Archive for January, 2022

Why Quantum Mechanics?

Tuesday, January 25th, 2022

In the past few months, I’ve twice injured the same ankle while playing with my kids. This, perhaps combined with covid, led me to several indisputable realizations:

  1. I am mortal.
  2. Despite my self-conception as a nerdy little kid awaiting the serious people’s approval, I am now firmly middle-aged. By my age, Einstein had completed general relativity, Turing had founded CS, won WWII, and proposed the Turing Test, and Galois, Ramanujan, and Ramsey had been dead for years.
  3. Thus, whatever I wanted to accomplish in my intellectual life, I should probably get started on it now.

Hence today’s post. I’m feeling a strong compulsion to write an essay, or possibly even a book, surveying and critically evaluating a century of ideas about the following question:

Q: Why should the universe have been quantum-mechanical?

If you want, you can divide Q into two subquestions:

Q1: Why didn’t God just make the universe classical and be done with it? What would’ve been wrong with that choice?

Q2: Assuming classical physics wasn’t good enough for whatever reason, why this specific alternative? Why the complex-valued amplitudes? Why unitary transformations? Why the Born rule? Why the tensor product?

Despite its greater specificity, Q2 is ironically the question that I feel we have a better handle on. I could spend half a semester teaching theorems that admittedly don’t answer Q2, as satisfyingly as Einstein answered the question “why the Lorentz transformations?,” but that at least render this particular set of mathematical choices (the 2-norm, the Born Rule, complex numbers, etc.) orders-of-magnitude less surprising than one might’ve thought they were a priori. Q1 therefore stands, to me at least, as the more mysterious of the two questions.

So, I want to write something about the space of credible answers to Q, and especially Q1, that humans can currently conceive. I want to do this for my own sake as much as for others’. I want to do it because I regard Q as one of the biggest questions ever asked, for which it seems plausible to me that there’s simply an answer that most experts would accept as valid once they saw it, but for which no such answer is known. And also because, besides having spent 25 years working in quantum information, I have the following qualifications for the job:

  • I don’t dismiss either Q1 or Q2 as silly; and
  • crucially, I don’t think I already know the answers, and merely need better arguments to justify them. I’m genuinely uncertain and confused.

The purpose of this post is to invite you to share your own answers to Q in the comments section. Before I embark on my survey project, I’d better know if there are promising ideas that I’ve missed, and this blog seems like as good a place as any to crowdsource the job.

Any answer is welcome, no matter how wild or speculative, so long as it honestly grapples with the actual nature of QM. To illustrate, nothing along the lines of “the universe is quantum because it needs to be holistic, interconnected, full of surprises, etc. etc.” will cut it, since such answers leave utterly unexplained why the world wasn’t simply endowed with those properties directly, rather than specifically via generalizing the rules of probability to allow interference and noncommuting observables.

Relatedly, whatever “design goal” you propose for the laws of physics, if the goal is satisfied by QM, but satisfied even better by theories that provide even more power than QM does—for instance, superluminal signalling, or violations of Tsirelson’s bound, or the efficient solution of NP-complete problems—then your explanation is out. This is a remarkably strong constraint.

Oh, needless to say, don’t try my patience with anything about the uncertainty principle being due to floating-point errors or rendering bugs, or anything else that relies on a travesty of QM lifted from a popular article or meme! 🙂

OK, maybe four more comments to enable a more productive discussion, before I shut up and turn things over to you:

  1. I’m aware, of course, of the radical uncertainty about what form an answer to Q should even take. Am I asking you to psychoanalyze the will of God in creating the universe? Or, what perhaps amounts to the same thing, am I asking for the design objectives of the giant computer simulation that we’re living in? (As in, “I’m 100% fine with living inside a Matrix … I just want to understand why it’s a unitary matrix!”) Am I instead asking for an anthropic explanation, showing why of course QM would be needed if you wanted life or consciousness like ours? Am I “merely” asking for simpler or more intuitive physical principles from which QM is to be derived as a consequence? Am I asking why QM is the “most elegant choice” in some space of mathematical options … even to the point where, with hindsight, a 19th-century mathematician or physicist could’ve been convinced that of course this must be part of Nature’s plan? Am I asking for something else entirely? You get to decide! Should you take up my challenge, this is both your privilege and your terrifying burden.
  2. I’m aware, of course, of the dizzying array of central physical phenomena that rely on QM for their ultimate explanation. These phenomena range from the stability of matter itself, which depends on the Pauli exclusion principle; to the nuclear fusion that powers the sun, which depends on a quantum tunneling effect; to the discrete energy levels of electrons (and hence, the combinatorial nature of chemistry), which relies on electrons being waves of probability amplitude that can only circle nuclei an integer number of times if their crests are to meet their troughs. Important as they are, though, I don’t regard any of these phenomena as satisfying answers to Q in themselves. The reason is simply that, in each case, it would seem like child’s-play to contrive some classical mechanism to produce the same effect, were that the goal. QM just seems far too grand to have been the answer to these questions! An exponentially larger state space for all of reality, plus the end of Newtonian determinism, just to overcome the technical problem that accelerating charges radiate energy in classical electrodynamics, thereby rendering atoms unstable? It reminds me of the Simpsons episode where Homer uses a teleportation machine to get a beer from the fridge without needing to get up off the couch.
  3. I’m aware of Gleason’s theorem, and of the specialness of the 1-norm and 2-norm in linear algebra, and of the arguments for complex amplitudes as opposed to reals or quaternions, and of the beautiful work of Lucien Hardy and of Chiribella et al. and others on axiomatic derivations of quantum theory. As some of you might remember, I even discussed much of this material in Quantum Computing Since Democritus! There’s a huge amount to say about these fascinating justifications for the rules of QM, and I hope to say some of it in my planned survey! For now, I’ll simply remark that every axiomatic reconstruction of QM that I’ve seen, impressive though it was, has relied on one or more axioms that struck me as weird, in the sense that I’d have little trouble dismissing the axioms as totally implausible and unmotivated if I hadn’t already known (from QM, of course) that they were true. The axiomatic reconstructions do help me somewhat with Q2, but little if at all with Q1.
  4. To keep the discussion focused, in this post I’d like to exclude answers along the lines of “but what if QM is merely an approximation to something else?,” to say nothing of “a century of evidence for QM was all just a massive illusion! LOCAL HIDDEN VARIABLES FOR THE WIN!!!” We can have those debates another day—God knows that, here on Shtetl-Optimized, we have and we will. Here I’m asking instead: imagine that, as fantastical as it sounds, QM were not only exactly true, but (along with relativity, thermodynamics, evolution, and the tastiness of chocolate) one of the profoundest truths our sorry species had ever discovered. Why should I have expected that truth all along? What possible reasons to expect it have I missed?

Win a Scott Aaronson Speculation Grant!

Thursday, January 20th, 2022

Exciting news, everyone! Jaan Tallinn, who many of you might recognize as a co-creator of Skype, tech enthusiast, and philanthropist, graciously invited me, along with a bunch of other nerds, to join the new Speculation Grants program of the Survival and Flourishing Fund (SFF). In plain language, that means that Jaan is giving me $200,000 to distribute to charitable organizations in any way I see fit—though ideally, my choices will have something to do with the survival and flourishing of our planet and civilization.

(If all goes well, this blog post will actually lead to a lot more than just $200,000 in donations, because it will inspire applications to SFF that can then be funded by other “Speculators” or by SFF’s usual process.)

Thinking about how to handle the responsibility of this amazing and unexpected gift, I decided that I couldn’t possibly improve on what Scott Alexander did with his personal grants program on Astral Codex Ten. Thus: I hereby invite the readers of Shtetl-Optimized to pitch registered charities (which might or might not be their own)—especially, charities that are relatively small, unknown, and unappreciated, yet that would resonate strongly with someone who thinks the way I do. Feel free to renominate (i.e., bring back to my attention) charities that were mentioned when I asked a similar question after winning $250,000 from the ACM Prize in Computing.

If you’re interested, there’s a two-step process this time:

Step 1 is to make your pitch to me, either by a comment on this post or by email to me, depending on whether you’d prefer the pitch to be public or private. Let’s set a deadline for this step of Thursday, January 27, 2022 (i.e., one week from now). Your pitch can be extremely short, like 1 paragraph, although I might ask you followup questions. After January 27, I’ll then take one of two actions in response: I’ll either

(a) commit a specified portion of my $200,000 to your charity, if the charity formally applies to SFF, and if the charity isn’t excluded for some unexpected reason (5 sexual harassment lawsuits against its founders or whatever), and if one of my fellow “Speculators” doesn’t fund your charity before I do … or else I’ll

(b) not commit, in which case your charity can still apply for funding from SFF! One of the other Speculators might fund it, or it might be funded by the “ordinary” SFF process.

Step 2, which cannot be skipped, is then to have your charity submit a formal application to SFF. The application form isn’t too bad. But if the charity isn’t your own, it would help enormously if you at least knew someone at the charity, so you could tell them to apply to SFF. Again, Step 2 can be taken regardless of the outcome of Step 1.

The one big rule is that anything you suggest has to be a registered, tax-exempt charity in either the US or the UK. I won’t be distributing funds myself, but only advising SFF how to do so, and this is SFF’s rule, not mine. So alas, no political advocacy groups and no individuals. Donating to groups outside the US and UK is apparently possible but difficult.

While I’m not putting any restrictions on the scope, let me list a few examples of areas of interest to me.

  • Advanced math and science education at the precollege level: gifted programs, summer camps, online resources, or anything, really, that aims to ensure that the next Ramanujan or von Neumann isn’t lost to the world.
  • Conservation of endangered species.
  • Undervalued approaches to dealing with the climate catastrophe (including new approaches to nuclear energy, geoengineering, and carbon capture and storage … or even, e.g., studies of the effects of rising CO2 on cognition and how to mitigate them).
  • Undervalued approaches to preventing or mitigating future pandemics—basically, anything dirt-cheap that we wish had been done before covid.
  • Almost anything that Scott Alexander might have funded if he’d had more money.
  • Anything that would enrage the SneerClubbers or those who attack me on Twitter, by doing stuff that even they would have to acknowledge makes the world better, but that does so via people, organizations, and means that they despise.

Two examples of areas that I don’t plan to focus on are:

  • AI-risk and other “strongly rationalist-flavored” organizations (these are already well-covered by others at SFF, so that I don’t expect to have an advantage), and
  • quantum computing research (this is already funded by a zillion government agencies, companies, and venture capitalists).

Anyway, thanks so much to Jaan and to SFF for giving me this incredible opportunity, and I look forward to seeing what y’all come up with!

Note: Any other philanthropists who read this blog, and who’d like to add to the amount, are more than welcome to do so!

On tardigrades, superdeterminism, and the struggle for sanity

Monday, January 10th, 2022

(Hopefully no one has taken taken that title yet!)

I waste a large fraction of my existence just reading about what’s happening in the world, or discussion and analysis thereof, in an unending scroll of paralysis and depression. On the first anniversary of the January 6 attack, I read the recent revelations about just how close the seditionists actually came to overturning the election outcome (e.g., by pressuring just one Republican state legislature to “decertify” its electors, after which the others would likely follow in a domino effect), and how hard it now is to see a path by which democracy in the United States will survive beyond 2024. Or I read about Joe Manchin, who’s already entered the annals of history as the man who could’ve halted the slide to the abyss and decided not to. Of course, I also read about the wokeists, who correctly see the swing of civilization getting pushed terrifyingly far out of equilibrium to the right, so their solution is to push the swing terrifyingly far out of equilibrium to the left, and then they act shocked when their own action, having added all this potential energy to the swing, causes it to swing back even further to the right, as swings tend to do. (And also there’s a global pandemic killing millions, and the correct response to it—to authorize and distribute new vaccines as quickly as the virus mutates—is completely outside the Overton Window between Obey the Experts and Disobey the Experts, advocated by no one but a few nerds. When I first wrote this post, I forgot all about the global pandemic.) And I see all this and I am powerless to stop it.

In such a dark time, it’s easy to forget that I’m a theoretical computer scientist, mainly focused on quantum computing. It’s easy to forget that people come to this blog because they want to read about quantum computing. It’s like, who gives a crap about that anymore? What doth it profit a man, if he gaineth a few thousand fault-tolerant qubits with which to calculateth chemical reaction rates or discrete logarithms, and he loseth civilization?

Nevertheless, in the rest of this post I’m going to share some quantum-related debunking updates—not because that’s what’s at the top of my mind, but in an attempt to find my way back to sanity. Picture that: quantum mechanics (and specifically, the refutation of outlandish claims related to quantum mechanics) as the part of one’s life that’s comforting, normal, and sane.

There’s been lots of online debate about the claim to have entangled a tardigrade (i.e., water bear) with a superconducting qubit; see also this paper by Vlatko Vedral, this from CNET, this from Ben Brubaker on Twitter. So, do we now have Schrödinger’s Tardigrade: a living, “macroscopic” organism maintained coherently in a quantum superposition of two states? How could such a thing be possible with the technology of the early 21st century? Hasn’t it been a huge challenge to demonstrate even Schrödinger’s Virus or Schrödinger’s Bacterium? So then how did this experiment leapfrog (or leaptardigrade) over those vastly easier goals?

Short answer: it didn’t. The experimenters couldn’t directly measure the degree of freedom in the tardigrade that’s claimed to be entangled with the qubit. But it’s consistent with everything they report that whatever entanglement is there, it’s between the superconducting qubit and a microscopic part of the tardigrade. It’s also consistent with everything they report that there’s no entanglement at all between the qubit and any part of the tardigrade, just boring classical correlation. (Or rather that, if there’s “entanglement,” then it’s the Everett kind, involving not merely the qubit and the tardigrade but the whole environment—the same as we’d get by just measuring the qubit!) Further work would be needed to distinguish these possibilities. In any case, it’s of course cool that they were able to cool a tardigrade to near absolute zero and then revive it afterwards.

I thank the authors of the tardigrade paper, who clarified a few of these points in correspondence with me. Obviously the comments section is open for whatever I’ve misunderstood.

People also asked me to respond to Sabine Hossenfelder’s recent video about superdeterminism, a theory that holds that quantum entanglement doesn’t actually exist, but the universe’s initial conditions were fine-tuned to stop us from choosing to measure qubits in ways that would make its nonexistence apparent: even when we think we’re applying the right measurements, we’re not, because the initial conditions messed with our brains or our computers’ random number generators. (See, I tried to be as non-prejudicial as possible in that summary, and it still came out sounding like a parody. Sorry!)

Sabine sets up the usual dichotomy that people argue against superdeterminism only because they’re attached to a belief in free will. She rejects Bell’s statistical independence assumption, which she sees as a mere dogma rather than a prerequisite for doing science. Toward the end of the video, Sabine mentions the objection that, without statistical independence, a demon could destroy any randomized controlled trial, by tampering with the random number generator that decides who’s in the control group and who isn’t. But she then reassures the viewer that it’s no problem: superdeterministic conspiracies will only appear when quantum mechanics would’ve predicted a Bell inequality violation or the like. Crucially, she never explains the mechanism by which superdeterminism, once allowed into the universe (including into macroscopic devices like computers and random number generators), will stay confined to reproducing the specific predictions that quantum mechanics already told us were true, rather than enabling ESP or telepathy or other mischief. This is stipulated, never explained or derived.

To say I’m not a fan of superdeterminism would be a super-understatement. And yet, nothing I’ve written previously on this blog—about superdeterminism’s gobsmacking lack of explanatory power, or about how trivial it would be to cook up a superdeterministic “mechanism” for, e.g., faster-than-light signaling—none of it seems to have made a dent. It’s all come across as obvious to the majority of physicists and computer scientists who think as I do, and it’s all fallen on deaf ears to superdeterminism’s fans.

So in desperation, let me now try another tack: going meta. It strikes me that no one who saw quantum mechanics as a profound clue about the nature of reality could ever, in a trillion years, think that superdeterminism looked like a promising route forward given our current knowledge. The only way you could think that, it seems to me, is if you saw quantum mechanics as an anti-clue: a red herring, actively misleading us about how the world really is. To be a superdeterminist is to say:

OK, fine, there’s the Bell experiment, which looks like Nature screaming the reality of ‘genuine indeterminism, as predicted by QM,’ louder than you might’ve thought it even logically possible for that to be screamed. But don’t listen to Nature, listen to us! If you just drop what you thought were foundational assumptions of science, we can explain this away! Not explain it, of course, but explain it away. What more could you ask from us?

Here’s my challenge to the superdeterminists: when, in 400 years from Galileo to the present, has such a gambit ever worked? Maxwell’s equations were a clue to special relativity. The Hamiltonian and Lagrangian formulations of classical mechanics were clues to quantum mechanics. When has a great theory in physics ever been grudgingly accommodated by its successor theory in a horrifyingly ad-hoc way, rather than gloriously explained and derived?

Update: Oh right, and the QIP’2022 list of accepted talks is out! And I was on the program committee! And they’re still planning to hold QIP in person, in March at Caltech, will you fancy that! actually I have no idea—but if they’re going to move to virtual, I’m awaiting an announcement just like everyone else.

The demise of Scientific American: Guest post by Ashutosh Jogalekar

Monday, January 3rd, 2022

Scott’s foreword

One week ago, E. O. Wilson—the legendary naturalist and conservationist, and man who was universally acknowledged to know more about ants than anyone else in human history—passed away at age 92. A mere three days later, Scientific American—or more precisely, the zombie clickbait rag that now flaunts that name—published a shameful hit-piece, smearing Wilson for his “racist ideas” without, incredibly, so much as a single quote from Wilson, or any other attempt to substantiate its libel (see also this response by Jerry Coyne). SciAm‘s Pravda-like attack included the following extraordinary sentence, which I thought worthy of Alan Sokal’s Social Text hoax:

The so-called normal distribution of statistics assumes that there are default humans who serve as the standard that the rest of us can be accurately measured against.

There are intellectually honest people who don’t know what the normal distribution is. There are no intellectually honest people who, not knowing what it is, figure that it must be something racist.

On Twitter, Laura Helmuth, the editor-in-chief now running SciAm into the ground, described her magazine’s calumny against Wilson as “insightful” (the replies, including from Richard Dawkins, are fun to read). I suppose it was as “insightful” as SciAm‘s disgraceful attack last year on Eric Lander, President Biden’s ultra-competent science advisor and a leader in the war on COVID, for … being a white male, which appears to have been E. O. Wilson’s crime as well. (Think I must be misrepresenting the “critique” of Lander? Read it!)

Anyway, in response to Scientific American‘s libel of Wilson, I wrote on my Facebook that I’ll no longer agree to write for or be interviewed by them (you can read my old stuff free of charge here or here), unless and until there’s a complete change of editorial direction. I encourage all other scientists to commit likewise, thereby making it common knowledge that the entity that now calls itself “Scientific American” bears the same relation to the legendary home of Martin Gardner as does a corpse to a living being. Fortunately, there are high-quality online venues (e.g., Quanta) that partly fill the role that Scientific American abdicated.

After reading my Facebook post, my friend Ashutosh Jogalekar was inspired to post an essay of his own. Ashutosh used to write regularly for Scientific American, until he was fired seven years ago over a column in which he advocated acknowledging Richard Feynman’s flaws, including his arrogance and casual sexism, but also understanding those flaws within the context of Feynman’s whole life, including the tragic death of his first wife Arlene. (Yes, that was really it! Read the piece!) Below, I’m sharing Ashutosh’s moving essay about E. O. Wilson with Ashutosh’s very generous permission. —Scott Aaronson

Guest Post by Ashutosh Jogalekar

As some know, I was “fired” from Scientific American in 2014 for three “controversial” posts (among 200 that I had written for the magazine). When I parted from the magazine I chalked up my departure to an unfortunate misunderstanding more than anything else. I still respected some of the writers at the publication, and while I wore my separation as a badge of honor and in retrospect realized its liberating utility in enabling me to greatly expand my topical range, I occasionally still felt bad and wished things had gone differently.

No more. Now the magazine has done me a great favor by allowing me to wipe the slate of my conscience clean. What happened seven years ago was not just a misunderstanding but clearly one of many first warning signs of a calamitous slide into a decidedly unscientific, irrational and ideology-ridden universe of woke extremism. Its logical culmination two days ago was an absolutely shameless, confused, fact-free and purely ideological hit job on someone who wasn’t just a great childhood hero of mine but a leading light of science, literary achievement, humanism and biodiversity. While Ed (E. O.) Wilson’s memory was barely getting cemented only days after his death, the magazine published an op-ed calling him a racist, a hit job endorsed and cited by the editor-in-chief as “insightful”. One of the first things I did after reading the piece was buy a few Wilson books that weren’t part of my collection.

Ed Wilson was one of the gentlest, most eloquent, most brilliant and most determined advocates for both human and natural preservation you could find. Under Southern charm lay hidden unyielding doggedness and immense stamina combined with a missionary zeal to communicate the wonders of science to both his fellow biologists and the general public. His autobiography, “Naturalist”, is perhaps the finest, most literary statement of the scientific life I have read; it was one of a half dozen books that completely transported me when I read it in college. In book after book of wide-ranging intellectual treats threading through a stunning diversity of disciplines, he sent out clarion calls for saving the planet, for enabling dialogue between the natural and the social sciences, for understanding each other better. In the face of unprecedented challenges to our fragile environment and continued barriers to interdisciplinary communication, this is work that likely will make him go down in history as one of the most important human beings who ever lived, easily of the same caliber and achievement as John Muir or Thoreau. Even in terms of achievement strictly defined by accolades – the National Medal of Science, the Crafoord Prize which recognizes fields excluded by the Nobel Prize, and not just one but two Pulitzer Prizes – few scientists from any field in the 20th century can hold a candle to Ed Wilson. My friend Richard Rhodes who knew Wilson for decades as a close and much-admired friend said that there wasn’t a racist bone in his body; Dick should know since he just came out with a first-rate biography of Wilson weeks before his passing.

The writer who wrote that train wreck is a professor of nursing at UCSF named Monica McLemore. That itself is a frightening fact and should tell everyone how much ignorance has spread itself in our highest institutions. She not only maligned and completely misrepresented Wilson but did not say a word about his decades-long, heroic effort to preserve the planet and our relationship with it; it was clear that she had little acquaintance with Wilson’s words since she did not cite any. It’s also worth noting the gaping moral blindness in her article which completely misses the most moral thing Wilson did – spend decades advocating for saving our planet and averting a catastrophe of extinction, climate change and divisiveness – and instead focuses completely on his non-existent immorality. This is a pattern that is consistently found among those urging “social justice” or “equity” or whatever else: somehow they seem to spend all their time talking about fictional, imagined immorality while missing the real, flesh-and-bones morality that is often the basis of someone’s entire life’s work.

In the end, the simple fact is that McLemore didn’t care about any of this. She didn’t care because she had a political agenda and the facts did not matter to her, even facts as basic as the definition of the normal distribution in statistics. For her, Wilson was some obscure white male scientist who was venerated, and that was reason enough for a supposed “takedown”. And the editor of Scientific American supported and lauded this ignorant, ideology-driven tirade.

Ironically, Wilson would have found this ideological hit job all too familiar. After he wrote his famous book Sociobiology in the 1970s, a volume in which, in a single chapter about human beings, he had the temerity to suggest that maybe, just maybe, human beings operate with the same mix of genes that other creatures do, the book was met by a disgraceful, below-the-belt, ideological response from Wilson’s far left colleagues Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould who hysterically compared his arguments to thinking that was well on its way down the slippery slope to that dark world where lay the Nazi gas chambers. The gas chamber analogy is about the only thing that’s missing from the recent hit job, but the depressing thing is that we are fighting the same battles in 2021 that Wilson fought forty years before, although turbocharged this time by armies of faithful zombies on social media. The sad thing is that Wilson is no longer around to defend himself, although I am not sure he would have bothered with a piece as shoddy as this one.

The complete intellectual destruction of a once-great science magazine is now clear as day. No more should Scientific American be regarded as a vehicle for sober scientific views and liberal causes but as a political magazine with clearly stated ideological biases and an aversion to facts, an instrument of a blinkered woke political worldview that brooks no dissent. Scott Aaronson has taken a principled stand and said that after this proverbial last straw on the camel’s back, he will no longer write for the magazine or do interviews for them. I applaud Scott’s decision, and with his expertise it’s a decision that actually matters. As far as I am concerned, I now mix smoldering fury at the article with immense relief: the last seven years have clearly shown that leaving Scientific American in 2014 was akin to leaving the Soviet Union in the 1930s just before Stalin appointed Lysenko head biologist. I could not have asked for a happier expulsion and now feel completely vindicated and free of any modicum of regret I might have felt.

To my few friends and colleagues who still write for the magazine and whose opinions I continue to respect, I really wish to ask: Why? Is writing for a magazine which has sacrificed facts and the liberal voice of real science at the altar of political ideology and make believe still worth it? What would it take for you to say no more? As Oscar Wilde would say, one mistake like this is a mistake, two seems more like carelessness; in the roster of the last few years, this is “mistake” 100+, signaling that it’s now officially approved policy. Do you think that being an insider will allow you to salvage the reputation of the magazine? If you think that way, you are no different from the one or two moderate Republicans who think they can still salvage the once-great party of Lincoln and Eisenhower. Both the GOP and Scientific American are beyond redemption from where I stand. Get out, start your own magazine or join another, one which actually respects liberal, diverse voices and scientific facts; let us applaud you for it. You deserve better, the world deserves better. And Ed Wilson’s memory sure as hell deserves better.

Update (from Scott): See here for the Hacker News thread about this post. I was amused by the conjunction of two themes: (1) people who were uncomfortable with my and Ashutosh’s expression of strong emotions, and (2) people who actually clicked through to the SciAm hit-piece, and then reported back to the others that the strong emotions were completely, 100% justified in this case.

Book Review: “Viral” by Alina Chan and Matt Ridley

Saturday, January 1st, 2022

Happy New Year, everyone!

It was exactly two years ago that it first became publicly knowable—though most of us wouldn’t know for at least two more months—just how freakishly horrible is the branch of the wavefunction we’re on. I.e., that our branch wouldn’t just include Donald Trump as the US president, but simultaneously a global pandemic far worse than any in living memory, and a world-historically bungled response to that pandemic.

So it’s appropriate that I just finished reading Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19, by Broad Institute genetics postdoc Alina Chan and science writer Matt Ridley. Briefly, I think that this is one of the most important books so far of the twenty-first century.

Of course, speculation and argument about the origin of COVID goes back all the way to that fateful January of 2020, and most of this book’s information was already available in fragmentary form elsewhere. And by their own judgment, Chan and Ridley don’t end their search with a smoking-gun: no Patient Zero, no Bat Zero, no security-cam footage of the beaker dropped on the Wuhan Institute of Virology floor. Nevertheless, as far as I’ve seen, this is the first analysis of COVID’s origin to treat the question with the full depth, gravity, and perspective that it deserves.

Viral is essentially a 300-page plea to follow every lead as if we actually wanted to get to the bottom of things, and in particular, yes, to take the possibility of a lab leak a hell of a lot more seriously than was publicly permitted in 2020. (Fortuitously, much of this shift already happened as the authors were writing the book, but in June 2021 I was still sneered at for discussing the lab leak hypothesis on this blog.) Viral is simultaneously a model of lucid, non-dumbed-down popular science writing and of cogent argumentation. The authors never once come across like tinfoil-hat-wearing conspiracy theorists, railing against the sheeple with their conventional wisdom: they’re simply investigators carefully laying out what they’re confident should become conventional wisdom, with the many uncertainties and error bars explicitly noted. If you read the book and your mind works anything like mine, be forewarned that you might come out agreeing with a lot of it.

I would say that Viral proves the following propositions beyond reasonable doubt:

  • Virologists, including at Shi Zhengli’s group at WIV and at Peter Daszak’s EcoHealth Alliance, were engaged in unbelievably risky work, including collecting virus-laden fecal samples from thousands of bats in remote caves, transporting them to the dense population center of Wuhan, and modifying them to be more dangerous, e.g., through serial passage through human cells and the insertion of furin cleavage sites. Years before the COVID-19 outbreak, there were experts remarking on how risky this research was and trying to stop it. Had they known just how lax the biosecurity was in Wuhan—dangerous pathogens experimented on in BSL-2 labs, etc. etc.—they would have been louder.
  • Even if it didn’t cause the pandemic, the massive effort to collect and enhance bat coronaviruses now appears to have been of dubious value. It did not lead to an actionable early warning about how bad COVID-19 was going to be, nor did it lead to useful treatments, vaccines, or mitigation measures, all of which came from other sources.
  • There are multiple routes by which SARS-CoV2, or its progenitor, could’ve made its way, otherwise undetected, from the remote bat caves of Yunnan province or some other southern location to the city of Wuhan a thousand miles away, as it has to do in any plausible origin theory. Having said that, the regular Yunnan→Wuhan traffic in scientific samples of precisely these kinds of viruses, sustained over a decade, does stand out a bit! On the infamous coincidence of the pandemic starting practically next door to the world’s center for studying SARS-like coronaviruses, rather than near where the horseshoe bats live in the wild, Chan and Ridley memorably quote Humphrey Bogart’s line from Casablanca: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”
  • The seafood market was probably “just” an early superspreader site, rather than the site of the original spillover event. No bats or pangolins at all, and relatively few mammals of any kind, appear to have been sold at that market, and no sign of SARS-CoV2 was ever found in any of the animals despite searching.
  • Most remarkably, Shi and Daszak have increasingly stonewalled, refusing to answer 100% reasonable questions from fellow virologists. They’ve acted more and more like defendants exercising their right to remain silent than like participants in a joint search for the truth. That might be understandable if they’d already answered ad nauseam and wearied of repeating themselves, but with many crucial questions, they haven’t answered even once. They’ve refused to make available a key database of all the viruses WIV had collected, which WIV inexplicably took offline in September 2019. When, in January 2020, Shi disclosed to the world that WIV had collected a virus called RaTG13, which was 96% identical to SARS-CoV2, she didn’t mention that it was collected from a mine in Mojiang, which the WIV had sampled from over and over because six workers had gotten a SARS-like pneumonia there in 2012 and three had died from it. She didn’t let on that her group had been studying RaTG13 for years—giving, instead, the false impression that they’d just noticed it recently, when searching WIV’s records for cousins of SARS-CoV2. And she didn’t see fit to mention that WIV had collected eight other coronaviruses resembling SARS-CoV2 from the same mine (!). Shi’s original papers on SARS-CoV2 also passed in silence over the virus’s furin cleavage site—even though SARS-CoV2 was the first sarbecoronavirus with that feature, and Shi herself had recently demonstrated adding furin cleavage sites to other viruses to make them more transmissible, and the cleavage site would’ve leapt out immediately to any coronavirus researcher as the most interesting feature of SARS-CoV2 and as key to its transmissibility. Some of these points had to be uncovered by Internet sleuths, poring over doctoral theses and the like, after which Shi would glancingly acknowledge the points in talks without ever explaining her earlier silences. Shi and Daszak refused to cooperate with Chan and Ridley’s book, and have stopped answering questions more generally. When people politely ask Daszak about these matters on Twitter, he blocks them.
  • The Chinese regime has been every bit as obstructionist as you might expect: destroying samples, blocking credible investigations, censoring researchers, and preventing journalists from accessing the Mojiang mine. So Shi at least has the excuse that, even if she’d wanted to come clean with everything relevant she knows about WIV’s bat coronavirus work, she might not be able to do so without endangering herself or loved ones. Daszak has no such excuse.

It’s important to understand that, even in the worst case—that (1) there was a lab leak, and (2) Shi and Daszak are knowingly withholding information relevant to it—they’re far from monsters. Even in Viral‘s relentlessly unsparing account, they come across as genuine believers in their mission to protect the world from the next pandemic.

And it’s like: imagine devoting your life to that mission, having most of the world refuse to take you seriously, and then the calamity happens exactly like you said … except that, not only did your efforts fail to prevent it, but there’s a live possibility that they caused it. It’s conceivable that your life’s work managed to save minus 15 million lives and create minus $50 trillion in economic value.

Very few scientists in history have faced that sort of psychic burden, perhaps not even the ones who built the atomic bomb. I hope I’d maintain my scientific integrity under such an astronomical weight, but I’m doubtful that I would. Would you?

Viral very wisely never tries to psychoanalyze Shi and Daszak. I fear that one might need a lot of conceptual space between “knowing” and “not knowing,” “suspecting” and “not suspecting,” to do justice to the planet-sized enormity of what’s at stake here. Suppose, for example, that an initial investigation in January 2020 reassured you that SARS-CoV2 probably hadn’t come from your lab: would you continue trying to get to the bottom of things, or would you thereafter decide the matter was closed?

For all that, I agree with Chan and Ridley that COVID-19 might well have had a zoonotic origin after all. And one point Viral makes abundantly clear is that, if our goal is to prevent the next pandemic, then resolving the mystery of COVID-19 actually matters less than one might think. This is because, whichever possibility—zoonotic spillover or lab leak—turns out to be the truth of this case, the other possibility would remain absolutely terrifying and would demand urgent action as well. Read the book and see for yourself.

Searching my inbox, I found an email from April 16, 2020 where I told someone who’d asked me that the lab-leak hypothesis seemed perfectly plausible to me (albeit no more than plausible), that I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t being investigated more, but that I was hesitant to blog about these matters. As I wrote seven months ago, I now see my lack of courage on this as having been a personal failing. Obviously, I’m just a quantum computing theorist, not a biologist, so I don’t have to have any thoughts whatsoever about the origin of COVID-19 … but I did have some, and I didn’t share them here only because of the likelihood that I’d be called an idiot on social media. Having now read Chan and Ridley, though, I think I’d take being called an idiot for this book review more as a positive signal about my courage than as a negative signal about my reasoning skills!

At one level, Viral stands alongside, I dunno, Eichmann in Jerusalem among the saddest books I’ve ever read. It’s 300 pages of one of the great human tragedies of our lifetime balancing on a hinge between happening and not happening, and we all know how it turns out. On another level, though, Viral is optimistic. Like with Richard Feynman’s famous “personal appendix” about the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, the very act of writing such a book reflects a view that you’re still allowed to ask questions; that one or two people armed with nothing but arguments can run rings around governments, newspapers, and international organizations; that we don’t yet live in a post-truth world.