I’m currently writing a lecture about…well I’m not quite sure what it is going to be about yet. It’s an IOP evening lecture, and I want it to be awesome.
It’s entitled: Quantum Computing – The end of the silicon chip?
For a start that’s a misnomer as Quantum Computing devices are still, for the most part, made on Silicon chips 🙂 But the idea is that there is a materials revolution in there as well as a shift in computational paradigm.
I want to do a slightly unusual style of lecture where I talk about lots of really cool stuff. I want to get some brains in there somehow so I’m going to talk about the applications of QCs to neural networks. I also want to get in there the idea of how you actually make integrated circuits, what is actually INSIDE your iPhone, and just how awesome the engineering that goes on to produce that kind of thing is. I have a hunch that there’s nothing on the National Curriculum about that kind of stuff. (There certainly wasn’t when I was taught at school). I also want to get some LN2 demos in there as schools always love this kind of stuff.
I’m actually not a great fan of the current demo that I routinely give to audiences of varying sizes. The format generally goes like: Low temp Physics -> Superconductivity -> JJ/SQUIDs -> Quantum Computing.
Why is this bad?
Well, one problem I find with this style of lecture is that you get onto the cool stuff (from my POV) at the end (hell, we make stuff colder than interstellar space and then make it quantum compute. We exploit the power of the multiverse, b*tches!) but in order to get to that bit you have to explain superconductivity, and in order to explain that you first have to talk about lots of low temperature experiments and properties of solids, liquids and gases, blah blah. So what actually happens is that you do all the LN2 demos at the start, and then the audience gets really bored at the end. I also just don’t think that superconductors have the same WOW factor that they used to. I give this lecture so many times and talking about things like High Temperature Superconductivity being cutting edge research just doesn’t do it for schoolkids anymore (it’s also not true). And they’ve all seen the floating magnet and the liquid nitrogen before. It’s sometimes embarrassing…
The second problem is that the EMPHASIS is all wrong. You shouldn’t try to entice kids into Physics by throwing liquid Nitrogen at them, putting balloons and flowers and bananas and *insert your favourite normally-at-room-temperature item here* into cryogenic liquids. It’s quite fun for them to watch at the time, but it’s actually quite psychologically deceitful. Believe it or not, physicists don’t actually dip bananas into cryogens as part of their normal working day.
In fact what we do is even cooler, and getting across a sense of why is much more difficult. But it is also a much more rewarding challenge. So…what I shall try to do is either play down the easy-but-somewhat-irrelevant demos, make the later stuff more awesome, or intersperse the demos through the talk somehow. I suspect I will implement a combination of the latter two.
I also think that these kind of lectures are not supposed to teach kids what we already know about Physics. We should teach them that there’s a lot we don’t know. That is what will probably make them want to be scientists in the future. So explaining the ideal gas law is all very well and good, but they can do that in class. By holding these research lectures, we should inspire and humbly explain that as a scientific community we really don’t know enough, but it’s a great challenge to face that unknown. To teach them that this is where we are stuck, and that’s why we need people like you guys sitting in the audience to ace your science classes now, and help us out in the future.
I’m probably going to blog about the progress of this as I write it. Hey, I might even get some more people attending! I’m thinking of doing a RI Christmas lecture style thing with lots of visuals, demos, audience participation, microscope connected to projector. etc. I’m going to try to get a volunteer to dress up in a cleanroom suit and bring him/her into the lecture theatre to illustrate the idea of humans+fab=bad…any takers? 😀