Here’s what happened:
Trudeau was in Waterloo, Ontario, announcing a $50 million investment in the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics to help the institution fund research, training and education in order to further an understanding of the nature of the universe. Heady stuff.
World-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking made an appearance. Trudeau toured the facility. There were a couple hundred high school students in attendance, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. It was all very ceremonious.
Then came time for questions.
One reporter began his with a joke: “I was going to ask you to explain quantum computing, but …,” he said to a smattering of chuckles from the crowd. Once he finished asking his real question about the Islamic State, Trudeau launched into an answer to the fake one.
“Very simply, normal computers work by …,” he said to laughter from the crowd.
Smiling, he went on:
“No, no, no don’t interrupt me. When you walk out of here, you will know more — no, some of you will know far less — about quantum computing, but most of you.“Normal computers work, either there’s power going through a wire or not. It’s one or a zero, they’re binary systems. What quantum states allow for is much more complex information to be encoded into a single bit. A regular computer bit is either a one or a zero: on or off. A quantum state can be much more complex than that because as we know, things can be both particle and wave at the same times, and the uncertainty around quantum states allows us to encode more information into a much smaller computer.“So that’s what’s exciting about quantum computing.”
And the crowd went wild. It turns out his explanation was pretty good, too.
Global News, a Canadian news network, spoke with an expert about Trudeau’s response.
“I have never seen a prime minister attempt anything like that,” said Lucien Hardy, a theoretical physicist at Perimeter. “He did a pretty good job of explaining it.”
But, according to at least one report, the exchange might not have been as impromptu as it seemed. Colin Perkel, of the Canadian Press, reports that Trudeau was eager to share his knowledge well before he was asked.
“When we get to the media questions later, I have to tell you: I’m really hoping people ask me how quantum computing works,” Trudeau said.