Nicole Yunger Halpern is a theoretical physicist at Caltech’s Institute for Quantum Information and Matter (IQIM). She blends quantum information theory with thermodynamics and applies the combination across science, including to condensed matter; black-hole physics; and atomic, molecular, and optical physics. She writes for Quantum Frontiers, the IQIM blog, every month.
What makes extraordinary science extraordinary?
Political junkies watch C-SPAN. Sports fans watch ESPN. Art collectors watch Christie’s. I watch scientists respond to ideas.
John Preskill—Caltech professor, quantum-information theorist, and my PhD advisor—serves as the Chief Justice John Roberts of my C-SPAN. Ideas fly during group meetings, at lunch outside a campus cafeteria, and in John’s office. Many ideas encounter a laconicism compared with which Ernest Hemingway babbles. “Hmm,” I hear. “Ok.” “Wait… What?”
The occasional idea provokes an “mhm.” The final syllable has a higher pitch than the first. Usually, the inflection change conveys agreement and interest. Receiving such an “mhm” brightens my afternoon like a Big Dipper sighting during a 9 PM trudge home.
Hearing “That’s cool,” “Nice,” or “I’m excited,” I cartwheel internally.
What distinguishes “ok” ideas from “mhm” ideas? Peeling the Preskillite trappings off this question reveals its core: What distinguishes good science from extraordinary ...