Book Review: “Quantum Steampunk” by Dr. Nicole Yunger Halpern. A fun way to learn about Quantum Information without a single equation

The term “quantum” is so overused and misused that you would be forgiven for wondering what the heck “quantum steampunk” is. Rest assured that, in this case, anyway, the term is not misused.

Be a Quantum Steam Punk

Quantum Steampunk is otherwise known as “quantum thermodynamics” or “quantum-information thermodynamics.” The term “steampunk” is borrowed from Victorian era advancements in thermodynamics. In fact, Quantum Steampunk has a Victorian era theme, with snippets throughout that could be expanded into a steampunk genre novel. You’ll alternate between reading these snippets and reading about quantum thermodynamics and its prerequisites.

Notwithstanding the book is supposed to be about quantum thermodynamics, Quantum Steampunk is probably the best plain English explanation of quantum physics you’ll find anywhere.  Dr. Halpern uses illustrations, whimsical descriptions, and humor. There is not one equation to be found. So, if you’d like to understand high-level quantum physics for any reason whatsoever, including to understand quantum computing at a high-level, then go ahead and click the link at the end of this article and order yourself a copy.

What does Quantum Steampunk explain in plain English?

  • Thermodynamics, including entropy (including Shannon entropy and von Neumann entropy)
  • Entanglement
  • Communication, including encoding and decoding
  • Quantum information science, including probability distributions
  • Classical physics, including electrodynamics
  • Quantization
  • Particle spin
  • Wave-particle duality
  • Momentum
  • Principle of no signaling
  • Superposition
  • Uncertainty principle
  • Qubit technologies
  • Linear algebra
  • Quantum states
  • Fermions and bosons
  • Pauli’s exclusion principle
  • Measurement
  • Lasers and masers
  • Negative temperatures
  • Molecular switches
  • Quantum dots
  • Quantum thermometry
  • Hawking radiation
  • Amplitude encoding

Understand Quantum Science in Plain English

That’s probably not an exhaustive list; there are so many plain English concepts in the book that some may have been missed while listing them.  But, if you’re interested in clear, high-level explanations of any of these concepts and more, read the book!

Following are a few particularly-awesome snippets:

  • “John [Preskill] exudes the gravitas you might expect of a Princeton and Harvard alumnus who’s as decorated in physics as a general is in the military.” As a veteran and a follower of Prof. Preskill, that seems like a solid analogy.
  • “I envision part of quantum steampunk as a map of the vintage drawn by explorers centuries ago: ink on parchment, with a dragon or a mermaid in one corner.” Disclaimer: the author of this article likes to put images of dragons on things.
  • “You spin me right round” is a section title; is the song now stuck in your head?
  • “We appreciate the world’s enthusiasm for our work…. But we feel obliged to throw cold water on the hype.” There is a growing trend to fight back against quantum hype, and it made the cut.
  • “Seth [Lloyd] is an MIT professor about whom I have a guideline: if you dream up any idea about quantum computation, he probably mentioned it in a paper a few decades ago.” Probably.
  • “Why do Professor Jones and Professor Smith live only a block from campus? Because they won’t commute!” Dr. Halpern’s got jokes….

Oh, and the book also explain quantum thermodynamics in plain English. Well, Eminem’s lyrics may or may not count as “plain English,” but whatever. Such an invocation makes you stop, think, and digest the point that’s being made.

Quantum Steampunk is written for aspiring engineers, however, the plain English explanations are so good, that it really is a good read for all introductory audiences.

For more information about Quantum Steampunk, listen to an interview with author Dr. Nicole Yunger Halpern on The Qubit Guy’s Podcast at https://www.classiq.io/insights/nicole-yunger-halpern.

To order a copy, visit John Hopkins University Press at https://www.press.jhu.edu/books/title/12750/quantum-steampunk.