Andrew Maris on "Quantum Chaos"

Christine Burke:         Welcome. I am Christine Burke and I am the speaker team lead for TEDxAsburyPark 2019. Our theme is Chaos and I have the pleasure of speaking with Andrew Maris, who is one of our speakers for our event,which will take place live in Asbury Park, at the Paramount Theatre on Saturday, May 18. How are you doing today Andrew?

Andrew Maris:         Good. Good. Thanks for having me.

Christine Burke:         Oh, it’s our pleasure. It's our pleasure. Andrew what’s your topic for Chaos?

Andrew Maris:         So I’ll be speaking about chaos and quantum mechanics, and the exciting ways that they intersect.

Christine Burke:         Andrew, I was an English major, so I welcome this opportunity to have someone explain to me what chaos is, and what quantum mechanics means.

Andrew Maris:         When I think about chaos, I think about a very specific phenomenon. This is very commonly brought up in physics and some engineering applications, and meteorology as well. It’s this idea that's often presented as the “butterfly effect”,where you have... supposedly the story goes that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil will create a hurricane in Texas. And so there are various iterations, of where the butterfly is and where the natural disaster hits. But the same idea, no matter how this butterfly effect story is told, is the same. Where just having this tiny effect, the butterfly flapping its wings, creates an enormously different future. One where maybe there wasn’t a hurricane in Texas, or some other situation. When I think about chaos, I talk about that sort of specific effect. And it comes up very frequently in our lives as well. So it's not just a concept that’s limited to the domain of scientific inquiry. It's something that is very present in our lives, which is why it’s so interesting to study.

Christine Burke:         So if someone says: “wow, I’m really having a crazy day”. Is that a chaos day?

Andrew Maris:         Not exactly. Chaos, in this way of thinking about it, doesn’t have to do with randomness, per se. It’s... it can come up with systems that have no randomness in them whatsoever. And that's actually how it was discovered. There was a scientist running simulations in the 60’s, I believe it was, of this weather model. And he put in the numbers, ran the simulation, and then he wanted to see the second half of it again. So he took the computer printout, plugged in the numbers for where the simulation was halfway through and he got a completely different outcome. And he was flummoxed by this, he had no idea why this was happening. Because he was just putting in what the computer told him the simulation was doing and so it took him about a year or two to realize that the actual problem was the computer printout cut off three digits at the very, very end of the numbers that he was calculating . Instead of giving accuracy to .000001, it was just giving accuracy to .001. That doesn’t sound like it should make a big difference, and throughout the history of science, that's what people thought. That those tiny little differences at the end should not result in a major change. But it turned out that, that impact of those little numbers at the end, had an enormous difference in how the future of the simulation went. Even though there was no randomness in his weather model. So...

Christine Burke:         So the smallest detail, a change in the smallest detail, can totally change the outcome of something.

Andrew Maris:         Yes. Exactly. That’s why chaos is so special, because for the longest time, scientists thought that just the tiny difference in your initial state should only recreate a tiny difference in the future. But we know now that in chaotic systems, which there are many of, that tiny differences can blow up into extraordinary differences in the futures of the system. So, it's a really interesting phenomena.

Christine Burke:         So do people ever really have a chance meeting?

Andrew Maris:         Yeah, so the thing is, that we can think about how chaos affects our own lives, not just weather models. What can happen is that, say that, you can think back to some moment in your life, where you just happen to meet somebody that was important. Whether that's a significant other, whether that's just a friend, or a business colleague. There's plenty of times in our life when we have these sorts of... when we meet people... and, this has a big impact on our future. So, maybe meeting this new business partner opens up a whole new venture for you, that takes your career in a new direction.

Christine Burke:         Maybe doing this podcast today can take your life in a whole new direction.

Andrew Maris:         Yeah, exactly. And, maybe, listening to this podcast will help viewers see something differently about their lives. Little things that we do, that, may not be due to randomness... so somebody might start listening to this podcast because they’re interested in what people have to say about chaos... that's not really a random thing, but in the end, it could have a big impact on their... on their life. Well you can have randomness, randomness does happen in our life. Even if we just limited ourselves to looking at things that behave, so called deterministically, which just means no, no randomness. They still have this unpredictability in them. Even if we can be certain how a system should look like in the future, a system that has a tiny little difference in it will look very different in the future. So it's difficult to predict things in chaotic systems.

Christine Burke:         Is there any randomness in the fact that you are an aspiring physicist?

Andrew Maris:         Well that's a, a good question, so it's hard to say. I mean I've always been somebody who's been really interested in understanding the world we live in, but there’s, there’s always little chance meet ups and chance events that propel you in a certain direction. For example, I first started doing chaos research by a pretty unpredictable set of events. So starting...

Christine Burke:         Can you tell us about that?

Andrew Maris:         As a freshman in college, I knew I wanted to do some physics research, but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to study. So what I ended up doing, I ended up reaching out to every physics professor at my college, to see who would be willing to take on a research student. And I didn’t hear a lot of yes’s back, I heard a lot of no’s. Um, but the professor I ended up developing this working relationship with was the professor who studies quantum chaos here. So by a  very unpredictable set of events, I ended up learning a lot about chaos and it's a... it wasn’t quite random, per se, because that professor needed a student to work for him. And I was looking for something to, to do. So those aren’t really random, but it was really quite unpredictable and remarkable that I sort of ended up studying quantum chaos and I ended up speaking on this podcast. If I did... if some other professor said yes sooner, then maybe I wouldn’t, maybe I would have never had this opportunity to speak with you and the listeners of this podcast would never have had the opportunity to hear this conversation.

Christine Burke:         I love it, I love it. Andrew, were you a “young Sheldon” as a kid?

Andrew Maris:         Uh, I have not seen the TV show, so I can’t say for sure. Um, I’ve generally been good at math, and science when I was younger. Not quite a um outstanding, or sort of genius or prodigy or whatever. In middle school, I took a test for the advanced math class and did not get into it. In high school, I started to do better, I started doing well in my classes but it wasn't ever like A+’s all the way down my transcript. I was, I was a solid student, I was a very good student. I was not some sort of child prodigy or anything like that.

Christine Burke:         I think you’ve just given hope to thousands of young aspiring physicists who might not be at the genius level themselves or in all the advanced classes. You’re a New Jersey native?

Andrew Maris:         Yes, Fair Haven native in fact.

Christine Burke:         Okay, alright. And so you had a pretty normal, suburban childhood. Was there something in your family that sparked your interest in science and math?

Andrew Maris:         Uh, interesting because, uh not exactly. So my parents both have MBA’s, so I grew up in a household that wasn’t like a science household or anything like that. But my parents have always been encouraging of my interests in science. So we would go to museums and stuff like that, and so they’ve always been very supportive of me growing up. Being interested in science, even though that was a bit out of their wheelhouse. So yeah not exactly, I didn’t grow up in a super sciency house. But my parents definitely helped me create a sciency sort of upbringing by engaging me in what I wanted to do.

Christine Burke:         So they gave you the exposure and then you ran with it?

Andrew Maris:         Yes. Yes. That’s what I would say.

Christine Burke:         Awesome. I believe that you are the youngest speaker on the stage, on May 18. So tell me what made you decide to send in a submission, to be on TEDxAsburyPark.

Andrew Maris:         The reason why I wanted to speak here is because I think chaos is such a fascinating concept. Specifically, the type of chaos I mean when I’m talking about it in scientific terms. So this sort of deterministic disorder, this unpredictability about the world we live in. I think it’s a really interesting, really interesting field, and it has a lot of deep... it has a lot to say about our lives and the world we live in. Because tiny differences do make a big impact, that's just the facts here, we live in a chaotic world. And I think one thing that studying this scientifically has made me do is sort of confront this idea of how chaos does impact our personal lives. And I think that's something important to share because, not only is chaos, definitely, the way that our social lives work, our personal lives work. But it's also very much not a negative thing. That's kind of what I thought about chaos when I first started. Like if you think about chaos, disorder, that sounds like a bad thing.

Christine Burke:         Well I think most people do perceive chaos to be a bad thing.

Andrew Maris:         Yeah, but it’s, it’s not really that much of a bad thing because chaos is our way of being open to new experiences, and letting new experiences propel us in a positive direction. To take a scientific example, the human heart is somewhat chaotic. This might sound surprising but the... our hearts are very sensitive to the chemicals we give it. So just a slight change in the chemicals we give it can change its heartbeat very quickly. So in a way the heart is chaotic, but there's a good reason for that. It’s not a biological flaw it's a biological feature. Because if you imagine that we are back in the hunter-gatherer days, and all of a sudden we see a predator appear in front of us and we need to get away from it. Well we want our heart to start beating very quickly. And we want it to reach that high heart rate very quickly, so we can start running.

Christine Burke:         Right. Running or fighting

Andrew Maris:         Yeah, exactly.

Christine Burke:         Fight or flight?

Andrew Maris:         Yeah, precisely. And that's where the chaos comes in. We just need to give our heart just a tiny little change in the chemicals, so that it all of a sudden realizes, oh wait I need to start beating faster. And if it was not a chaotic system, if our heart was not chaotic, that would be impossible. We’d have the same heart rate over and over again, and it would be very difficult to turn into a higher heartbeat. So chaos is not necessarily a bad thing, it’s simply a reflection of us being flexible, being open to change and being able to use that change to adapt to new circumstances. So, for example, if a predator appears, to be able to fight or, or to trigger the fight or flight response. Or if the predator disappears, suddenly, then we can have our heartbeat go down to a normal, healthy rate, quickly. Chaos is... is a good thing, it's not just a bad thing as one might think.

Christine Burke:         I love it. So what will you be doing with your knowledge of quantum chaos?

Andrew Maris:         Quantum chaos, on its own, has a lot of fascinating features and I will be digging more into them in my talk, but quantum chaos itself because it is... it has a lot of really unique features because the math of quantum mechanics is so strange. For example, what we talked about before how chaos can exist without noise, well that's only true when we’re not talking about quantum systems. In quantum systems, you need to have noise to create chaos. And the reason why, to just give you a few details, is that, chaos cannot occur for linear systems. So these are... have sort of have simple equations that behave very predictably.

Christine Burke:         Andrew we’ve talked a lot about chaos and we’ve thrown around chaos, we’ve thrown around quantum chaos, can you tell me are they the same? Are they different?

Andrew Maris:         Yeah, so chaos and quantum chaos are related, but have different features, in important ways. So chaos, in the sort of world that we see, we call it the classical world, is a feature of these systems that are called nonlinear systems. And you don’t need to know the precise definition, but essentially it means that the equations are very complicated and there is no really simple relationship between different aspects of the system. So, for example, weather, the humidity, temperature, or wind speed. These are all very complex, have a really complicated relationship between them. And so, when you have classical world, the normal world, you can have chaotic systems almost everywhere because there’s a lot of things that have this feature, nonlinearity. That’s not just weather systems, that’s social, gathering, social interactions. So chaos appears quite often and it doesn't have to include noise. But in the quantum world, things are different because foundations of the way we do quantum mechanics are based on linear equations. At least that's what we tell early undergraduates. If you’re a physics major, one of the first things you learn about quantum mechanics is the so called “Schrodinger Equation”. 

Christine Burke:         I’ve heard of this.

Andrew Maris:         Yes, and you don't need to know exactly what it tells you, but the point is, is that it’s linear. And what's special about that is that well it’s not nonlinear. So it does not have chaos.  So the Schrodinger equation, which is what most undergraduate physics majors deal with, and what they’re taught, is a linear system.  So, for a while actually,  the mainstream consensus in the quantum community was that there’s no quantum chaos, because quantum systems are inherently linear, because they can all be thought of in terms of the linear Schrodinger equation. But it turns out actually, that that’s not true. That's just an approximation that works out well in some circumstances. The quantum world has noise as well . And when you take into account these noise terms then all of a sudden you have nonlinear equations.  You have to make these modifications to the Schrodinger equation, sort of change up the way that you usually do the math for quantum mechanics, and that all of a sudden allows quantum chaos.  And, so, thats what’s special about quantum chaos, is that there has to be noise in this quantum system, for chaos to emerge.

Christine Burke:         I love it. You’ve given us all something really interesting to think about, that I’m sure many people have never thought about.

Andrew Maris:         I hope that explanation was clear, ha ha.

Christine Burke:         So what is the difference, Andrew, between a chaotic system and a nonchaotic system?

Andrew Maris:         The difference between the two, oftentimes we refer to non-chaotic systems as  regular systems... the difference comes down to this idea between having a linear set of equations or a nonlinear set of equations. I’ve talked about it before in terms of how we think about quantum mechanics. Essentially the difference comes down to whether you have these nonlinear terms in your equations.

Christine Burke:         Do you often find yourself explaining these terms to people in your family, friends who are not science majors, children?

Andrew Maris:         Well, I always love talking about physics. But I also understand that people sometimes have limited patience for it, but I like talking about quantum chaos and chaos, specifically, because it does have such a big impact on the lives that we live. Chaos itself, it's really important to understand what that means and be able to think about how that impacts our lives, because small differences do make a big impact. And that's not necessarily a bad thing, so I like to talk about chaos. Quantum chaos is a little more complicated.

Christine Burke:         I think we can all take away that small changes can make a big difference. And you’re so passionate about this subject, it just comes across loud and clear.  

Andrew Maris:         Yeah, and the small changes make a big difference aren’t a bad thing. Like, we allow ourselves to be open to new experiences, to change the way that we live, because we want to be able to sort of, improve our lives and making a big difference out of a small change is very important, and that’s something that, we, that that’s a good thing that humans do. So there’s another related idea to chaos that comes up very often in natural systems, so a lot of biological systems like the human heart that we were talking about before, this idea of the edge of chaos. So if you remember before, I was talking about the human heart how it can, sort of, quickly change to a higher heart rate very quickly.

Christine Burke:         Right.

Andrew Maris:         But we also want it to be stable too. You know, when there's not a predator, we want it to be keeping at the same rhythm. And so that's where the idea, the edge of chaos, comes in from. You have these systems that are delicately balanced between chaos and between regularity. So that you can have these regular aspects of it. So the heart beating over and over again, it's important. But  these systems are also agile,  that  can respond quickly to new information, or to new events.  

Christine Burke:         Which is great for everyone.

Andrew Maris:         Which is great for everything, for everyone. And that's how we should live our lives. As anxiety-inducing as it may sound, to say that we need to live on the edge of chaos, it's simply a statement that it’s good to be... have this combination of... some regular aspects that we can come back to and draw  our strength from. And then also have a willingness to try new things and have small changes make a big impact in our life. So we can improve the way that we are living. So that's, that's why I think that, chaos, even for us, for us biological beings, is a good thing.

Christine Burke:         So when people hear your talk on May 18, you’ll really be able to turn them around on this whole chaos idea?

Andrew Maris:         I certainly hope so. I’ve made a big change in the way i’ve thought about chaos over time. As I’ve learned more about it and as I’ve thought more about it. I hope this can be helpful to the audience as well.

Christine Burke:         And has it really changed the way you live your life?

Andrew Maris:         It's certainly changed the way I think about the fact that small changes do have a big impact. It's no secret that that's true in the world. Being able to recognize that, to accept that for what it is, and also acknowledge that it’s not just a bad thing, it can be very good at times. That's a really important step to accepting this chaotic world we live in.

Christine Burke:         TEDxAsburyPark is on May 18. You’re also graduating in May or June?

Andrew Maris:         In June yes, we have a late graduation.

Christine Burke:         Cool, and where will you be taking your newly minted physics diploma? And what will you be doing with it?

Andrew Maris:         So I will be working at a company that will build photonics components.

Christine Burke:         Andrew I can’t believe it was just a random chance that you applied for TEDxAsburyPark this year. How did you find out about TEDx?

Andrew Maris:          I found out about it through a couple friends, they mentioned it, and so I saw it and thought this is a great opportunity, because I enjoy talking about physics outside of the classroom. I think it's good for us in this day and age, to be able to talk more about these really exciting scientific findings, and sort of grow scientific literacy as well .

Christine Burke:         Absolutely.

Andrew Maris:         And so this chance seemed a wonderful opportunity to be able to talk about something that  not only is an interesting scientific concept but also something that has an impact on how we look at the world.  

Christine Burke:         Andrew, thank you so much for your time today. I really look forward to hearing you on May 18.