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To celebrate World Quantum Day, physicist Brian La Cour — a volunteer with APS’s Quantum To-Go program — dropped into a physics classroom in Arkansas to demystify qubits.
By Liz Boatman | May 11, 2023
Credit: András Szilágyi (2019): "EMANIM: Interactive visualization of electromagnetic waves” (https://emanim.szialab.org)
A superposition simulation through EMANIM, an online virtual wave simulator — one of several tools for educators trying to teach tough quantum concepts.
There’s a lot of quantum talk these days, from quantum computing to Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. And while “quantum” conjures a particular set of concepts in a physicist’s mind — discrete states, particle-wave duality — it can mean something different to a member of the general public, including your average Marvel movie-watching high schooler.
On April 6, Brian La Cour, a quantum physicist at the Applied Research Laboratories at the University of Texas at Austin, logged in virtually to Patrick Foley’s AP Physics 2 class in Little Rock, Arkansas, to talk with high school juniors and seniors about all things quantum.
“I love interacting with young people and sharing my love of quantum physics with them,” said La Cour.
The visit was organized by Quantum To-Go, a collaborative initiative developed by APS’s Physicists To-Go program and the National Q-12 Education Partnership to celebrate World Quantum Day, which occurs annually on April 14. Launched in 2020, Physicists To-Go brings physicists from across the country and around the world directly into the K-12 or undergraduate classroom (usually virtually). APS expects this spring’s Quantum To-Go initiative to impact 140 classrooms, including a handful in Japan, Georgia, India, and South Africa.
While quantum technologies have exploded, quantum education has not kept up, according to a strategic plan published by the National Science and Technology Council in 2022. To build the next quantum workforce, many experts believe, schools must inspire and educate kids in new, exciting ways — a driving motivation for initiatives like the National Q-12 Education Partnership.
In Foley’s classroom, La Cour opened his virtual visit by recalling his own path to quantum physics research. He told the students that although he had first learned about quantum science in high school physics, he “didn’t really get all that fired up about quantum at the time.”
La Cour said it wasn’t until college that he developed a deep appreciation for “the mystery” behind quantum physics. Before that, he held “this perspective that everything was precise and deterministic.” Quantum physics, he said, “just blows this concept.”
He asked Foley’s students what they had learned about quantum physics so far in their AP Physics 2 course. In quantum physics, replied one student, “it seems like there’s more we don’t know than we do.”
La Cour nodded, but added that “there are a whole lot of technologies that we’re using right now that are actually based on quantum.” He asked Foley’s students if they could name any.
Hands shot up, and the students listed off technologies like electron microscopes and quantum encryption. La Cour added cell phones, which rely heavily on tiny transistors small enough that quantum effects become significant, and even Blu-ray movies.
For researchers working in this field, La Cour told the high schoolers, it’s exciting to try harnessing “the unique properties of quantum systems and taking some of that ‘mystery’ … to solve really hard problems.”
“Sometimes, people refer to this [work] as quantum 2.0,” he said — the work of leveraging quantum physics to develop new technologies. Quantum 1.0, in contrast, refers to scientists’ efforts over the last century to develop a fundamental understanding of quantum physics.
La Cour noted that physicists today would describe the three main pillars of quantum technology as quantum computers; quantum communications, including networking and encryption; and quantum sensing, like quantum clocks and electron microscopes.
“Some of these technologies are already here,” he said. Others, like quantum computing, are still relatively new and changing rapidly, as researchers around the world race to study and improve these systems.
La Cour spent the next hour breaking down the concept of quantum computing for Foley’s students, using a set of simulation packages — the EMANIM virtual wave simulator developed by Andras Szilagyi, and La Cour’s own Virtual Quantum Optics Laboratory (VQOL) — to help them mentally construct and simulate a wave-based concept of the “qubit,” or quantum bit. The qubit can simultaneously store 0s and 1s, unlike the bit of classical computing, which can only store a 0 or 1.
Foley said that La Cour’s “interactive toolset” helped broaden the students’ perspective on the practical implications of the science they’ve learned in his classroom this year. Of course, not all of it was easy. “The entanglement encryption portion of his presentation really stumped them,” he said.
Even so, Foley said his AP Physics 2 students, who could pursue many fields in college, “enjoyed the experience of talking with a knowledgeable quantum physicist.”
La Cour was happy to work with Foley’s high school students through the Quantum To-Go program. “Young people,” he said, “are uniquely poised to provide a fresh perspective and new insights toward a deeper understanding of the great quantum mysteries.”
Are you a K-12 teacher, undergraduate professor, or homeschooling family looking for supplementary support on physics topics and careers? Check out the APS Physicists To-Go and Physics Quest programs for additional resources.
Liz Boatman is a staff writer for APS News.
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