When Did You Learn About the Weirdness of Quantum Mechanics? The Role of Citizen-Scientists in Society

Hirokazu Miyake and Nabil Iqbal

Quantum mechanics is weird.  For example, how is it that we cannot know exactly where an object is and how fast it is moving at the same time?  As Richard Feynman, one of the most eminent physicists of the 20th century said, “nobody understands quantum mechanics.”1  Yet despite its weirdness, quantum mechanics forms the basis of the existence of atoms, the properties of magnets and metals, and how the sun shines and provides energy for life forms to flourish on earth, among many other phenomena.

Physicists who have become accustomed to the weirdness of quantum mechanics through extensive course work and research may find these sorts of questions to be mundane and irrelevant to the mainstream of the scientific enterprise.  However, despite the relevance of quantum mechanics to numerous aspects of our everyday lives, how many people in the general public realize that such bizarre and fantastic phenomena in fact occur and describe nature?  Moreover, how many middle school and high school students know about them?  From our experience, not too many.  Practicing scientists are well positioned to help remedy the lack of appreciation of modern science in general by participating in outreach activities and conveying the joy and excitement of the cutting edge of research directly to the general public.

Of course, the standard K-12 science education curriculum does not include topics such as quantum mechanics.  What are covered are more foundational topics, such as the structure of cells, the properties of the periodic table, and calculations of the trajectories of flying objects.  There is no doubt that these topics serve a very good purpose of educating students on the scientific method of hypothesis, experimentation, and testing of a given scientific theory.  However from the point of view of getting the public – especially middle and high school students -- excited about physics, talking about topics such as quantum mechanics and relativity are a great way to accomplish this.  Understanding pendulums and inclined planes is absolutely essential to proceed in an education in physics, but to pique the interest of young students, it is perhaps more effective to go beyond the standard school topics and provide them with a glimpse of where the cutting edge of science is.

One way to complement formal education is for practicing scientists such as graduate students, post-docs and professors to go out into the public and talk about their research and the frontiers of science.  We, as graduate students, have been teaching classes for four years now through the Educational Studies Program (ESP) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  ESP is a student-run group that provides opportunities for anybody interested in teaching any subject to middle and high school students.  So far we have taught topics ranging from the Heisenberg uncertainty principle and Bose-Einstein condensates to the twin paradox and black holes to almost 800 middle and high school students.

We gear our classes towards those students who are interested but have no prior knowledge of the subject since we aim for our classes to be a starting point for students to further explore the topics on their own.  This means that we focus on qualitative features of the physics involved and avoid calculations as much as possible.  The qualitative aspects are usually the most interesting and ultimately fundamental.  We keep the discussions light-hearted and attempt (we feel mostly successfully) to be humorous.  We also encourage the students to actively participate throughout the class, thus spending almost half of the time on questions and discussions.  We pose questions to the students whenever we can: for example we present the twin paradox as a challenge to the class. The class is always split on which twin ends up younger, leading to an interesting discussion.

We have found this teaching experience to be a very satisfying one, both for the students and for us.  The probing questions that the students raise challenge us to understand the physics and explain it in a clear and understandable way.  When a particle quantum tunnels through a barrier, is it ‘passing through the cracks’ in the atoms that make up the wall?  Why can’t you go faster than the speed of light?  Can something quantum tunnel out of a black hole?  Questions such as these force us to refine our own understanding of the physics that we are trying to explain.  These probing questions and the positive feedback we receive after our classes indicate that the students are tremendously excited to learn something completely new such as quantum mechanics and relativity.  The excitement they feel may encourage them to pursue a scientific career.  And even if they do not go into science, they will have a much better appreciation of the technologies and scientific issues that permeate our everyday lives.  On the other hand, we as teachers have the opportunity to step back from our everyday research work, think about the big picture, truly appreciate the fundamentally interesting aspects of physics and remember why we got excited about it in the first place.

  1. Richard P. Feynman, The Character of Physical Law, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 2001.

Hirokazu Miyake (hmiyake@mit.edu) and Nabil Iqbal (niqbal@mit.edu) are graduate students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Disclaimer- The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.