26. January 2022 | Magazine:

What who should know about quantum A guide to the quantum world

Quantum computers, quantum dot displays and a quantum of comfort: little by little, terms and technologies from quantum physics are trickling into everyday life. Those who want to know more often read sentences like “Quanta contradict our thinking” or the quote from Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynmann: “I think it’s safe to say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” So is there little hope for anyone without a PhD in physics? Rainer Müller, Professor of Physics Didactics at TU Braunschweig, is convinced of the opposite – too.

The word quantum is migrating more and more into society and, in case of doubt, fills every plot hole in motion pictures. But what is actually behind it? Picture Credits: Jackie Niam/Adobe Stock, Claudia Hurtig/TU Braunschweig

Professor Müller, as a scientist in the QuantumFrontiers cluster of excellence and the Quantum Valley Lower Saxony, you are close to the current topics of quantum research. Is it really possible to understand them?

Actually, we are bringing these very current research topics, packaged in MasterClasses, into schools. The 50-year-old quote by Richard Feynman is therefore more than outdated: there are many who have understood quantum physics. The quantum computers currently being developed are a good example of this. We are no longer standing in awe on the threshold of a misunderstood world, but are now building new technologies based on these once seemingly mysterious phenomena.

You don’t need a doctorate to understand the basics of quantum physics. That’s what we’ve been working on for 25 years in subject didactics. Our milq-concept, for example, has become a certain standard for learning quantum physics at school. With the concept of the “essential features of quantum physics”, we have a way to prepare the most difficult topics with simple means. If you do this long enough, quantum physics becomes understandable. For those who can’t get into the quantum world via the school route, I recommend the acatech Horizons, for example.

How long is “long enough”?

It does take some time and perseverance. After all, you have to say goodbye to cherished ideas from time to time. Since the mathematics behind quantum mechanics is indeed extremely demanding, we solve the problems of understanding at the language level. So it’s about learning to talk about quantum physics in the right way.

In school, we achieve good results with this after just a few weeks, i.e. about ten school lessons. The pupils then often notice how fixed everyday ideas collide with the new knowledge. For example, if you notice that you have just said something wrong, you are already far advanced.

Rainer Müller, Head of the Department of Physics and Physics Didactics, is part of the “Quantum Valley Lower Saxony” team. Picture credits: Foto Artmann

With a view to the quantum computer, we will probably have more and more devices around us in the future that seem almost magical. Do we need to understand this technology?

(Laughs) We are already walking through a world of things that we don’t understand. I don’t know how my smartphone works either. Not everyone needs to know everything either. But we must at least give everyone the opportunity to be informed.

Corona and 5G also show that this is not enough. We have to go much more from science into society and promote enlightened thinking. We need to show, for example, how quantum computers help society by modelling new active ingredients for medicines. Under no circumstances should we lose acceptance.

The words “quantum” and “quanta” now appear in a wide variety of contexts. Who should actually know what?

Most acutely, quantum issues affect students and employees in industries that have contact with quantum technologies. In the future, people will be programming quantum computers who no longer need to understand the hardware itself. So it is not necessary to know all the details. It’s more important that the word “quantum” doesn’t scare people. We also need to educate people now who can then see where quantum technologies can help. But the most important thing now is to motivate children in schools to enter the world of quantum. I believe that for many, the new quantum technologies are a very exciting topic: quantum computers are the new “Rocket Science”.

Thank you very much.