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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

How understanding science can be made easy

When I was a teenager, I was awed by popular science writings. I was most affected by Roger Penrose’s The Emperor’s New Mind, with its detailed and fascinating account of quantum mechanics and relativity. However, it was not an easy read and it gave only one perspective of these amazing theories.

Some 30 years later one of my mentors has given me advice on what to tell my students when things get tough: “Science is hard.” He meant that doing good science is hard. You must be meticulous in your formulations, must be rigorous with your analysis, must be precise in your assumptions.

But must understanding science be hard? I have invested a non-negligible part of my time experimenting with this question.

I have volunteered to teach science in an elementary school. I have been led by my study of curiosity and have prompted my young students to ask me whatever they want (about science). I have used many different methods to try and make understanding science easy: we have made a play about DNA; we have learned that if Spiderman is a superhero, then patients treated with gene-therapy are also superheroes; and we have enjoyed moving around like gases and then condensating to liquids, each child is an atom.

The most important lesson for me was to truly answer students’ questions, take their inquiries seriously, and do the research that is needed (with them if possible) to get a proper answer that they can understand. They were rewarded with a glimpse to state-of-the-art science and technology, and I was rewarded by seeing their increased interest and enthusiasm of science.

But what about the really hard science, quantum mechanics? The more I learned about it, the more I was convinced that everyone should learn about it, in a fun, entertaining and thoughtful way. For this, I have partnered with my wife to write two quantum computer games: computer games that everyone knows, but with quantum rules. Quantum Minesweeper is exactly as it sounds: the mines are quantum and are in a superposition of cells, and you must use quantum measurements to find them. Schrodinger Cat and Hounds is a twist on the famous Fox and Hounds game, which I used to teach about superposition, measurement and entanglement. The audiences were both graduate students in physics, as well as biology-major high school students, with little to no background in physics. Suddenly, quantum physics was fun and playful.

Doing good science is hard. But understanding good science can be fun and joyful. May you learn what science your heart desires in an entertaining and insightful ways!

Featured Image Credit: Unsplash

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