and a Lewis crumpled paper universe “converse.”

The aim is to create more work reflecting what quantum information scientists are doing and the close intersections of art and science, especially quantum science, which deals with hard to grasp and especially to visualize concepts of randomness and transitoriness.

Lewis, who has an office at the institute, gave a tour of the shiny new space, with offices with white boards filled with equations and students at computers and in quiet talks with each other in the corner. This houses the theoretical side of quantum work at YQI and, increasingly, Martha Lewis’s art. Across the Yale campus at the Becton Engineering Center, scientists like Devoret have labs with very serious equipment, where they do their actual quantum experiments.

Though sometimes some of those pieces of equipment, new as well as old, come into Lewis’s orbit, and art projects begin to emerge.

Devoret, Lewis, and Carle.

One of them is a section of magnetic core memory manufactured in the 1960s by National Cash Register Company. Devoret keeps it in his office—a gift from previous professors. It grabbed Lewis’s attention and she talked with Devoret about it.

The patterning of the circuits, one after the other, struck her as a kind of weaving.

Devoret said weaving, going in and out, is very much of a quantum concept as well.

“Each magnetic donut is one bit of memory,” Devoret then explained to this physics-challenged reporter. Now, a half century later, all that is vastly miniaturized, and may go even further if anyone can build a quantum computer.

Lewis jumped in, pointing out not only the beautiful patterning, but the facts emerging from her research, that this core section was not machine made, but “woven” by human hands.

“I love the combination of hand labor in this,” she said.

“Memory in the past looked like Afghan rugs. Now each bit, on a pin head, you can write an encyclopedia. Miniaturization by a factor of a billion,” Devoret added.

Lewis said she is going to be presenting work based on Devoret’s inherited magnetic core memory section as part of her show for City-Wide Open Studios next month. She’s going to call the project “Remembering Memory,” a title whose quantum-tinged irony Devoret approved of.

Carle said YQI’s work is hard to understand for many people and may even be off-putting. “When I introduce myself to others and I say I work in quantum physics, people get scared,” he said.

Carle, who launched the artist resident idea.

Part of the idea of bringing someone like Lewis in—and in future perhaps other resident artists working in other media—is to make quantum work less mysterious to the general public. Not only are visitors able to see Lewis’s work at the institute, but other artistic activities are also being scheduled by YQI.

There is, for example, a YQI program open to the public on the physics of human movement, titled “Einstein’s Happiest Dance,” scheduled for the Whitney Humanities Center, at 53 Wall Street, on Sept. 28 at 7:30 p.m.

Carle says such ways of communicating to the larger public may help a little to alter the 80/20 ratio of men to women among the members of the institute, although Carle added that it’s his surmise young people, especially young girls, are scared away from physics at young ages, and other kinds of interventions are required there.

Both Devoret and Carle also see Lewis’s work as beneficial for the researchers themselves, and in ways, both incalculable and unforeseen, that art operates.

A Lewis work with coaxial cable-topped device that helps capture photons.

“I don’t think Martha is going to help us build a quantum computer,” Carle said — not that such a project is the aim of the YQI. “But she is helping us to visualize concepts that are difficult. Having an artist might even trigger a researcher to look at it in a different way.”

“Art is very important in the pedagogy of science,” Devoret added. He pointed out by way of example Feynman diagrams, created in 1948 by Manhattan-project scientist Richard Feynman, to help explain the behavior of subatomic particles. Devoret credited those illustrations with helping “to translate quantum electrodynamics” so people can understand the concepts better.

When Devoret began to explain “contextuality” in quantum physics—“the way I ask questions influences the answer” and “a measurement of location erases all information”—you could see Lewis light up.

Quantum science and the art Lewis practices are interested in the same mystery, she said: “The interaction of things, rather that the things themselves.”

ALLAN APPEL - New Haven Independant