Why learn Quantum Mechanics while at School ?
Quantum physics is perhaps the greatest intellectual triumph in the history of human civilization, but as the dramatis personae are serious Scientists in pursuit of ‘ smoother pebbles and prettier shells that lie undiscovered in the ocean of truth’, in the spirit of Isaac Newton, the public in general is not aware of it. Like Monsier Jourdain in Moliere’s play was not aware that he was speaking ‘prose’ all his life, even many professionals who studied Science at School to become doctors or engineers are not aware that ‘nature’ is at it’s smallest level driven by Quantum Mechanics.
The universe as we know it runs on quantum rules, and while the classical physics that emerges when you apply quantum physics to enormously huge numbers of particles seems to be the real thing, there are lots of familiar, everyday phenomena that owe their existence to quantum effects. We list some of them here.
Have you ever wondered how birds instinctively find their way across thousands of miles of open sky during migration? Or pondered on how photosynthesis happens, or how the human sense of smell works?
Despite our best efforts to understand them, natural processes such as these were puzzling. But recently, scientists have been using quantum physics to unravel some of nature’s enduring mysteries.
Another important purpose of introducing quantum phenomena at School itself is to develop pride in our own Scientists and their fundamental contributions at the Quantum level which have been unjustly ignored. Raman effect for which Sir CV Raman was conferred the Nobel Prize in 1930 was essentially a ‘Quantum’ effect. Satyendra Bose after whom a class of particles have been named Bosons ( remember Higgs Boson) has also made fundamental contributions. Another great Indian Scientist Jagdish Chandra Bose had demonstrated that plants also conform to the laws of Physics, which we now believe is Quantum Mechanics.
Giving a huge boost to adoption of emerging quantum technologies, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in the present budget proposed to provide an outlay of Rs 8,000 crore for applications of quantum technologies over the next five years under the ‘National Mission on Quantum Technologies and Applications’.
Quantum computing may possess the power to transform life as we know it. By paving the way for deep learning artificial intelligence (AI) based algorithms, teleportation of information, simulation of nature and new forms of encryption, quantum computing could solve some of society’s most complex challenges and transform major industries, from engineering to healthcare, agriculture, telecommunications and energy.
Haim Israel, Bank of America’s Managing Director of Research, compared the impact of quantum computing in the next ten years to what the smartphone did for the 2010s. The quantum revolution is here but how long it takes to produce results could be a decade or more away. As we look forward to the quantum decade, expect its effects to be dramatic and far-reaching.
Are children learning the skills necessary to be an engineer or startup entrepreneur for tomorrow? Chris Ferrie, Physicist, Mathematician and author
believes that 20 years from now, children will be facing interviews for jobs such as Quantum Communication Analyst or Quantum Software Engineer. So, how long should it be before students learn new topics and before it becomes mainstream in public schools?
Sir John Ziman began the Preface of his well known book “ Principles of the Theory of Solids” (1964 edition),with the following opening lines:
“ The frontiers of knowledge ( to coin a phrase) are always on the move. Today’s discovery will tomorrow be part of the mental furniture of every research worker. By the end of next week it will be in every course of graduate lectures . Within a month there will be a clamour to have it in the undergraduate curriculum. Next year, I do believe, it will seem so commonplace that it may be assumed to be known to every schoolboy.”
Those words are squarely applicable today to the field of Quantum Mechanics,and it is now reasonably clear that our school children must be acquainted with the key concepts and aware of the key Quantum phenomena in nature, whether it is classified as Physics, Chemistry or Biology.
Currently, across the globe, there is a severe shortage of quantum engineers. Noted theoretical computer scientist Scott Aaronson said in a blog that young student’s first exposures to science should be “cutting-edge” and not centuries old. The strong modern quantum information theoretic connections between quantum physics, computer science and maths can help all three subjects generate common interest. Hence, it will be easier for students to achieve fluency in the “language of quantum” with early exposure.
However, the big question is what can a high schooler be taught of quantum theory, especially to pre-calculus students. Is it possible to learn quantum mechanics with only elementary maths?
A 2016 conference paper, A Learning Path On Quantum Physics Including Simulations, Low-Cost Experimentations, Online Resources, teaching the fundamentals of quantum physics and quantum theory in school is a notoriously difficult task and students encounter a range of problem with mathematical concepts. Another paper proposes that it is possible to cut down on the technical mathematical skills required for students to learn introductory quantum mechanics by introducing the use of computer software at an early stage.
Many sincere scientists are of the view that School students may be able to learn about quantum mechanics at school, but they won’t be able to learn it until they have mastered the mathematics required. The main tools include: linear algebra: complex numbers, eigenvectors, eigenvalues. functional analysis: Hilbert spaces, linear operators, spectral theory. differential equations: partial differential equations, separation of variables, ordinary differential equations, Sturm–Liouville theory, eigenfunctions. These can be learnt concurrently, and seeing their applications and implications in the Quantum world will enhance the learner’s interest in what are often seen as dry subjects.
In the book ‘Q is for Quantum’ by Terry Rudolph, the author explores how a student armed with basic mathematics knowledge can effectively grasp fundamental learnings of quantum computing and even understand some Quantum algorithms. Most simple quantum algorithms are just matrix multiplication, hence it is advisable to teach simple Deutsch-Josza and Grover’s algorithm. The book is posited as a good start for quantum Computing.
Fundamentals of quantum mechanics are being taught in Dutch schools indicate that there is a higher interest about the conceptual aspects than algorithmic aspect. Students were found to ask several questions related to the conceptual aspects. Another finding indicated that the subject is very mathematically challenging and high school students, by and large, lack a grounding in the required mathematics level. Another key insight was that since the focus is on the algorithmic aspects, students often fail to learn what instructors want them to learn. Hence, better student learning outcomes are possible by shifting the focus to conceptual understanding.
In my own journey of learning, I learnt computer programming ( using FORTRAN in 1967) when I started as a Ph.D. scholar in Physics. My introduction to Artificial Intelligence was in a few years of that, when the main approach was that of rule based expert systems. But today both Coding and AI is being taught at School. There is no reason why Quantum Mechanics which I learnt a few years earlier during my M.Sc. should not now be learnt during the last few years at School.
When I am proposing learning Quantum Mechanics at School, I am referring to the stage of Schooling, but by no means yet another subject being introduced according to the CBSE model. As I have been advocating in many of my posts and presentations, we should leverage AI in empowering the learners to become self-directed autonomous learners. Recall Prof Ziman’s words “ it will seem so commonplace that it may be assumed to be known to every schoolboy”. And every girl at School as well.
I am sharing a link to a possible path to learn Quantum Mechanics on your own.
How to learn Quantum Mechanics on your own? https://youtu.be/Rs572Cf4zkk