Metaphors and analogies make quantum physics make sense to new audiences

28 Jan2021

Pictured; James Day speaks at Quantum Futures at the Museum of Anthropology, April 2018. Image credit: Curiosity Collider/Flickr.

It is commonly believed that art and science are opposites, each serving different and unrelated functions, relegated to different academic disciplines and cohorts. As we develop the tools and knowledge to unravel the mysteries of the universe, however, it has become clear to people like James Day that art and science need each other more than ever. In a recent publication in the journal The Physics TeacherDay and colleagues detail their approach to teaching quantum physics to lay audiences, developed together with artists, finding a common language in order to make abstract concepts in quantum mechanics make sense outside the lab. 

“We did not evolve to understand quantum mechanics,” Day said on stage at Et Al 3, an event hosted by local science outreach groups in 2018. “A lot of the concepts we’re discovering just don’t make a lot of sense in our macroscopic world.”

Day, a Research Associate at the Stewart Blusson Quantum Matter Institute (SBQMI) is as much a communicator as he is a scientist; though he has described himself as “the least unqualified person” to take on arts-related projects, he has a unique talent for conveying the breadth and complexity of quantum materials research in accessible, straightforward terms.

In 2018, Day participated in Quantum Futures, a visual and performing arts event curated by local art-science non-profit Curiosity Collider, in collaboration with UBC Physics & Astronomy (PHAS) and SBQMI. Day worked closely with Char Hoyt, Creative Director at Curiosity Collider, and Theresa Liao, PHAS Communications Coordinator, to develop hands-on activities designed to teach lay audiences some rudimentary concepts in quantum mechanics. In late December, the team published an article titled “Quantum Matter on the Table: A Pretty, Simple Hands-on Activity,” that detailed their approach to communicating about quantum materials by connecting visual art and condensed matter physics; the paper is the first in a series on the team’s artist-driven approaches to teaching and learning.

The paper describes a two-part interactive activity called Building Quantum Materials, pictured below, which was developed with artists as guides.

Tools for the activity "Building Quantum Materials," described in the article "Quantum Matter on the Table: A Pretty, Simple Hands-on Activity," Image source; Curiosity Collider/Flickr

Kids at a UBC physics camp learning about quantum mechanics.

Kids at a Department of Physics & Astronomy (PHAS) summer camp participate in the same learning activity, demonstrating its effectiveness as a teaching tool for a broad range of audiences. Image source: PHAS Outreach Program/Flickr.

“Languages and analogies link artists and scientists,” Day explained. “Using the analogy as our primary tool, we can take very complex ideas and make them familiar; one way that physicists use analogical thinking is with models, which provide helpful ways to visualize abstract concepts for experts and non-experts alike.”

Day and SBQMI graduate students started the process, sharing the metaphors and analogies they use to describe their work to non-expert audiences, which can include family, friends, and even scientists in unrelated disciplines. After a brainstorming session, the team shared their ideas with Hoyt, Liao, and a team of artists, and together they narrowed the potential analogies down to those that would resonate most with non-experts. From there, they tested their models on an eager group of graduate students.

Once they had established a shared language, the team designed their activities, focusing on opportunities to learn through play. Using tools available at any dollar store – including plastic shot glasses, Styrofoam balls, paint, and sticky arrows – participants were invited to engage in hands-on explorations of the microscopic structure of magnets and more complex lattice structures, giving a tangible experience with concepts that are otherwise inaccessible to the general public.

Concepts in quantum physics can be very abstract, and so the public is not generally well informed about research in this area. However, it is an important topic, as quantum physics will form the basis for many of our near-future discoveries and technologies; as there is an increasing public interest in quantum physics (more government investment, potential consumer appeal), it will be critical for people to understand these topics. Furthermore, as quantum industries grow, it will be important to appeal to a broader cohort of potential students.

“For quantum tools and technology to work for everyone, we need to make the field accessible to everyone,” said Day. “It is not enough to simply talk about quantum physics; we need to teach quantum physics to people who may then see opportunities for themselves in the field. Public outreach needs to be about ensuring an equitable, diverse, and inclusive future for quantum technology fields in Canada.”

Leading with analogies is a good start.

“The way to reach people is through stories,” said Day. “If we can teach people that quantum physics is for them, we can create a future in which these technologies are informed by diverse perspectives and communities, making them more useful for everyone.”

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