Richard P. Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics;
Allen V.C. Davis and Lenabelle Davis Leadership Chair, IQIM
By David Zierler
February 26 and March 12, 2021
In this interview, David Zierler, then Oral Historian for the American Institute of Physics (AIP), interviews John Preskill, Richard P. Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics and Allen V.C. Davis and Lenabelle Davis Leadership Chair, IQIM, at Caltech.
Preskill describes the origins of IQIM as a research pivot from the initial excitement in the 1970s to move beyond Standard Model physics and to understand the origin of electroweak symmetry breaking. He emphasizes the importance of Shor's algorithm and the significance of bringing Alexei Kitaev into the project. Preskill discusses the support he secured from the NSF and DARPA, and he recounts his childhood in Chicago and his captivation with the Space Race. He describes his undergraduate experience at Princeton and his relationship with Arthur Wightman and John Wheeler. Preskill explains his decision to pursue his thesis research at Harvard with the intention of working with Sidney Coleman, and he explains the circumstances that led to Steve Weinberg becoming his advisor. He discusses the earliest days of particle theorists applying their research to cosmological inquiry, his collaboration with Michael Peskin, and his interest in the connection of topology with particle physics. Preskill describes his research on magnetic monopoles, and the relevance of condensed matter theory for his interests. He explains the opportunities that led to his appointment to the Harvard Society of Fellows and his eventual faculty appointment at Harvard, his thesis work on technicolor, and the excitement surrounding inflation in the early 1980s. Preskill discusses the opportunities that led to his tenure at Caltech and why he started to think seriously about quantum information and questions relating to thermodynamic costs to computing. He explains the meaning of black hole information, the ideas at the foundation of Quantum Supremacy, and he narrates the famous story of the Thorne, Hawking, and Preskill bets. Preskill describes the advances in quantum research which compelled him to add "matter" to the original IQI project which was originally a purely theoretical endeavor. He discusses the fact that end uses for true quantum computing remain open questions, and he surveys IQIM's developments over the past decade and the strategic partnerships he has pursued across academia, industry, and at the National Labs. Preskill surveys the potential value of quantum computing to help solve major cosmological mysteries, and why his recent students are captivated by machine learning. At the end of the interview, Preskill reflects on his intersecting interests and conveys optimism for future progress in understanding quantum gravity from laboratory experiments using quantum simulators and quantum gravity.