Bob Coecke, a physicist, believes that it is simpler to persuade children rather than adults when it comes to understanding quantum mechanics.
Bob Coecke, a 55-year-old physicist and musician from Belgium, aims to make quantum physics accessible to the general public. This theory, which explains the behavior of particles on a microscopic level, has been popularized in science fiction such as Marvel’s Ant-Man and the award-winning film Everything Everywhere All at Once. While it is known for its paradoxical nature, in the UK, it is typically only taught to undergraduate physics students due to its complex mathematical concepts. However, Coecke, a former professor at Oxford University, has developed a math-free approach using diagrams that can be easily understood by beginners. He explains this method in his book Quantum in Pictures, co-authored with Dr Stefano Gogioso and published earlier this year. In a recent education experiment, they taught this pictorial method to schoolchildren in the UK, who were able to outperform the average scores of postgraduate physics students at Oxford University.
Why do most individuals have an interest in studying quantum physics, which is known for its complexity?
Consider the concept of artificial intelligence and its impact on our current society. The power and responsibility of shaping this revolution lies in the hands of billion-dollar companies, yet their actions are often incomprehensible to the general public. With my background as a former Oxford professor and current work at Quantinuum, a company focused on developing quantum computers that utilize subatomic principles to surpass traditional computers, I am determined to promote understanding and inclusivity in the fields of STEM and quantum technology. Despite the counterintuitive nature of this endeavor, my transition into industry has allowed me to conduct educational experiments to achieve these goals.
Your educational experiment involved 54 schoolchildren, aged 15-17, who were randomly selected from around 1,000 applicants, from 36 UK schools – mostly state schools. The teenagers spent two hours a week in online classes and after eight weeks were given a test using questions from an Oxford postgraduate quantum physics exam. More than 80% of the pupils passed and around half earned a distinction. Were you surprised by their success?
Initially, I had considered cancelling the entire project as I feared it would be a total failure. Our initial plan was for the children to engage with each other through social media or online communication, but this was not permitted due to ethical regulations for the study. I questioned the educational value of an experience where communication between participants was not allowed.
This generation, known as the Covid generation, did not turn on their cameras during online classes, resulting in a black screen. Instead of using their voices, they typed their questions, making it a challenging teaching experience. Additionally, we noticed a self-esteem issue among the students. However, many students appreciated that we had announced that a complex math background was not necessary. This removed a barrier for those who wanted to learn this subject.
Afterward, the figures were returned to us. They performed significantly better than what we typically observe from students at the university level. The exams were graded without knowledge of the students’ identities, so we are unaware of how many entered with the intention of pursuing STEM. We are currently analyzing this data.
What inspired the creation of your ‘quantum picturalism’ technique? Was it initially intended for children and novices?
I am a visually-oriented individual. In addition to being a quantum physicist, I am also an artist and musician. My interest in quantum physics arose from my desire to support my music career. As a member of the band Black Tish, which combines rock, metal, and electronica, we have released two albums this year. In the 1990s, I secured a position at Oxford University’s computer science department, where my colleague Samson Abramsky informed me of the need for a high-level programming language for future quantum computers. While traditional computing uses zeros and ones, the general population may not be familiar with this code. However, most people know how to use an iPhone. Our goal was to create an iPhone-like interface for programming quantum computers. To achieve this, Abramsky and I introduced a new formalism of quantum mechanics in 2004 that is based on “category theory,” a well-established branch of mathematics that utilizes diagrams to describe collections of objects.
Over the years, I worked on developing my idea with others and eventually co-authored a book with Aleks Kissinger in 2017, targeting physicists. However, teaching theoretical physicists proved to be a challenge as they often had to unlearn their existing knowledge. Many mainstream individuals in quantum computing initially dismissed my approach as using “silly” illustrations and deemed it too simplistic to be useful. On the other hand, some believed that category theory was too complex and therefore not practical. It took a considerable amount of time to overcome the misconception that my approach was too complicated. To prove its simplicity and effectiveness, I collaborated with Stefano to write a new book with illustrations, which yielded impressive results, surpassing even Oxford postgraduate students’ performance.
There is much talk about the strange and fascinating concepts of quantum physics. For example, a cat in a box can exist in two states simultaneously until it is observed. Particles can also occupy multiple positions simultaneously, but this changes when their location is determined. Additionally, information can be transferred instantly between quantum systems, a phenomenon known as “teleportation.” How can we visually depict these phenomena?
Reworded: The process involves creating quantum circuits using boxes and wires to illustrate quantum phenomena. Teleportation is depicted as moving boxes along a wire. Measurements are shown using “spiders,” which are boxes with multiple legs or wires protruding. A quantum particle that exists in two places simultaneously until measured is represented by two legs entering a spider (representing the measurement) and one leg exiting on the other side (representing the outcome).
What are your expectations for the future of quantum pictorialism?
I have been contacted by individuals from the education departments of both the Australian and Greek governments who are interested in incorporating this idea. I am also dedicated to bringing this concept to Africa. While it is still in its initial stages, we are currently making plans for its implementation there.
I initially aimed to revolutionize the understanding of quantum mechanics, and I found it simpler to persuade children rather than adults. Children have a blank slate and are not influenced by prior beliefs. Therefore, it is possible that the upcoming generation will continue to progress in this field. As Max Planck, one of the pioneers of quantum physics, famously stated: “Science moves forward as one funeral at a time.”
Bob Coecke and Stefano Gogioso co-authored “Quantum in Pictures: A New Way to Understand the Quantum World” (Quantinuum).