Quantum Physics for Everyone

Last year I mentioned the fantastic work of Julien Bobroff and his collaborators in developing an impressive science outreach program that does wonderful demos of the physics of the quantum world, using superconductors (and other things). He gave a talk about it at the Aspen Center for Physics and took part in some discussions about outreach at a nearby conference that David Pines had organized. Well, he’s written an article about the program and it appears in this month’s Physics Today and it seems that you can get it for free if you go here. I strongly recommend it since it might give you some ideas about how you might go about explaining some of the science you do to people (if you’re a scientist) or it might excite you to learn more about the science if you are not already familiar with it. Maybe even a show featuring science that might be coming near you one day, and/or go to a science fair.

THe great thing about the article is that it is passing on lessons learned – sharing both good and bad news. One of the the frustrations for me about the whole science outreach effort that is done by so many of us is that we’re largely reinventing the wheel every time we decide to do something, and moreover it isn’t actually always the wheel. We’re trying stuff and we’re not measuring its effectiveness, and we’re not sharing much about what works and what does not, so the outreach effort goes only so far, largely. It is one of the reasons you read me writing a lot about trying to do different things beyond just the usual – putting science where you don’t always expect it, since most of what is done is picked up by people who are already predisposed to pay attention to the science, which does not expand the reach of the outreach very much. Julien picks up on an aspect of this issue nicely. Quoting:

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.

So go and read what they did to try to get a wider group of people involved and excited about the science. It involved levitating the Eiffel tower. Kind of…

Ok, now back to drawing a picture of a physics lecture in progress. (More here.)



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