“What’s the hardest problem you’ve ever solved?”

Kids focus right in. Driven by a ruthless curiosity, they ask questions from which adults often shy away. Which is great, if you think you know the answer to everything a 7 year-old can possibly ask you…

Two Wednesdays ago, I was invited to participate in three Q&A sessions that quickly turned into Reddit-style AMA (ask-me-anything) sessions over Skype with four 5th grade classes and one 2nd grade class of students at Medina Elementary in Medina, Washington. When asked by the organizers what I would like the sessions to focus on, I initially thought of introducing students to the mod I helped design for Minecraft, called QCraft, which brings concepts like quantum entanglement and quantum superposition into the world of Minecraft. But then I changed my mind. I told the organizers that I would talk about anything the kids wanted to know more about. It dawned on me that maybe not all 5th graders are as excited about quantum physics as I am. Yet.

The students took the bait. They peppered me with questions for over two hours —everything from “What is a quantum physicist and how do you become one?” to “What is it like to work with a fashion designer (about my collaboration with Project Runway’s Alicia Hardesty on Project X Squared)?” and of course, “Why did you steal the cannon?” (learn more about the infamous Cannon Heist – yes kids, there is an ongoing war between the two schools and Caltech took the last (hot) shot just days ago.)”

Caltech students visited MIT bearing some clever gifts.

Caltech students visited MIT during pre-frosh weekend, bearing some clever gifts.

Then they dug a little deeper: “If we have a quantum computer that knows the answer to everything, why do we need to go to school?” This question was a little tricky, so I framed the answer like this: I compared the computer to a sidekick, and the kids—the future scientists, artists and engineers —to superheroes. Sidekicks always look up to the superheroes for guidance and leadership. And then I got this question from a young girl: “If we are superheroes, what should we do with all this power?” I thought about it for a second and though my initial inclination was to go with: “You should make Angry Birds 3D!”, I went with this instead: “People often say, “Study hard so that one day you can cure cancer, figure out the theory of everything and save the world!” But I would rather see you all do things to understand the world. Sometimes you think you are saving the world when it does not need saving—it is just misunderstood. Find ways to understand one another and move to look for the value in others. Because there is always value in others, often hiding from us behind powerful emotions.” The kids listened in silence and, in that moment, I felt profoundly connected with them and their teachers.

I wasn’t expecting any more “deep” questions, until another young girl raised her hand and asked: “Can I be a quantum physicist, or is it only for the boys?” The ferocity of my answer caught me by surprise: “Of course you can! You can do anything you set your mind to and anyone who tells you otherwise, be it your teachers, your friends or even your parents, they are just wrong! In fact, you have the potential to leave all the boys in the class behind!” The applause and laughter from all the girls sounded even louder among the thunderous silence from the boys. Which is when I realized my mistake and added: “You boys can be superheroes too! Just make sure not to underestimate the girls. For your own sake.

Why did I feel so strongly about this issue of women in science? Caltech has a notoriously bad reputation when it comes to the representation of women among our faculty and postdocs (graduate students too?) in areas such as Physics and Mathematics. IQIM has over a dozen male faculty members in its roster and only one woman: Prof. Nai-Chang Yeh. Anyone who meets Prof. Yeh quickly realizes that she is an intellectual powerhouse with boundless energy split among her research, her many students and requests for talks, conference organization and mentoring. Which is why, invariably, every one of the faculty members at IQIM feels really strongly about finding a balance and creating a more inclusive environment for women in science. This is a complex issue that requires a lot of introspection and creative ideas from all sides over the long term, but in the meantime, I just really wanted to tell the girls that I was counting on them to help with understanding our world, as much as I was counting on the boys. Quantum mechanics? They got it. Abstract math? No problem.*

It was of course inevitable that they would want to know why we created the Minecraft mod, a collaborative work between Google, MinecraftEDU and IQIM – after all, when I asked them if they had played Minecraft before, all hands shot up. Both IQIM and Google think it is important to educate younger generations about quantum computers and the complex ideas behind quantum physics; and more importantly, to meet kids where they play, in this case, inside the Minecraft game. I explained to the kids that the game was a place where they could experiment with concepts from quantum mechanics and that we were developing other resources to make sure they had a place to go to if they wanted to know more (see our animations with Jorge Cham at http://phdcomics.com/quantum).

As for the hardest problem I have ever solved? I described it in my first blog post here, An Intellectual Tornado. The kids sat listening in some sort of trance as I described the nearly perilous journey through the lands of “agony” and “self doubt” and into the valley of “grace”, the place one reaches when they learn to walk next to their worst fears, as understanding replaces fear and respect for a far superior opponent teaches true humility and instills in you a sense of adventure. By that time, I thought I was in the clear – as far as fielding difficult questions from 10 year-olds goes – but one little devil decided to ask me this simple question: “Can you explain in 2 minutes what quantum physics is?” Sure! You see kids, emptiness, what we call the quantum vacuum, underlies the emergence of spacetime through the build-up of correlations between disjoint degrees of freedom, we like to call entangled subsystems. The uniqueness of the Schmidt decomposition over generic quantum states, coupled with concentration of measure estimates over unequal bipartite decompositions gives rise to Schrodinger’s evolution and the concept of unitarity – which itself only emerges in the thermodynamic limit. In the remaining minute, let’s discuss the different interpretations of the following postulates of quantum mechanics: Let’s start with measurements…

Reaching out to elementary school kids is just one way we can make science come alive, and many of us here at IQIM look forward to sharing with kids of any age our love for adventuring far and wide to understand the world around us. In case you are an expert in anything, or just passionate about something, I highly recommend engaging the next generation through visits to classrooms and Skype sessions across state lines. Because, sometimes, you get something like this from their teacher:

Hello Dr. Michalakis,

My class was lucky enough to be able to participate in one of the Skype chats you did with Medina Elementary this morning. My students returned to the classroom with so many questions, wonderings, concerns, and ideas that we could spend the remainder of the year discussing them all.

Your ability to thoughtfully answer EVERY single question posed to you was amazing. I was so impressed and inspired by your responses that I am tempted to actually spend the remainder of the year discussing quantum mechanics J.

I particularly appreciated your point that our efforts should focus on trying to “understand the world” rather than “save” the world. I work each day to try and inspire curiosity and wonder in my students. You accomplished more towards my goal in about 40 minutes than I probably have all year. For that I am grateful.

All the best,

* Several of my female classmates at MIT (where I did my undergraduate degree in Math with Computer Science) had a clarity of thought and a sense of perseverance that Seal Team Six would be envious of. So I would go to them for help with my hardest homework.