Brainy Quote of the Day

Friday, September 27, 2013

Quantum Physics for Everyone...

Innovative outreach. (a) From 18 October to 30 October 2011, visitors approaching the Eiffel Tower from Trocadéro square might have encountered a model in which each of three tower sections levitates above a superconducting ceramic. By bringing such displays to the heart of Paris, French physicists hoped to engage segments of the public not usually attracted by science outreach activities. (b) Artists and designers helped produce hands-on projects that introduce young people to quantum physics. In one such activity, children create the field of a magnet levitating above a superconductor.
...and, why not?

The very venue of this monologue/blog is courtesy of the photoelectric effect (Einstein); he and Heisenberg et al brought us Quantum Mechanics - to Einstein's chagrin - which allows us to design cell phones, laptops, I-pads, flat screens, the Internet...pretty much the modern age. I'm often amused at the rants directed at science on social media platforms PROVIDED by that same science. The irony is delicious...

For condensed-matter physicists, the year 2011 was a very special one. It marked the 100th anniversary of the discovery of superconductivity, one of the most fascinating topics in quantum physics and still one of the most studied. When certain materials—for example, aluminum and lead—are cooled to nearly absolute zero, they suddenly conduct electricity perfectly, with no resistance. Superconductors also expel magnetic fields, a property that causes magnets to levitate on top of superconductors. Even more fascinating, under certain conditions, the magnet becomes “pinned” to the superconductor. In that case, it can either levitate above the superconductor or remain suspended below it.

The superconductivity that kicks in at very low temperature was explained in the 1960s by John Bardeen, Leon Cooper, and J. Robert Schrieffer with what is now called the BCS model. However, more recently discovered families of superconductors conduct perfectly at temperatures up to 10 times that of the usual metals. The BCS model does not seem to apply to those high-temperature superconductors, hence the continuing research. Ultimately, physicists hope to discover a material that superconducts at room temperature.

As part of the centenary celebration, the French research agency CNRS asked researchers in the field to introduce superconductivity to the greater public. We were immediately enthusiastic, but two worries soon came to mind: Isn’t quantum physics too complex to be explained to the general public? And in any case, are people really interested? Some public relations experts warned us that fundamental physics is not as appealing as it used to be. Now, they said, is the time to be talking about neurology or climatology. Interest in physics relates only to applications and new technologies.

Despite those warnings, we spent a year trying to show and explain superconductivity and quantum physics in a great variety of places and to all kinds of people—teenagers, younger children, students, parents, artists, journalists, and more. And we used all sorts of means, including websites, exhibits, movies, YouTube, live demonstrations, conferences, and science fairs. What we discovered was a surprise to most of us.

Bad news first

One lesson we learned was that if you stick to conventional outreach tools and actions, you will end up with a conventional outreach public, namely, people already interested in and familiar with science. We developed pedagogical exhibits and movies to explain superconductivity, a flyer, demonstrations, and even a website. Such content was useful for teachers and students in an academic setting, but it did not work that well for the general public. Our 10-panel exhibit with photos and images was a great decoration in science museums, science fairs, and school halls, but people did not actually spend time reading the content beyond the introductory panel. Our information-packed website attracts about 300 new visitors daily, but the average visiting time is less than 2 minutes. The 11-minute movie we made is just too long for people now used to YouTube videos. We realized too late that the internet has profoundly changed peoples’ capacity to focus and read for more than a minute. Or perhaps people have long had a minuscule attention span.

A second bit of bad news is that outreach conferences do not reach a wide public. We organized many conferences all over France with well-trained, animated speakers who presented great slides and even live experiments. The rooms were often full of enthusiastic participants. But we discovered that the audience was mostly composed of the speakers’ colleagues and their families, engineers, physics students, and retired scientists—essentially scientifically literate people already convinced of the importance of fundamental physics.

American Institute of Physics: Quantum Physics for Everyone
Related site: Quantum Made Easy

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