Diverse quantum research aims to improve the accessibility and understanding of complex quantum concepts
The eighth round of the Quantum Quest Seed Fund (QQSF) was targeted at the Faculty of Arts and intended to encourage ideas and uncover opportunities from diverse fields outside of the scope of researchers working day-to-day with quantum devices. This resulted in project awards to Dr. Lai-Tze Fan, a Professor in the Department of Sociology & Legal Studies cross-appointed in the Department of English Language and Literature, and Dr. Igor Grossmann, a Professor in the Psychology Department, who both want to improve the accessibility and understanding of quantum.
Fan aims to advance quantum literacy through interactive digital storytelling, which is why she was excited by TQT’s call to the Faculty of Arts: “There is increased interest in quantum emerging in the world, as evident in the growing number of movies, games, and art referencing quantum concepts. However, there is a foundational issue in which people have an extremely limited idea of what quantum is and its benefits.” The goal of Fan’s work was to create a low-barrier form of access to make quantum more transparent and accessible to a variety of audiences, leading to increased understanding and curiosity.
Rather than replicate another existing experience (i.e., a textbook or documentary), Fan used a new way to communicate complex ideas – storytelling through virtual reality (VR). VR offers a unique modality of communication for experiential learning. “We decided that the best contribution to the existing literature was to make an immersive VR experience to represent the fundamentals of quantum mechanics in a visual, spatial, and interactive way.” Through an extensive literature review, Fan’s team found that research on quantum mechanics was often accompanied by visual representations depicting phenomena such as superposition, entanglement, and interference. Expanding these visual methods into an immersive interactive environment was the basis for creating a quantum VR experience.
Fan and her team developed a pilot VR application called Find Yourself that metaphorically represents quantum entanglement. In the game, two players enact the relationship between two entangled particles. Each player has a 3D-scanned avatar of themselves in separate locations within the VR environment. However, the controllers are swapped. User A sees their own avatar, but User B controls their movement. Thus, the users must communicate to orient themselves in the virtual environment and find each other (and by default, find their own avatar, thus effectively finding themselves). In this way, the users are metaphorically entangled – they affect each other even at a distance, akin to how entangled particles behave.
“The experiential learning process gained through this project can act as a model to teach other complex topics, both within quantum and other fields, in a more interactive way,” says Fan. This newfound accessibility of quantum will benefit several prospective knowledge users: educators can teach quantum principles in unique hands-on ways, researchers will have new methods to present their work, and the general public can become more aware and excited about the potential benefits of quantum technologies. Aside from the scientific advancements, Fan also considered the social implications of the work. “Find Yourself is the perfect metaphor not only for quantum entanglement but also for social responsibility. Even though you are working with another person, you are actually trying to find yourself. Thus, in caring for others, you are indirectly caring for yourself. This connection between quantum and social interactions is empowering, and including interdisciplinary perspectives in research can facilitate advancements in understanding and outreach.”
Grossmann, in collaboration with Dr. Richard Eibach, was also awarded seed funding to explore peoples’ understanding of quantum physics by investigating the association between dialectical thinking and the perception of quantum concepts. “Dialectical thinking, which involves the acceptance of opposing beliefs and the ability to view things from multiple perspectives, may be related to a greater acceptance of quantum physics concepts as compared to analytic thinking, which emphasizes the certainty of knowledge and logical consistency,” says Grossmann. In other words, those from dialectic cultures may be more likely to accept the plausibility of logically contradictory claims, allowing them to accept the basic tenants of quantum physics more readily.
Grossmann and his team first investigated the possible relationship between dialectical thinking and the perception of quantum physics concepts by using language processing techniques to analyze media discussions of quantum. Web pages from Western regions with more analytic philosophical traditions, like the United States and Canada, were more likely to associate quantum concepts with language synonymous with “weird” or “counterintuitive” as compared to dialectical non-Western regions with strong philosophical traditions of Buddhism and Taoism (e.g., Sri Lanka and Singapore). Thus, quantum concepts may seem less counterintuitive to people accustomed to a dialectical thinking style. In a second survey-based study, the researchers also found that participants engaged in dialectical thinking could better comprehend complex quantum physics statements.
“We found that dialectical thinking appears to be an important factor for laypeople’s understanding of quantum physics concepts,” says Grossmann. “But we also believe it is important to consider the broader implications of this work as it extends beyond quantum physics, shedding light on the potential factors that may influence understanding and acceptance of other complex scientific concepts.” With this, Grossmann hopes to identify ways to make knowledge mobilization more effective – encouraging dialectical thinking could be a successful strategy for developing more effective educational strategies and improving public acceptance of quantum physics, especially in industrial applications and quantum technologies. Future research will investigate the effectiveness of educational interventions that promote dialectical thinking in enhancing the comprehension and acceptance of quantum. Grossmann also wants to explore how other cultural factors may influence the perception of complex concepts, considering that certain cultures encourage dialectical thinking.
In addition to establishing that dialectical thinking was associated with a greater comprehension of quantum physics, Grossmann and his team also hypothesize the reverse is true: exposure to quantum concepts may promote more dialectical patterns of reasoning. Amongst other positive social outcomes, dialectical reasoning helps people resolve social conflicts, promotes interpersonal and intergroup harmony, and enables forecasting accuracy of social and geopolitical events. Thus, a greater appreciation of dialectical reasoning achieved through improved quantum education and further integration of quantum technologies into societies may also drive constructive cultural changes.