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Woolly quantum poetry

by Michael Nielsen on November 10, 2008

I love the BBC:

A North East writer has been given a grant of £2,000 to use sheep to create random poems, which also utilise the deepest workings of the universe.

The money has been provided by Northern Arts for Valerie Laws to create a new form of “random” literature.

Each of the animals has a word from a poem written on their backs and as they wander about the words take a new poetic form each time they come to rest.

But the exercise is not just an attempt to create living poems, it is also, according to the poet, an exercise in quantum mechanics.

The animals being sprayed belong to farmer Donald Slater of Whitehouse Farm Centre, Morpeth, in Northumberland.

Mrs Laws, 48, said: “I like the idea of using living sheep to create a living poem, and creating new work as they move around.

“Quantum mechanics is a branch of physics which a lot of people find hard to understand, as it seems to go against common sense.

“Randomness and uncertainty is at the centre of how the universe is put together, and is quite difficult for us as humans who rely on order.

“So I decided to explore randomness and some of the principles of quantum mechanics, through poetry, using the medium of sheep.”

Mrs Laws created a poem for the project, based on the traditional Japanese haiku form of poetry.

Each sheep had a word from the poem sprayed on their back, and when they came to rest a new text was created.

Farmer Donald Slater said: “After last year’s devastation (of foot-and-mouth) we all needed cheering up and this might just do it.”

A spokesman for Northern Arts called the scheme “an exciting fusion of poetry and quantum physics”.

One of the poems created by the sheep reads:

Warm drift, graze gentle, White below the sky, Soft sheep, mirrors, Snow clouds.

Quoted here in its entirety, because I wouldn’t want anyone to miss out. (In the strange event that anyone feels moved to point it out, no, there doesn’t appear to be a whole lot that’s quantum here.)

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  1. Hopefully this fine thread will stay around long enough for more people to post examples of “art on the border of randomness” …

    … my own (cherished) favorite would be the musical works of Charles Ives …

    … whose life story (as an artist) is almost as inspirational as his music.

  2. Time to fight back by doing some postmodern literary criticism inspired physics?

  3. Matt Leiffer asks: “Time to fight back by doing some postmodern literary criticism inspired physics?”

    Matt, IMHO that process is well underway. For example, the postmodern literary idea that “randomness improves poetry” finds its cognate image in the lead sentence of Plenio and Virmani’s recent QIT preprint: “We consider the possibility of adding noise to a quantum circuit to make it efficiently simulatable classically.”

    Although that sentence could have been written in the early 1970s (e.g., by Choi or Kraus), or even written in the mid 1950s (e.g., by Stinespring), it is only in our present decade that this fundamental “postmodern” principle of quantum simulation has been widely embraced.

    It is not mentioned, for example, even in Nielsen and Chuang’s magisterial text of 2000 … if there is ever a Second Edition, this topic IMHO deserves a chapter. 🙂

  4. I very much doubt that sentence of Plenio and Virmani was influenced by postmodernism. It’s been known for many decades that phase randomization in a suitable basis leads to classical behaviour. The discovery goes back to 1920s work by people like Darwin (grandson of the biologist) and Mott. Certainly, this is how I was taught classical behaviour arises as an undergrad, in the early 1990s.

    There will not be a second edition of Nielsen and Chuang.

  5. Yes, but isn’t postmodernism a lot like Niels Bohr’s lucky horseshoe … which worked whether one believed in it or not?

    I agree that when it comes to efficient quantum simulation, the basic physical ideas and mathematical axioms have been around for several decades in more-or-less their present form … it is mainly the theorems and the working simulation codes that are becoming cumulatively more general and more accurate.

    That this progress will continue seems likely to me. Postmodern considerations enter when we ask (to adapt von Neumann’s phrasing) “can we foresee the character, the caliber, and the duration” of this progress?

  6. They’re obviously quantum sheep!

  7. Eva – Ah, you caught me out! 🙂

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  2. Alas, No Second Edition |

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