Helen Cammack is studying for a PhD in theoretical physics at St Andrews University. She enjoys communicating physics with anyone who’ll listen, and has produced several videos on quantum and particle physics (visit Helen’s blog for more insights into a physics PhD). Here, she talks about her recent experience as a Soapbox Science speaker at our recent Edinburgh’s event.
SS: What made you want to get involved with Soapbox Science?
HC: Soapbox Science combines two things that I’m passionate about – communicating research to the public and raising the prominence of women in science. So when I heard that Soapbox Science was coming to Edinburgh, I had to get involved! It was a bit outside of my comfort zone, but in a good way.
SS: What was your presentation about?
HC: My presentation was about my work in quantum computing, which is the subject of my PhD. Quantum computing is something that sounds tricky just because it has the word ‘quantum’ in it, and some people aren’t really sure what that means. So I started by introducing quantum – the world of the really small. This is a place where things don’t behave as we would expect, because our expectations are built upon our everyday experience, and we don’t have everyday experience of the quantum world. However we can still gain understanding of how quantum particles behave.
Two of the most important properties that quantum particles can display are called ‘superposition’ and ‘entanglement’, and in my presentation I used analogies and props to help explain these. I used a massive spinning disk to explain superposition and a pair of gloves to talk about entanglement! I also talked about my PhD project, which looks at ways of protecting quantum particles for use in quantum computers.
SS: Did you have a favourite memory from the day?
HC: It’s not a specific memory, but it was amazing to see the members of the public who were so interested in science and what the speakers had to say that they were prepared to stand out in the torrential rain to listen to us! Having the opportunity to chat with them and answer their questions in a relaxed environment was fantastic.
SS: Was there another speaker’s presentation you particularly liked?
HC: I loved Valerie Bentivegna’s use of the ukulele! Dr Megan Davey’s presentation on “The Chicken, the Emu and YOU!” was also cool, particularly as she gave out little fluffy chickens and had lots of interesting props such as eggs from different birds.
SS: Why is it important to talk to the public about new research in Physics?
HC: Physics suffers particularly badly from a public perception that it is hard. Like, really hard. And because it’s perceived to be so difficult, this puts a lot of people off having a go with physics, particularly girls. It has been found that girls tend to be more afraid of failing than boys (see e.g. http://time.com/4008357/girls-failure-practice/ ), and more likely to give up when things do get difficult. So I feel that it is especially important to demystify physics, and show people that there’s lots of interesting and significant things happening in physics that they can get involved with, no matter their background or their gender.
SS: Has anything from the event particularly stuck with you or had an impact on the way you work/ think about science communication?
HC: I’ve developed some new analogies as a result of that event that have been really useful when communicating about my research since then. My favourite is the ‘gloves’ analogy: There are two packets, one with a left glove in and the other a right. These are like two entangled particles. We separate the gloves and look at one, and immediately know which glove is contained in the other packet. Entanglement works a bit like that – once we measure one entangled particle, the state of the other is immediately determined, even if the two particles are separated. The difference between our gloves and quantum particles is that each of our entangled particle pair is both a left and a right until one is measured, whereas the left glove is always the left glove, it’s just that we didn’t know that until we looked at it.
SS: Would you encourage other women to take part in the future?
HC: Definitely! It’s a great opportunity to think about how to present your work in an entirely new light. And it’s a lot of fun!