10 Policy & Politics
Ecosystem & Community
29 April 2024Sonja Knols

Rutger Ockhorst on demystifying quantum

Quantum science and technology have outgrown their historic image of being magical and incomprehensible. The time has come to change the narrative and demonstrate that quantum is all around, stated teacher educator Rutger Ockhorst from TU Delft in a recent LinkedIn post. Here, he explains his views on how to communicate about quantum mechanics.

What were you rising against on the socials?

‘At every quantum themed meeting, someone will quote either Niels Bohr (‘If quantum mechanics hasn’t profoundly shocked you, you haven’t understood it yet’), or Richard Feyman with his saying that nobody understands quantum mechanics.
These quotes are ancient! In their original context, they are perfectly valid, but we have come a long way since then. Today, quantum mechanics can be found in a myriad of applications. We should demystify it and treat it as a very successful physics framework that we can make use of in our daily lives. We may not understand all of it, but we do understand quite a bit.’

Why do you think it is a problem to use these quotes?

‘I fear it scares off a part of our target audience. What does “understanding something” mean anyway? I do not fully understand how a moving bicycle stays upright, but I do know how to ride a bike. Quantum mechanics isn’t per se harder than any other physics subject, but it is a different way of looking at the world. In a sense, quantum mechanics is easier than classical physics, because it explains more with less. Of course, the foundations of quantum mechanics are indeed not fully understood. But this may not be the best starting point to draw new people in. It’s certainly not the only way.

I have been teaching high school students for some 15 years. Quantum mechanics usually is the final chapter in the final year of pre-university physics. Some students would be really hyped to finally be introduced to the big Q-word mystery. But other students would throw in the towel: if Nobel laureates don’t understand quantum mechanics, why should they even try? One misconception at play is that we assume students to have a rigid, classical view of the world. Children are certainly less efficient than trained physicists but also much more flexible in their thinking. I find that, in general, students are quite willing to accept the quantum nature of things if you start off in a positive spirit. It is not my job to tell them what they can’t understand. My job is to invite them to study the material more deeply so they can make up their own mind.

For example, I recently participated in a workshop with 16-year-olds. In three days, they learnt how to program a quantum computer. They readily accepted the quantum mechanical paradigm and started working from it. They may not yet have encountered all possible nuances, but I do believe they developed somewhat of an intuition for the ‘new’ rules in those three days. I was quite impressed by their flexible thinking. From their questions and reasoning it was clear that some were already thinking beyond what was presented in the teaching material.’

What would be the right way forward as far as you are concerned?

‘The goal of Quantum Delta NL is to create a prosperous, economically viable quantum ecosystem for the Dutch economy. That requires recruiting different groups than we traditionally target. Instead of discouraging some by suggesting it’s too hard and only for ‘brilliant’ people, we need to make quantum physics appealing to all students who show interest. Can we frame the topic as something they can do? It’s okay to have open questions but there’s no need to shroud these in mystery. That’s just gate-keeping.
Additionally, we should not get caught up too much in the math for early audiences. Physics needs math, but the two sciences are not equivalent. The key is tuning the message to the audience. You can even discuss quantum phenomena with kids in primary education, as long as the teacher is comfortable with not knowing all the answers.’

What do you do yourself to help teachers get a grip on the subject?

‘In QDNL’s educational program for students under 18 we are developing tools and methods to demonstrate to teachers and students that quantum mechanics is something you can see in action and use, not just some theoretical or mathematical construct. For instance, I’m trying to reduce the cost of academic practicals and demonstrations by a factor of 10 to 20, bringing these activities within reach of the secondary school classroom. We develop a pedagogical framework including teaching materials and workshops for teachers and students so that they can be introduced to quantum experiments years before they potentially enroll in tertiary education. We do not just target pre-university students but also students on different pathways (e.g., havo).

Physics first and foremost is about making observations, so why not start there? A recent example is a three-day activity developed together with TU Delft’s Wetenschapsknooppunt. We developed an activity for pre-service primary school teachers about creating an optical illusion known as Pepper’s Ghost. This requires the use of a beam splitter, which is also a crucial device in many quantum experiments.  Initially, the pre-service teachers were hesitant about a science and technology activity. But by the third day, they were positively buzzing with enthusiasm about their own creation and eager to see the work of their peers. Helping teachers to make scientific inquiry a part of their classroom creates a multiplier effect. After all, one teacher could influence hundreds of students.

When it comes to education, the key is asking the right questions to help students learn. Show them some quantum mechanical effects and ask them to combine what they know with what they observe. They will find out for themselves where the boundaries of their knowledge are and expand them. The same goes for the broader public. My challenge to the Quantum Delta eco-system is to ditch those outdated and out of context cliché quotes during presentations and events. Not mentioning them will be our secret code. Instead, let’s take another quote from Richard Feynman’s book: “Students should be made to think, to doubt, to communicate, to question, to learn from their mistakes, and most importantly, to have fun in their learning”.’

Interested to learn more?
The concerns raised by Rutger Ockhorst are the research subject of our QDNL PhD Researcher Aletta Meinsma from the research group Quantum & Society at Leiden University. She researches the popularisation of quantum science and technology; whether quantum is indeed referred to as spooky in popular communication and the effect of such framing on public engagement. We will keep you posted about her results soon!

Read the latest conversation we had with Aletta here, and a publication on her work by The Quantum Insider here.

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