Quantum Lunacy: Physics Professor Calls For The Abandonment Of “Quantum Supremacy” As Anti-Racism Measure

In a Scientific American article entitled, “Physicists Need To Be More Careful How They Name Things,” two professors and a journalist call for the abandonment of the term “quantum supremacy” in physics because it is “uncomfortably reminiscent of ‘white supremacy.”  Physics Professor Ian Durham (St. Anselm College), freelance journalist Daniel Garisto, and Math Professor Karoline Wiesner (University of Bristol) all agree that the term is not racist but still believe that it must be changed to avoid “adding insult to injury.”

The term was coined in 2012 by John Preskill to describe how quantum computers can perform tasks would take even supercomputers years to complete. The authors called for “quantum supremacy” to be replaced with “quantum primacy.”

The article struggles to make the case that this clearly non-racial term holds a dangerous potential for being viewed as racist, including reference to other terms like “judicial supremacy” which would also presumably have to be abandoned:

The word supremacy—having “more power, authority or status than anyone else”—is closely linked to “white supremacy.” This isn’t supposition; it’s fact. The Corpus of Contemporary American English finds “white supremacy” is 15 times more frequent than the next most commonly used two-word phrase, “judicial supremacy.”

Since “judicial supremacy” is even more common than “quantum supremacy,” it would appear the same argument for abandonment would apply.

It is not clear if the problem is simply “supremacy.” Would Pareto superiority also raise such problems?

We have previously discussing the dropping of terms as offensive despite their clearly non-sexist or non-racist meaning. These efforts are reminiscent of our own debate at George Washington over the use of the Colonials as a moniker. The student organizers asked “When we talk about the Colonial in history, what does it mean? And is that really what we want our school identity to be?” The emphasis however is the history of colonialism in the world, not the Colonial as a term in the United States. Just as we strive to understand the meaning and traditions of other countries, there should be a modicum of effort to recognize our own meanings and traditions. The Colonials fought against foreign rule. They were not advocates of colonialism. For those interested in GW, that is part of understanding our history and our values. It simply does not matter that the Colonials were anti-colonialism. The victory is pretending that they are something that they were not and then changing the term to reject a falsely claimed meaning.

The authors take a jab at Professor Steve Pinker who we previously discussed as the target of an anti-free speech campaign.  Pinker lashed out at such efforts to ban words and regulate speech. The authors reject that premise:

It is true that “supremacy” is not a magic word, that its meaning comes from convention, not conjurers. But the context of “quantum supremacy,” which Pinker neglects, is that of a historically white, male-dominated discipline. Acknowledging this by seeking better language is a basic effort to be polite, not prissy.

They are not the first to make this proposal. A 2019 letter in Nature,  the magazine was called out for using “quantum advantage” and the authors argued:

In our view, ‘supremacy’ has overtones of violence, neocolonialism and racism through its association with ‘white supremacy’. Inherently violent language has crept into other branches of science as well — in human and robotic spaceflight, for example, terms such as ‘conquest’, ‘colonization’ and ‘settlement’ evoke the terra nullius arguments of settler colonialism and must be contextualized against ongoing issues of neocolonialism.

It is difficult to take issue with such articles without running the risk of being called insensitive or insufficiently concerned about racism. That is not true. Many of us fail to see how such campaigns advance real racial justice as opposed to superficial progress through cancelling campaigns. Real progress is measured by getting more minority graduate students and teachers into physics.

77 thoughts on “Quantum Lunacy: Physics Professor Calls For The Abandonment Of “Quantum Supremacy” As Anti-Racism Measure”

  1. So, all old albums, cds, books etc. by and about Diana Ross and The Supremes will be cancelled next, right?

  2. I wouldn’t worry too much about the preposterous screed of this professor and his co-authors. In academic terms, he is nobody: a professor of physics and the Physics Dept. Chair, he has published almost nothing cited by other scholars (over his entire career, he got only 120 citations to his publications: https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=YS7BRY0AAAAJ&hl=en) and apparently is a terrible teacher as rated by his students (https://www.ratemyprofessors.com/ShowRatings.jsp?tid=718803). Anyway, now he has his minute of fame (or is it infamy?)

    A related question: how many minority graduates has he supervised?

  3. Physics:

    Water and Oil cannot be mixed.

    The mixing of oil and water requires an emulsifier.

    The mixing of political oil and water has required continuous, massive infusions of the immutably unconstitutional political emulsifiers: Affirmative action, quotas, welfare, food stamps, rent control, social services, forced busing, minimum wage, utility subsidies, WIC, TANF, SNAP, HAMP, HARP, TARP, Agriculture, Commerce, Education, Labor, Energy, Obamacare, Social Security, Social Security Disability, Social Security Supplemental Income, Medicare, Medicaid, unconstitutional “hate” crime laws, “Fair Housing” laws, “Non-Discrimination” laws, etc., ad infinitum, ad nauseam.

    Earlier Resettlement Plans

    The view that America’s apparently intractable racial problem should be solved by removing Blacks from this country and resettling them elsewhere — “colonization” or “repatriation” — was not a new one. As early as 1714 a New Jersey man proposed sending Blacks to Africa. In 1777 a Virginia legislature committee, headed by future President Thomas Jefferson (himself a major slave owner), proposed a plan of gradual emancipation and resettlement of the state’s slaves. In 1815, an enterprising free Black from Massachusetts named Paul Cuffe transported, at his own expense, 38 free blacks to West Africa. His undertaking showed that at least some free Blacks were eager to resettle in a country of their own, and suggested what might be possible with public and even government support.7

    In December 1816, a group of distinguished Americans met in Washington, DC, to establish an organization to promote the cause of Black resettlement. The “American Colonization Society” soon won backing from some of the young nation’s most prominent citizens. Henry Clay, Francis Scott Key, John Randolph, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Bushrod Washington, Charles Carroll, Millard Fillmore, John Marshall, Roger B. Taney, Andrew Jackson, Daniel Webster, Stephen A. Douglas, and Abraham Lincoln were members. Clay presided at the group’s first meeting.8

    Measures to resettle Blacks in Africa were soon undertaken. Society member Charles Fenton Mercer played an important role in getting Congress to pass the Anti-Slave Trading Act of March 1819, which appropriated $100,000 to transport Blacks to Africa. In enforcing the Act, Mercer suggested to President James Monroe that if Blacks were simply returned to the coast of Africa and released, they would probably be re-enslaved, and possibly some returned to the United States. Accordingly, and in cooperation with the Society, Monroe sent agents to acquire territory on Africa’s West coast — a step that led to the founding of the country now known as Liberia. Its capital city was named Monrovia in honor of the American President.9

    With crucial Society backing, Black settlers began arriving from the United States in 1822. While only free Blacks were at first brought over, after 1827, slaves were freed expressly for the purpose of transporting them to Liberia. In 1847, Black settlers declared Liberia an independent republic, with an American-style flag and constitution.10

    By 1832 the legislatures of more than a dozen states (at that time there were only 24), had given official approval to the Society, including at least three slave-holding states.11 Indiana’s legislature, for example, passed the following joint resolution on January 16, 1850:12

    Be it resolved by the General Assembly of the State of Indiana: That our Senators and Representatives in Congress be, and they are hereby requested, in the name of the State of Indiana, to call for a change of national policy on the subject of the African Slave Trade, and that they require a settlement of the coast of Africa with colored men from the United States, and procure such changes in our relations with England as will permit us to transport colored men from this country to Africa, with whom to effect said settlement.

    In January 1858, Missouri Congressman Francis P. Blair, Jr., introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives to set up a committee

    to inquire into the expediency of providing for the acquisition of territory either in the Central or South American states, to be colonized with colored persons from the United States who are now free, or who may hereafter become free, and who may be willing to settle in such territory as a dependency of the United States, with ample guarantees of their personal and political rights.

    Blair, quoting Thomas Jefferson, stated that Blacks could never be accepted as the equals of Whites, and, consequently, urged support for a dual policy of emancipation and deportation, similar to Spain’s expulsion of the Moors. Blair went on to argue that the territory acquired for the purpose would also serve as a bulwark against any further encroachment by England in the Central and South American regions.13

    – Robert Morgan

    1. Lincoln supported definitive resolution to the impossible and failed mixing of oil and water.

      A labor now 330 years old.

      2021 – 1619 = 330.

      Lincoln’s Support for Resettlement

      Lincoln’s ideological mentor was Henry Clay, the eminent American scholar, diplomat, and statesman. Because of his skill in the US Senate and House of Representatives, Clay won national acclaim as the “Great Compromiser” and the “Great Pacificator.” A slave owner who had humane regard for Blacks, he was prominent in the campaign to resettle free Blacks outside of the United States, and served as president of the American Colonization Society. Lincoln joined Clay’s embryonic Whig party during the 1830s. In an address given in 1858, Lincoln described Clay as “my beau ideal of a statesman, the man for whom I fought all of my humble life.”14

      The depth of Lincoln’s devotion to Clay and his ideals was expressed in a moving eulogy delivered in July 1852 in Springfield, Illinois. After praising Clay’s lifelong devotion to the cause of Black resettlement, Lincoln quoted approvingly from a speech given by Clay in 1827: “There is a moral fitness in the idea of returning to Africa her children,” adding that if Africa offered no refuge, Blacks could be sent to another tropical land. Lincoln concluded:15

      If as the friends of colonization hope, the present and coming generations of our countrymen shall by any means succeed in freeing our land from the dangerous presence of slavery, and, at the same time, in restoring a captive people to their long-lost fatherland, with bright prospects for the future, and this too, so gradually, that neither races nor individuals shall have suffered by the change, it will indeed be a glorious consummation.

      In January 1855, Lincoln addressed a meeting of the Illinois branch of the Colonization Society. The surviving outline of his speech suggests that it consisted largely of a well-informed and sympathetic account of the history of the resettlement campaign.16

      In supporting “colonization” of the Blacks, a plan that might be regarded as a “final solution” to the nation’s race question, Lincoln was upholding the views of some of America’s most respected figures.

      – Robert Morgan

  4. Many professions use evocative terms to describe some concept or architecture. These terms are used because they quickly & efficiently communicate an important concept. As these terms add to the richness of any profession, I hope that their utility will outweigh & outlive the latest fashionable objections, I In my profession of Electrical Engineering used such terms as master slave servo system where the slave servo slews around to match the position of the master servo. Similarly there is an oft used redundant digital architecture described as master slave where the master unit issues commands to the slave units. We also employ the terms male and female to describe connector pins.

    But the language police are also addressing ordinary expressions. A very nice and intelligent lady friend of mine is regretfully foregoing the use of the term “usual suspects” because she was told it was racist. Although the language police seem to be quite serious, the scene about rounding up of the usual suspects in Casablanca seems appropriate. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HXuBnz6vtuI

  5. ab·surd

    wildly unreasonable
    arousing amusement or derision

  6. There certainly exists an anti-Chinese vision of the quantum supremacy goal which is dangerous and suicidal. They too have an anti-American vision which is equally dangerous. I am often reminded of the great words I heard in childhood, “Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.” Even when disarmament is not on the horizon, we urgently need and COULD GET a sequence of international agreements and new new computer technology work, linked together, enough to give usa much better chance of survival as a species. It is serious stuff. See http://www.werbos.com/How_to%20Build_Past_Emerging_Internet_Chaos.htm,
    some information I got together for folks hoping to set up a new Office of Existential Threats under the UN Security Council.

  7. The good news is that we have thousands of theoretical physicists being escorted over the Rio Grande by professional chemists right now. What more could we ask for?

    1. And lest I be called a bigot, Latin America does have esteemed physicists and chemists, but they’re not the ones getting their feet wet.

        1. I first heard about him a few years ago on the Discovery Channel. Those were the days.

          He’s welcome to come here–regardless of his politics–and if he did, I’m sure he would do so legally.

  8. Professor Turley,
    “Real progress is measured by getting more minority graduate students and teachers into physics.”

    I disagree that this constitutes ‘real progress’. Real progress would be not judging people by characteristics like skin color, gender, or any other shallow metric. Real progress would be focused on merit and trying to make sure everyone had an opportunity to excel–regardless of socioeconomic status. Poor kids should be able to have an excellent education, too. People who are fascinated by and want to achieve in the field of physics should aim to do so. What does their appearance have to do with that?

    1. Real progress in my mind would be solving problems in physics. Like they should do the work and quit worrying about PC nonsense and affirmative action quotas. Sal Sar

Comments are closed.