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What can you learn at a quantum 'boot camp'?

27 Aug 2014 Tushna Commissariat

By Tushna Commissariat in Stockholm, Sweden

Google the word “quantum” and take a look at what comes up.

In addition to the obvious news articles about the latest developments in the field and the Wikipedia entries on quantum mechanics, you’ll undoubtedly come across a heap of other, seemingly random, stories.

I found, for example, a David Bowie song being compared to a quantum wavefunction (by none other than British science popularizer Brian Cox), as well as a new cruise ship being named Quantum of the Seas. Then there’s the usual jumble of pseudo-scientific “wellness” therapies that misguidedly adopt the word in a strange attempt to give their treatments some sort of credibility.

So while it seems that everyone is talking about quantum something or other, how much do we really understand this notoriously difficult subject? More to the point, how much do science journalists, like me, really know about the subject? I write stories about quantum mechanics from time to time for Physics World and the subject can, I assure you, be fiendish and quite mind-bending.

To try and really get to grips with quantum mechanics and all that it entails, I am currently attending a three-day workshop for science writers at the Nordic Institute for Theoretical Physics (NORDITA) in Stockholm, Sweden – a kind of quantum-physics “boot camp” in which science communicators have been invited to widen their grasp of the subject, as well as get the most up-to-date views from experts in the field.

The workshop also hopes to get a healthy dialogue going between researchers and journalists, with the aim of sussing out the pitfalls of communicating these tricky topics.

It has been organized by NORDITA physicist Sabine Hossenfelder, who last year wrote for the 25th-anniversary edition of Physics World, and journalist George Musser, who’s a contributing editor at Scientific American.

There’s a good mix of science writers and physicists in attendance, including Chad Orzel. But is it possible to hothouse journalists and researchers for 72 hours so that the media coverage of quantum physics is transformed into a slick reporting machine?

Stay tuned as I update you on this blog.

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