UW–Madison celebrates the first World Quantum Day, April 14

Even quantum physicists do not understand quantum physics, or so the saying* goes.

“The worst grade I ever got in any class was my first quarter of quantum mechanics, because it just was weird and I didn’t understand it and I couldn’t get my head around it,” says Shimon Kolkowitz, a UW­­–Madison physics professor with the Wisconsin Quantum Institute (WQI), who now conducts research in quantum sensing. “It is something you develop some kind of feeling and intuition for over time, so it’s my personal feeling, and the feeling of many, that it’s important to start exposing people to these concepts much earlier [than in college].”

Quantum science is weird because it explains the workings of our world at the sub-atomic level. The classical physical world we experience and understand — the predictable trajectory of a baseball in the air or the Earth rotating around the sun — breaks down at these tiny scales.

Understand it or not, quantum science is here to stay.

“Quantum science is a rapidly-growing area of research and industry, and it’s going to have a number of major impacts on any number of different areas of commerce,” Kolkowitz says. “There’s a huge need to train a growing quantum workforce that can participate in, engage with, and develop these new technologies.”

a black image that says laser star on the left, LED star in the middle, and UV light star on the right. The left "star" is completely black, the middle star is glowing a faint green, and the right star is glowing the brightest
QuanTime kits include a set of light sources and glow-in-the-dark stars. When participants shine different lights at the stars and observe the differences, they are learning about how light manipulates electrons.

The first-ever World Quantum Day, to be celebrated annually on April 14, is an international, community driven event to spark interest and generate enthusiasm for quantum mechanics. A goal of World Quantum Day is to promote public awareness of the positive impact quantum science has had and will have on society. [The date is taken from Planck’s constant, 4.14 * 10-15 eV · s, a value that is used in many quantum mechanics equations.]

“It’s a day to engage people in quantum science and let them know what is going on in current research, but it’s also a chance to demystify and make quantum science more accessible and available,” says Mallory Conlon, a quantum science outreach coordinator at UW–Madison.

Conlon is working with QuanTime, an educational initiative developed by leading quantum institutions to introduce quantum activities to middle and high school students. Anyone can play QuanTime’s online games, where they will learn about principals such as entanglement and superposition. There is even a quantum chess game.

a black and white coloring book-like image with quantum images, made to be colored in
Physics grad student and artist Aedan Gardill created this coloring page for WQD.

“We also have Wonders of Quantum Physics electron transition kits, and we’re sending out nearly 1000 kits to classrooms across the country,” Conlon says. “It’s an inquiry-based activity where participants learn how we can use light to manipulate atoms and electrons, which is really the underpinnings of how quantum computers work.”

The physics department and WQI will also be celebrating WQD by highlighting several quantum science researchers and sharing the top five quantum stories from the past year on social media. Follow along on Twitter and Instagram (both @UWMadPhysics) to learn more about the exciting quantum research being done at UW–Madison.

There is also a WQD coloring page made by physics grad student Aedan Gardill available for download.

UW–Madison and WQI are members of the Chicago Quantum Exchange, the NSF-funded Quantum Leap Challenge Institute HQAN, and the Department of Energy’s National Quantum Information Science (QIS) Research Center Q-NEXT, three collaborative efforts that are advancing quantum information science and engineering, especially in Great Lakes region. Learn more about the research happening across our collaborations by searching #MidwestQuantum on social media.

* Borrowed from quantum physicist Richard Feynman’s quote: “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.”

Physics of Climate Change project funded by WI Idea grant

Eleven research projects that illustrate how the Wisconsin Idea has evolved — including one from the Department of Physics — have now been funded by Extension and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education.

The premise of the Wisconsin Idea, extending university knowledge to all corners of the state, is traditionally described as starting on campus and traveling to other parts of Wisconsin. This new series of grant-funded projects recognizes the value of knowledge transfer in reverse: utilizing Extension’s local networks to bring community perspectives and knowledge into research studies conducted on campus.

The Wisconsin Idea is almost 120 years old, and in that time it has evolved to include the wide range of topics currently being studied by faculty and specialists at UW–Madison. Extension’s locally based educators deliver evidence-based programming for farmers and 4-H youth and also help address specific issues in local communities by sharing expertise on natural resources, family, financial, economic development, and health/well-being topics.

The heart of the Wisconsin Idea – creating vital links between UW–Madison and communities across the state to inform community programming and improve lives – is embodied as the core mission of Extension. The new grant series will showcase how communities can both inform and benefit from university research. This work follows the longstanding tradition of Extension’s role to advance the Wisconsin Idea, while the research methods used to develop knowledge continue to evolve.

Extension collaborated with the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education to create the Wisconsin Idea Collaboration Grant project series. The competitive grants will kickstart applied research and development of innovative educational programming or community engagement to address community needs and priorities.

Funded project: The Physics of Climate Change

Principal Investigator Mallory Conlon (Physics); co-PIs Cierra Atkinson (Physics), Haddie McLean (Physics), and Joanna Skluzacek, Professor and STEM Specialist, Division of Extension

The scientific principles explaining and predicting the effects of climate change are being lost in the noise of rampant misinformation. Understanding of climate change varies across age groups and location, and many K-12 teachers are left without the support needed to incorporate climate change concepts in their curricula.

To mitigate misinformation, this project will create hands-on activities to understand the impacts of climate change and empower teachers to accurately share content with their students. Specific efforts will include a museum exhibit at the Ingersoll Physics Museum, outreach demonstration for the Wonders of Physics traveling show, and an activity kit designed to empower middle and high school students, teachers, and general audiences to identify accurate information about climate change.

Chicago State University students gain quantum experience through HQAN summer internships

profile photos of Anosh Wasker, Dominique Newell, Gabrielle Jones-Hall, and Ryan Stempek

This story was adapted from one originally published by HQAN

Over the past summer, the NSF Quantum Leap Challenge Institute for Hybrid Quantum Architectures and Networks (HQAN) offered a 12-week “Research Experiences for CSU Students” internship opportunity that provided students and recent graduates from Chicago State University (CSU) with virtual research experiences addressing quantum science topics. In an August 20 online poster session, students presented the results of their summer projects to HQAN’s university and industry partners.

Mallory Conlon, HQAN’s outreach program coordinator and the quantum science outreach program coordinator with the UW–Madison department of physics, explained that this year’s program was the pilot offering. “We wanted to make sure we had the support and activity structures right before expanding this to more [minority serving institutions] (MSIs) and other underrepresented groups across the Midwest. We’re currently evaluating the program and aim to develop an expanded internship for summer 2022.” For the pilot, CSU was chosen as the sole participating MSI because of its proximity to the University of Chicago (one of HQAN’s three university partners), and because of HQAN staff connections to CSU.

The posters presented on August 20 included Anosh Wasker’s “Quantum Games for Pedagogy” (advised by Russell Ceballos of the Chicago Quantum Exchange); Dominique Newell’s “Super-Resolution Microscopy Using Nitrogen Vacancy Centers in Diamond to Analyze the Optical Near Field Diffraction Limit” (advised by Shimon Kolkowitz of the University of Wisconsin–Madison); Gabrielle Jones-Hall’s “Demonstrating Entanglement” (advised by Paul Kwiat of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC)); and Ryan Stempek’s “Quantum vs. Classical Boltzmann Machines for Learning a Quantum Circuit” (advised by Bryan Clark of UIUC).

Wasker is pursuing a Master’s at CSU; his long-term goals are to go for a PhD and then work in industry. Over the summer, he developed an air-hockey-inspired computer game that teaches players some of the counterintuitive concepts involved in quantum—particularly the Hong-Ou-Mandel (HOM) effect. He says he’s passionate about quantum science and has noticed that many opportunities are coming up in the field, but that it’s difficult for people to find “access points” into learning about this intimidating topic so that they can seize those opportunities. His summer project was inspired by his belief that learning through play is a powerful way to gain understanding.

Newell recently graduated from CSU with a BS in physics, with a minor in chemistry. She spent the summer studying the propagation of light through a laser beam that travels through a nitrogen vacancy center in diamond, as observed through a confocal microscope. The goal was to locate the zero intensity points above and below the focal plane of a Gaussian beam by using its own electromagnetic field.

Jones-Hall is now in graduate school at Mississippi Valley State University. She’s working towards a Master’s in Bioinformatics but plans to return to quantum after completing that degree, so her internship project—which worked on developing a quantum-themed escape room designed to teach players the concept of quantum entanglement—will be relevant to her later work.

Stempek will graduate in December with a Master’s in computer science and then work in industry. His summer project aimed to show that a quantum Restricted Boltzmann Machine (Q-RBM) has the potential to learn the probability distribution over a set of inputs more accurately than a classical RBM (C-RBM) can for the same circuit. He says the internship was a great opportunity for him to further build his Python skills and problem-solve through the ups and downs of research. “[It] was really beneficial,” he says, “and actually, moving into industry, I feel that I’ll have a greater sense of self-confidence… It was a great experience!”

HQAN is a partnership among the University of Chicago, UIUC, and the University of Wisconsin–Madison and is funded by the National Science Foundation.

The Wonders of Physics ready to hit the road

The Wonders of Physics traveling show is back! After a five-year hiatus, the department is pleased to announce that we have hired a full-time outreach specialist and restarted the program.

profile photo of Haddie McLean
Haddie McLean

Haddie McLean, a former meteorologist with WISC-TV / Channel 3 in Madison, began her new role as the Wonders of Physics outreach coordinator on August 9. After a 21-year TV career, McLean says she was looking for a new challenge — and any job that didn’t require her to wake up at 2am was just a bonus.

“I love talking to people about science. And I love seeing kids’ faces light up when they understand a topic or when they learn something new,” McLean says. “I was able to do a little bit of that in my job in TV. But in this position, I’ll get to do a ton more, and that’s what drew me to it.”

McLean’s primary role with The Wonders of Physics will be to further develop and perform the traveling show. She will also play a lead role in the development and performance of the annual shows in February, as well as participating in science outreach events and connecting with Wisconsin science teachers.

The Wonders of Physics traveling show started in the late 1980s as an offshoot of The Wonders of Physics annual shows, which first ran in 1984. Two graduate students at the time, David Newman and Christopher Watts, approached Prof. Clint Sprott — the creator of The Wonders of Physics — and suggested that they take the show on the road.

Over the years, The Wonders of Physics traveling show has gone from an all-volunteer, graduate student-led effort to one that has employed part- or full-time outreach specialists. Past funding has been provided by NSF and DOE. Now, thanks to the support of generous donors — including a successful Day of the Badger fundraising campaign — the department expects that the traveling show will be run by a full-time staff member for years to come.

“I’d like to make this show accessible to all ages, all walks of life,” McLean says. “I’d like to hit all areas of the state, if possible, and bring the university to the kids that wouldn’t otherwise get a chance to experience all that our campus has to offer.”

McLean is already busy prepping the show and hopes to be in schools by late fall 2021 (if university and school district COVID-19 policies permit it). She expects to have a general show available that is as hands-on and interactive as possible. She also plans to make the show customizable as needed, where she can work with teachers to focus the performance on the specific areas of physics that they are teaching at the time.

“My hope for the traveling show is that it’s fun and engaging, gets kids excited, and helps spark an interest in the next generation of scientists,” McLean says.

Sprott, now an emeritus professor with the department who still stars in the annual shows each February, is enthusiastic that McLean will be involved in those shows and that she is reviving the traveling show.

“After several difficult years, I’m delighted that Haddie McLean has joined us to head the Department’s nearly 40-year tradition of physics outreach and public education for people of all ages throughout Wisconsin and beyond,” Sprott says.

Anyone interested in scheduling The Wonders of Physics traveling show can email wonders@physics.wisc.edu or visit wonders.physics.wisc.edu for more information.

The shows are free of charge, but donations are encouraged.

Related: See the winning entries from The Wonders of Physics 2021 video contest!

 

Physics grad students share hands-on physics, art lessons with local fifth graders

the 4 kits sent home with the students are laid out and opened up, revealing contents like worksheets, laser pointers, mirrors, and lenses
The at-home physics kits featured lessons on light, such as how it functions as both a particle and a wave, and how light changes as it passes through a prism. PHOTO: AEDAN GARDILL

UW–Madison physics grad student Aedan Gardill has been illustrating physics concepts with art for years, such as through his Instagram account, where he shares ink drawings. Earlier this year, he applied for a grant from the Madison Arts Commission to create hidden portraits of women in the physical sciences that could only be revealed by using polarized lenses. He also planned to visit local schools to explain the concept behind his art and help students make their own images based on his technique.

By the time Gardill learned he had been awarded the grant, the pandemic was in full force, and his plans had to change. While he could still present his portraits at the Wisconsin Science Festival, school visits were no longer in the cards.

“With the realization this summer that school was going to most likely be online in the fall, I had to rethink how I was going to use the funding from the grant,” Gardill explains. “And that has morphed into providing at-home, hands-on learning experiences that we’ll lead virtually.”

Hear more from Aedan and a Henderson Elementary School teacher and student he worked with, by reading the full story

Funding for Gardill’s work is provided by a grant from the Madison Arts Commission, with additional funds from the Wisconsin Arts Board, the Optical Society of America, the International Society for Optics and Photonics, and the UW­–Madison Department of Physics, with special thanks to Arts + Literature Laboratory. UW–Madison physics graduate student volunteers include Abby Bishop, Praful Gagrani, Jimena Gonzalez, Ben Harpt, Preston Huft, Brent Mode, Bryan Rubio Perez, Susan Sorensen, and Jessie Thwaites.