Physicist Bob Coecke: It is easier to convince children than adults about quantum mechanics

BElgian physicist and musician Prof Bob Coecke, 55, wants to teach quantum physics to a mass audience. The paradox-filled theory that describes the microscopic realm has become a staple of science fiction, from Marvels Ant man of multiple Oscar-winning Everything Everywhere Everything once. It’s really amazing and, in the UK, the subject is usually reserved for undergraduates specializing in physics because it requires grappling with complex mathematics. But Coecke, a former Oxford professor, developed a math-free framework using diagrams for total beginners, outlined in Quantum of Pictures, his book with Dr Stefano Gogioso published earlier this year. In the summer, they ran an educational experiment, teaching the imaging method to UK students who subsequently beat the average exam scores of postgraduate physics students at Oxford University.

Quantum physics is notoriously esoteric. Why do most people want to study it?
Think AI. Think how broken the world is today. Billion-dollar companies are directing a revolution that can control the world and no one understands what they are doing. I used to be a professor at Oxford for 20 years and now I work in industry, with Quantinuum, building quantum computers [machines designed to exploit subatomic physics to one day outperform conventional computers]. We want people to understand what was done from the beginning, before the technology became big. We want to make Stem [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] more inclusive, make quantum more inclusive. It’s completely counterintuitive, but within the industry I can now make this an educational experiment.

Your educational experiment involved 54 students, aged 15-17, who were randomly selected from the environment. 1,000 applicants, from 36 schools in the UK mostly state schools. The teenagers spent two hours a week in online classes and after eight weeks were given a test using questions from the Oxford postgraduate quantum physics exam. More than 80% of students passed and almost half gained distinction. Are you surprised by their success?
At some point, I was going to stop everything because I thought it was a complete disaster. Wed originally wanted the children to interact with each other on social media or communicate online, but this was not allowed due to ethical guidelines for the experiment. I wonder, what kind of educational experience is this, if you don’t talk to each other?

This is the Covid generation: nobody puts their cameras on [for the online classes], so we are looking at a black screen. None of them asked using their voices, they just typed. It was a tough challenge to teach all the standards. We also see a problem with students’ self-esteem. But most kids love that we’re letting you know that you don’t need a complicated math background. Mathematics becomes a barrier for children who want to access this knowledge.

And then we return the numbers. They are doing better than what we see from university level students. The exams are marked blind, so we don’t know how many entered with the intention of taking Stem. We are processing that data now.

How did you create this quantum pictorialism method? Was it originally aimed at children and beginners?
I’m a very visual person. I’m not just a quantum physicist, I’m an artist and musician. In fact, the only reason I ended up in quantum physics was because I wanted to support my music career my rock/metal/electronica fusion band, Black Tish, released two albums this year. I worked in the computer science department at Oxford University in the 1990s and my senior colleague Samson Abramsky told me that we need a high-level programming language for [future] quantum computers. For normal computing, you program in zeros and ones, but most people don’t understand how to do that. But everyone understands how to use an iPhone. We want the equivalent of an iPhone interface for quantum-computer programming. So Abramsky and I published a new formalism of quantum mechanics in 2004, based on category theory [a well-established branch of mathematics that uses diagrams to describe collections of objects].

I have been developing it for many years, together with others, and I wrote a book about it for physicists in 2017 with Aleks Kissinger. But the worst people to teach are theoretical physicists. They have too much to learn. Half of the top people in quantum computing said: You’re doing things with silly pictures, it’s not useful, it’s too simple! And the other half said: Category theory is too hard, it’s not useful, it’s too complicated! It took years to get rid of the stigma that it was too complicated. That’s why I wrote this new book together with Stefano, who made all the photos, especially to run this experiment, to prove that it’s very easy, children can do it and more than Oxford postgrad student.

We have heard so many strange and wonderful things about quantum physics: A cat in a box can be dead and alive at the same time, until you look at it; particles can be in two places at once, unless their position is measured; Information can be teleported between quantum systems. How do you express these processes using only pictures?
It’s simple. All drawings of quantum circuits: boxes connected by wires [to demonstrate quantum phenomena]. To teleport is to slide the boxes along the wire. Dimensions are represented by boxes called spiders with many legs, or wires, coming out. The quantum particle that can be in two places at once before being measured is taken as two legs that go to a spider the body of the spiders represents the measurement and has one leg that goes out of other side, that is the result.

What are your hopes for quantum pictorialism in the future?
I was approached by people in the Australian and Greek governments, in their education departments, who were interested in implementing it. I also love bringing it to Africa. It’s early days, but we’re planning there.

I started trying to change the way quantum mechanics is understood, and it was easier to convince children than adults. They have no preconceptions. So maybe the next generation will take it forward. As one of the founders of quantum physics, Max Planck, once said: Science progresses one burial at a time.

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