The power of awe


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Mid-afternoon, one Saturday late in September, I forgot where I was. I forgot that I was visiting Seattle for the second time; I forgot that I’d just finished co-organizing a workshop partially about nuclear physics for the first time. I’d arrived at a crowded doorway in the Chihuly Garden and Glass museum, and a froth of blue was towering above the onlookers in front of me. Glass tentacles, ranging from ultramarine through turquoise to clear, extended from the froth. Golden conch shells, starfish, and mollusks rode the waves below. The vision drove everything else from my mind for an instant.

Much had been weighing on my mind that week. The previous day had marked the end of a workshop hosted by the Inqubator for Quantum Simulation (IQuS, pronounced eye-KWISS) at the University of Washington. I’d co-organized the workshop with IQuS member Niklas Mueller, NIST physicist Alexey Gorshkov, and nuclear theorist Raju Venugopalanan (although Niklas deserves most of the credit). We’d entitled the workshop “Thermalization, from Cold Atoms to Hot Quantum Chromodynamics.” Quantum chromodynamics describes the strong force that binds together a nucleus’s constituents, so I call the workshop “Journey to the Center of the Atom” to myself.&

We aimed to unite researchers studying thermal properties of quantum many-body systems from disparate perspectives. Theorists and experimentalists came; and quantum information scientists and nuclear physicists; and quantum thermodynamicists and many-body physicists; and atomic, molecular, and optical physicists. Everyone cared about entanglement, equilibration, and what else happens when many quantum particles crowd together and interact.&

We quantum physicists crowded together and interacted from morning till evening. We presented findings to each other, questioned each other, coagulated in the hallways, drank tea together, and cobbled together possible projects. The week electrified us like a chilly ocean wave but also wearied me like an undertow. Other work called for attention, and I’d be presenting four more talks at four more workshops and campus visits over the next three weeks. The day after the workshop, I worked in my hotel half the morning and then locked away my laptop. I needed refreshment, and little refreshes like art.

Strongly interacting physicists

Chihuly Garden and Glass, in downtown Seattle, succeeded beyond my dreams: the museum drew me into somebody else’s dreams. Dale Chihuly grew up in Washington state during the mid-twentieth century. He studied interior design and sculpture before winning a Fulbright Fellowship to learn glass-blowing techniques in Murano, Italy. After that, Chihuly transformed the world. I’ve encountered glass sculptures of his in Pittsburgh; Florida; Boston; Jerusalem; Washington, DC; and now Seattle—and his reach dwarfs my travels.&

Chihuly chandelier at the Renwick Gallery in Washington, DC

After the first few encounters, I began recognizing sculptures as Chihuly’s before checking their name plates. Every work by his team reflects his style. Tentacles, bulbs, gourds, spheres, and bowls evidence what I never expected glass to do but what, having now seen it, I’m glad it does.

This sentiment struck home a couple of galleries beyond the Seaforms. The exhibit Mille Fiori drew inspiration from the garden cultivated by Chihuly’s mother. The name means A Thousand Flowers, although I spied fewer flowers than what resembled grass, toadstools, and palm fronds. Visitors feel like grasshoppers amongst the red, green, and purple stalks that dwarfed some of us. The narrator of Jules Vernes’s Journey to the Center of the Earth must have felt similarly, encountering mastodons and dinosaurs underground. I encircled the garden before registering how much my mind had lightened. Responsibilities and cares felt miles away—or, to a grasshopper, backyards away. Wonder does wonders.

Mille Fiori

Near the end of the path around the museum, a theater plays documentaries about Chihuly’s projects. The documentaries include interviews with the artist, and several quotes reminded me of the science I’d been trained to seek out: “I really wanted to take glass to its glorious height,” Chihuly said, “you know, really make something special.” “Things—pieces got bigger, pieces got taller, pieces got wider.” He felt driven to push art forms as large as the glass would permit his team. Similarly, my PhD advisor John Preskill encouraged me to “think big.” What physics is worth doing—what would create an impact?

How did a boy from Tacoma, Washington impact not only fellow blown-glass artists—not only artists—not only an exhibition here and there in his home country—but experiences across the globe, including that of a physicist one weekend in September?

One idea from the IQuS workshop caught my eye. Some particle colliders accelerate heavy ions to high energies and then smash the ions together. Examples include lead and gold ions studied at CERN in Geneva. After a collision, the matter expands and cools. Nuclear physicists don’t understand how the matter cools; models predict cooling times longer than those observed. This mismatch has persisted across decades of experiments. The post-collision matter evades attempts at computer simulation; it’s literally a hot mess. Can recent advances in many-body physics help?

The exhibit Persian Ceiling at Chihuly Garden and Glass. Doesn’t it look like it could double as an artist’s rendering of a heavy-ion collision?

Martin Savage, the director of IQuS, hopes so. He hopes that IQuS will impact nuclear physics across the globe. Every university and its uncle boasts a quantum institute nowadays, but IQuS seems to me to have carved out a niche for itself. IQuS has grown up in the bosom of the Institute for Nuclear Theory at the University of Washington, which has guided nuclear theory for decades. IQuS is smashing that history together with the future of quantum simulators. IQuS doesn’t strike me as just another glass bowl in the kitchen of quantum science. A bowl worthy of Chihuly? I don’t know, but I’d like to hope so.

I left Chihuly Garden and Glass with respect for the past week and energy for the week ahead. Whether you find it in physics or in glass or in both—or in plunging into a dormant Icelandic volcano in search of the Earth’s core—I recommend the occasional dose of awe.

Participants in the final week of the workshop

With thanks to Martin Savage, IQuS, and the University of Washington for their hospitality.