This July, I came upon a museum called the Haus der Musik in one of Vienna’s former palaces. The museum contains a room dedicated to Johann Strauss II, king of the waltz. The room, dimly lit, resembles a twilit gazebo. I could almost believe that a hidden orchestra was playing the rendition of “The Blue Danube” that filled the room. Glass cases displayed dance cards and accessories that dancers would bring to a nineteenth-century ball.
A ball. Who hasn’t read about one in a novel or seen one in a film? A throng of youngsters and their chaperones, rustling in silk. The glint of candles, the vigor of movement, the thrill of interaction, the anxiety of establishing one’s place in society.
Another throng gathered a short walk from the Haus der Musik this summer. The Vienna University of Technology hosted the conference Quantum Thermodynamics (QTD) in the heart of the city. Don’t tell the other annual conferences, but QTD is my favorite. It spotlights the breed of quantum thermodynamics that’s surged throughout the past decade—the breed saturated with quantum information theory. I began attending QTD as a PhD student, and the conference shifts from city to city from year to year. I reveled in returning in person for the first time since the pandemic began.
Yet this QTD felt different. First, instead of being a PhD student, I brought a PhD student of my own. Second, granted, I enjoyed catching up with colleagues-cum-friends as much as ever. I especially relished seeing the “classmates” who belonged to my academic generation. Yet we were now congratulating each other on having founded research groups, and we were commiserating about the workload of primary investigators.&
Third, I found myself a panelist in the annual discussion traditionally called “Quo vadis, quantum thermodynamics?” The panel presented bird’s-eye views on quantum thermodynamics, analyzing trends and opining on the direction our field was taking (or should take).1 Fourth, at the end of the conference, almost the last sentence spoken into any microphone was “See you in Maryland next year.” Colleagues and I will host QTD 2024.
The day after QTD ended, I boarded an Austrian Airlines flight. Waltzes composed by Strauss played over the loudspeakers. They flipped a switch in my mind: I’d come of age, I thought. I’d attended QTD 2017 as a debutante, presenting my first invited talk at the conference series. I’d danced through QTD 2018 in Santa Barbara, as well as the online iterations held during the pandemic. I’d reveled in the vigor of scientific argumentation, the thrill of learning, the glint of slides shining on projector screens (not really). Now, I was beginning to shoulder responsibilities like a ballgown-wearing chaperone.
As I came of age, so did QTD. The conference series budded around the time I started grad school and embarked upon quantum-thermodynamics research. In 2017, approximately 80 participants attended QTD. This year, 250 people registered to attend in person, and others attended online. Two hundred fifty! Quantum thermodynamics scarcely existed as a field of research fifteen years ago.
I’ve heard that organizers of another annual conference, Quantum Information Processing (QIP), reacted similarly to a 250-person registration list some years ago. Aram Harrow, a professor and quantum information theorist at MIT, has shared stories about co-organizing the first QIPs. As a PhD student, he’d sat in his advisor’s office, taking notes, while the local quantum-information theorists chose submissions to highlight. Nowadays, a small army of reviewers and subreviewers processes the hordes of submissions. And, from what I heard about this year’s attendance, you almost might as well navigate a Disney theme park on a holiday as the QIP crowd.
Will QTD continue to grow like QIP? Would such growth strengthen or fracture the community? Perhaps we’ll discuss those questions at a “Quo vadis?” session in Maryland next year. But I, at least, hope to continue always to grow—and to dance.2
1My opinion: Now that quantum thermodynamics has showered us with fundamental insights, we should apply it in practical applications. How? Collaborators and I suggest one path here.
2I confess to having danced the waltz step (gleaned during my 14 years of ballet training) around that Strauss room in the Haus der Musik. I didn’t waltz around the conference auditorium, though.