At Yass High School, around 50 students from years 9 to 12 explored some fascinating demonstrations of quantum technologies and dark matter science at work. The Quantum and Dark Matter Road Trip is a team of 25 scientists from universities around Australia. Travelling from Brisbane to Perth, they will be visiting 26 schools and doing 14 public events to spread the word about quantum technologies and dark matter. 

Scientist Kristen Harley is one of the scientists on the road trip and explained what the team is delivering to schools and why it is important. The first demonstration for students uses a rope to visually demonstrate where quantum originates. 

“Quantum comes from quantisation, and you can demonstrate with a rope why things come in quanta, which is where quantum comes from,” said Kristen. 

Another demonstration involves a pair of diamond earrings that act as a very sensitive sensor for magnetic fields when arranged with the correct optical set-up. Kristen explained the diamond earring demo is quite high-tech, with the pair of earrings surrounded by an optical set-up using laboratory equipment which makes the demonstration work. However, not all the demonstrations rely on equipment like this. 

“The galaxy rotation demo is literally foam balls tied with string to an umbrella, which is not fancy, but it shows us why we know dark matter must exist even though we can’t see, feel, or touch it,” said Kristen.

The road trip is an initiative of national science week and a collaboration between the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Engineer Quantum Systems(EQUS) and the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Dark Matter Particle Physics (CDM).

Road trip organiser and physicist Dr Ben McAllister, from CDM, EQUS, Swinburne Institute of Technology and the University of Western Australia, said the route had been carefully selected to visit rural and regional areas.

“We want to share the excitement of science, and physics in particular, with students and communities that might not otherwise have the opportunity to meet scientists face-to-face and learn about the cutting-edge science happening in Australia,” Dr McAllister said.

“We want to build a diverse scientific community and that means engaging with regional and rural people, along with those living in cities, to inspire them to consider a career in science and show them how fun physics can be.”

Kristen hopes the road trip will help students see science as a viable career path and inspire them to study and work in physics. She explained the relevance of quantum and dark matter sciences, which are two of the biggest fields to study. 

“Dark matter is one of the biggest mysteries in the world, there’s five times as much dark matter as there is regular matter that makes up people, planets, buildings, the world that we can see,” said Kristen.

“There’s five times as much dark matter, and we don’t actually know what it is. That’s a huge question at the moment and I think that’s really exciting for people to realise that there’s still these really big questions out there, and that they can be part of answering that.”

Quantum technologies are already in use in everyday life, such as phones, solar power, and fibre optic cables. However, according to Kristen, these technologies are based on a singular principle from quantum mechanics. Currently, we are in the midst of a second quantum revolution, where scientists are going further than this one principle to study quantum mechanics in its entirety, leading to another technological revolution.

Kristen explains that while scientists can predict some of the advancements a quantum revolution will bring, others will be a surprise. This is similar to how computing has brought advancements no one predicted at its beginning. 

“We’ve already seen better MRI because of quantum technologies in the sensing field. Some work that one of our researchers is doing at the university of Queensland, is to use quantum technologies to better image cells without destroying them,” said Kristen.

“At the moment, if you want to look at a cell in really fine detail, the way you do that is getting a stronger and stronger light. That will eventually kill the cell, and obviously if you’re trying to look at humans— that’s bad!”

Kristen said that during the road trip, students valued talking to real scientists and exploring what it’s like working in the fields of quantum and dark matter. She explains that sometimes physicists are portrayed a certain way on TV, so bringing real scientists into schools to talk to and answer questions is the most valuable part of the Quantum and Dark Matter Road Trip. Not only do students benefit from interacting with scientists, but the scientists themselves are also encouraged by visiting young students eager to learn. 

“I enjoy seeing the excitement and enthusiasm, and seeing the next generation of scientists and engineers be so engaged and willing to learn, and willing to take on these challenges,” said Kristen. 

Photo at top: Alerya Brayshaw, Bella Gavidi, Jacinta May from the University of Sydney and Izayah Casey

By Southerly Jones