Apologies for the radio silence on here over the past few weeks – illness and a hectic work schedule are to blame. To make up for it, here’s an overview of what I’ve been up to – enjoy!
Over the past three months, I’ve been on an internship with Education Scotland, which I blogged about here. Time’s flown, and I’m now in the last week of my placement. It’s been a fantastic experience and I’m slightly sad to be going back to my regular PhD role. There’s certainly been a lot more variety in my days as an intern. I’ve worked with government employees, teachers, service providers and academics and I’ve gotten to know some excellent science communicators. I’ve made links that I hope to develop further in the future, and been involved with some really exciting projects.
I’ve really enjoyed setting up simple experiments and demonstrating equipment – something I don’t ever get the opportunity to do in my day job as a theorist. Prior to March, the lab was somewhere that we put the kettle! So it was refreshing to get back in the lab, to play with electron diffraction tubes, lasers and even Plasticine.
Part of my internship has been spent making videos, from short stop-animations filmed using a tablet to flipchart graph sketches. Here, the central point is clarity: how best to put one’s point across when using a medium that allows for very little feedback from the audience? Which visuals will help to portray the point you’re trying to make, and which will distract the viewer or plant misconceptions? For example, in the video on quantum tunnelling, the Plasticine ball representing the most probable location to find the particle splits in two at the barrier, indicating that one may find the particle on the left or the right of the barrier post-interaction. However, this could be misinterpreted as meaning that the particle itself splits in two – a misconception I tried to avoid by careful wording of the dialogue.
The main challenge with any type of science communication is to put complex points across using clear language that’s appropriate to the audience. Sometimes, attempting to do so exposes gaps in our own understanding, or fundamental differences of opinion between scientists. Advanced Higher physics students are required to explain Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, and the suggested slant taken by SQA is:
To gain precise information about the position of a particle requires the use of short wavelength radiation. This has high energy which changes the momentum of the particle.
Such an approach is known as Heisenberg’s microscope, as it relies on an observer wishing to see the particle more closely. Some physicists have a problem with this explanation, as it implies that the position of the particle is definite, it’s just that we can never find its exact value. They argue that this is misleading – the particle’s wavefunction is spread out over space, and so the position of the particle is fundamentally uncertain. It very quickly turns into a philosophical discussion!
So, how best to explain the uncertainty principle to a group of school students with very little background in quantum theory? My attempt can be seen here. It’s not perfect, and there are some holes in the argument, but it constructs a picture that students can develop in the future with further study. A lot of the material in the Advanced Higher is far too complex to even begin to cover comprehensively at that level, but by giving students a picture of general relativity, particle physics and quantum mechanics, we hope to inspire them to choose to study physics further and build up a fuller picture of these topics.
Physics relies very heavily on maths for its explanations, and so it can be very challenging to strip away the maths and build up pictures of physics that are accessible to high school students. However by doing so, we can inspire a generation of scientists and improve our own understanding. Physicists (particularly theorists) cling to maths for explanations like a drowning person clutching at straws, but being able to explain a difficult concept in simple language shows a more complete understanding than any equation can.