This morning I attended the first Perimeter Institute Black Hole session of the year. I’ve never been to one before. Andrew was kind enough to accompany me, though I know getting up at 9am on a Saturday is torturous for him. Fortunately the coffee was good and the snacks were dessert-y. I admit I obsessed a bit about washing their blackboards. (I have this thing about perfectly clean, black blackboards.)
The subject was quantum computing, something near and dear to the hearts of Waterloo academia and the high tech biz. The talk was presented by Dr. Damian Pope, PI’s Director of Scientific Outreach. He’s Australian, looks about 20, and adorably nerdy. (You could tell he’s been here a little while, as his accent is definitely waning – he’s pronouncing the r’s on the ends of words, but he’s not quite naturalized, as he spoke about the future where we would be able to buy quantum computers at Canadian Tire. Honey? We don’t buy “classical” computers at Crappy Tire now.) He also has slightly obsessive tendencies I find very familiar (as much in myself as in people I know). When it was pointed out that he’d made a typo in a slide and referred to milimetres rather than the correct micrometres, he paused immediately and edited the PowerPoint slide right there. Heh. Another time he “corrected” the dot on an ‘i’ in a word he’d written on the board three times. (He’s also left-handed, giving further weight to my anthropological theory about Australians and the high prevalence of left-handedness.)
As seems to be typical with Perimeter events, the space alloted was not big enough, requiring people to squeeze into each other’s personal space and for chairs to line the aisles. Even so there were people peeking in the doorways. (Another slightly obsessive tendency: Dr. Pope kept stopping the talk every time he noticed people standing, and would go to get more chairs. Apparently PI is not all that hierarchically-based an institution…) Additionally, the material was intended to be presented at a level appreciable by laymen, such as myself – smart and curious but not overly educated in the subject at hand. However, the audience was packed with people rather far removed from us laymen. It was pretty clear by the questions. Hell, it was clear by the fashion sense, hair, and personal hygiene prevalent in the room. Heh. Andrew was quite pleased when I pointed out that he was, by a fairly considerable margin, the most stylish and attractive man in the room. (And I wasn’t kidding.) The questions, unusual for PI events I’ve attended, were intelligent and specific and displayed an impressive knowledge of the subject at hand (and related subjects), but for once, there was no one talking who seemed to be speaking directly out of his/her ass, or who meandered verbally and was incapable of getting to the point. There was a lot of “but what about…?” questions. Quite a few delightfully nerdy jokes, too. When Dr. Pope was talking about quantum bits (qubits) he mentioned that he believes the word appears in the dictionary now – so we can use it in Scrabble (which got a REALLY big laugh). Then he shared an anecdote about how he knows Scrabble players who have 16 dictionaries, and any word that appears in 10 of them is allowed in a game. Or something. Yeah, this was an environment of extreme hipness. 🙂
Anyway, the information on how quantum computing works, and the state of research and development was interesting, and I understood all of it. (Apparently the Austrians are the furthest along, having built a quantum computer up to three bits.) It was also interesting to learn about the different ways various research groups (besides the Austrians, the Australians and us Canucks seem to be in the forefront) are going about building quantum computers. Some are using ions, some photons, some magnetism. Phosphorus and calcium atoms seem popular.
The next scheduled PI event is the public lecture on Mars exploration, and I have to say, so far this year I am enjoying having the place in my community a great deal. Plus, the view out the back wall of windows from the Black Hole Bistro of Silver Lake and the park with snow falling is quite lovely. When I saw Mike L. at Vincenzo’s this afternoon, I should have said thank you… though he did seem pretty intent on his luncheon meat selections and I didn’t want to interrupt. 🙂