Irreversibility in unitary quantum homogenisation: Theory and Experiment

Author: Chiara Marletto, Vlatko Vedral et al.
Date: 30 September 2020
Affiliations: University of Oxford // ISI Foundation // National University of Singapore // Istituto Nazionale di Ricerca Metrologica // INFN


Is it possible to fit irreversibility exactly in a universe whose laws are time-reversal symmetric? This vexed open problem, dating back to the origin of statistical mechanics, is crucial for the realisability of logically irreversible computations such as erasure. A well-known type of irreversibility is epitomised by Joule’s experiment, involving a volume of fluid and a stirrer powered by mechanical means, e.g. a suspended weight: while it is possible to construct a cycle heating up the water by mechanical means only, it is impossible to cool the water down via a cycle that likewise utilises mechanical means only. This irreversibility is of particular interest because, unlike others, it is based on a system that performs some transformation, or task, operating in a cycle. First introduced via a thermodynamic cycle (e.g. Carnot’s), this idea was generalised by von Neumann to a constructor – a system that can perform a given task on another system and crucially retains the ability to perform the task again. On this ground, a task is possible if there is no limitation to how well it can be performed by some constructor; it is impossible otherwise. Here we shall define a “constructor-based irreversibility”, generalising Joule’s, requiring that a task is possible, while the transpose task (where T’s input and output are switched) is not. We shall demonstrate the compatibility of this constructor-based irreversibility with quantum theory’s time-reversal symmetric laws, confining attention to an example using the universal quantum homogeniser. This result is an essential further step for understanding irreversibility within quantum theory, one of the most fundamental theories of physics we possess at present. We will also simulate the irreversibility experimentally with high-quality photon qubits.