By Tushna Commissariat
It’s been nearly two weeks since I spent three intense and interesting days in Sweden bundled into a classroom with other journalists and scientists to polish up our knowledge of all things quantum. Since attending the NORDITA science-writing workshop, I have spent a lot of time thinking about one of the main themes of the meeting: “What is the best way to communicate quantum physics to the public?”
The second day of the meeting featured a discussion session called “Is quantum physics too spooky for you?”. Moderated by journalist Michael Schirber, its aim was to suss out why quantum physics can be such a difficult subject to communicate to the public in an accurate and interesting way. We talked for nearly two hours about everything from “quantum woo” to the many interpretations of quantum mechanics to the art of crafting a good story. I don’t have space to get into the detail of everything we debated, but I will write about one or two of the more engrossing questions we asked ourselves.
Do science writers overemphasize and ultimately misconstrue the weirder, “spooky” aspects of quantum theory, or are they right to focus on these facets because they are the very things that interest people? Perhaps this question arises because quantum mechanics is a bit of a paradox in itself. The subject is undoubtedly difficult to truly understand, most of the scientific language is equations and jargon, and there are no pretty Hubble pictures or fascinating stories about time travel and dead grandfathers to ease you on your way to enlightenment. Yet people can’t seem to get enough of it. This was something that most people in the room agreed on and something that scientists and journalists should be tapping into – the public’s hunger to devour science that may be difficult, nearly unfathomable, but ultimately magical. You can read more about this on workshop organizer and theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder’s blog.
Physicist and author Chad Orzel also pointed out that certain concepts in topics such as general relativity are as, if not more, complicated than quantum features such as entanglement and superposition. And yet, relativity is accepted as a fairly easy-to-understand theory, while quantum mechanics is still thought of as a formidable and impenetrable subject.
A follow-on topic from this point was analogies. A discerning writer knows that a clear, well-crafted analogy will go a long way to making even the most convoluted of topics more palatable. Quantum mechanics seems to be littered with analogies and phrases, from Einstein’s “spooky action at a distance” to Schrödinger’s cat to Feynman’s (debatable) quote “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.” But most journalists agreed that these phrases and quotes are overused and do not accurately represent the advances the field has made over the past few decades. Both journalists and scientists should be working on coming up with new, clear and relatively simple analogies and explanations for the “weirder” aspects of the quantum world.
I felt that there was a compelling juxtaposition between how scientists and journalists absorb information that became apparent as the session went along. It is fair to say that scientists sometimes feel that it is the experiment itself that is most intriguing. However, it is the results and their interpretation that excites most other people, including journalists. Scientists would do well to remember this while speaking to journalists, so that, together, we can continue the dialogue, keep the wonder alive and get increasing numbers of people to argue, talk and think about physics.
In the above video, Caltech physicists John Preskill and Spiros Michalakis have teamed up with Jorge Cham of PhD Comics to try to explain the basics of quantum computing. I think they have done a good job without getting too spooky!