Plan to reduce public uncertainty about the quantum world

How can scientists inspire curiosity for Schrodinger's Cat?

Josh Watson
16th December 2021
Physicist Richard Feynman giving his 'Fun to Imagine' talk, which attempts to make physics more accessible to the general audience. Image: YouTube
With the international physics community planning a year-long celebration of all things quantum in 2025, we thought it would be a good time to review the general public’s understanding of the most interesting and controversial areas of physics. And while Richard Feynman’s quote ‘’I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics ‘’ is still very true to this day, some understanding is better than nothing.

By why should anyone have any understanding of quantum physics? Well, a large amount of this area of science has been used in every part of your life - whether you know it or not. If you ever wondered how your device keeps getting smaller, lighter and thinner? As the semiconductors within your, devices begin to shrink they run into all the problems of the quantum level. And in the future with talk of quantum computers - devices that go beyond the binary on/off system that traditional computers are restricted - becoming as common as the PC, understanding how all these tech works might save you an expensive visit to Curry's for a repair!

There is also a strong argument to make that an understanding of quantum mechanics can radically change someone worldview - similar to learning a new language. This idea has had some academic backing,  notably Kristina Turner’s paper ‘’Big ideas in education: quantum mechanics and education paradigms’, and leads to an interesting theory that students studying in the traditional school system end up with a ‘Newtonian’  framework to view the world. While I find some of the metaphors brought up in this article questionable - the basic premise holds. 

I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics

Richard Feynman

So how is this knowledge current dispensed to the average joe on the street? By far the most common form this knowledge takes is through popular science books. Works such as Carlo Rovelli’s ‘Reality is Not What it Seems’ often act as good introductive novels, making an amazing edition to many coffee tables of those interested in the ideas of physics without having to wallow through pages of detailed equations that males up the most of my coursework. These books are fine but can often feel rather relative. Most cover the same ground (Schrodinger's Cat, Double Slit Experiment and the Uncertainty Principle) and often don't delve deeper into the subject due to the need for complicated mathematics to not just explain but even describe what occurs at the quantum level.

Another method of science education,  which has been very effective in the field of astrophysics, is the documentary. Prof. Brian Cox, well known for talking about the start of the universe while staring off into the distance in some tropical location,  has been the face of this movement in the UK with many presenters from around the world following suit. While this medium has had some success in the quantum world  - See ‘The Secrets of Quantum Physics’ by the BBC and Netflix's ‘The Most Unknown’ - it has been far outshone by its astrophysical counterpart. This is due to how easy a science conforms to visual media,  and when the most interesting part about quantum mechanics are the parts that cannot be observed, it is hard to say that quantum documentaries give a full showing of physics. And I must admit - looking at the photos from the Hubble telescope will always make better television than some animated balls bouncing around. 

In all this, I have neglected to mention educations roles in explaining the phenomena of quantum. Well, here is the thing: without all the super complicated maths I have been alluding to throughout this article (and trust me reader - it is indeed,  super complicated) its is almost impossible to test for an understanding of the field. Now, this should not be a problem, however,  as we are well aware school is an intuition of testing, not teaching. As a result, even the simplest understanding of quantum theory is left as a footnote or fun thought experiment with no more than a single question at the end of the paper checking if the pupil has some idea that the particle/wave duality exists. This is particularly disappointing to me  - however, I will save you my screed about the issues with the education system for a different article I think.  

Having thought more about this subject, I return to the Feynman quote from the beginning of the article. It is hard to teach the general public about quantum theory because by its very nature it is almost impossible to understand. Unlike areas such as kinematics, electromagnetism or even nuclear physics - quantum does not have any real visible effect on the world. One cannot point out the window and stop the actions taking place,  so much so that even under perfect lab conditions observing the particle will cause the quantum effect not to occur. So my only hope for 2025 and the year of Quantum is that by then someone will understand quantum mechanics. 

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