March meeting outreach activities make an impact on Minneapolis

3/27/2024 10:21:39 PM Sarah Maria Hagen

IQUIST members led programming to engage the public at this year’s APS March Meeting, the largest annual gathering of physicists in the United States – the attendees in Minneapolis numbered over 10,000 this year! However, the conference is also an ideal venue to engage the public in science and leave a mark on the local community.

A good way to capture the interest of non-scientists is by tapping into the Nobel Prize which receives a lot of public attention on an annual basis. The past year’s physics prize was awarded in part to Anne L’Huillier and Pierre Agostini for their efforts in developing the technology creating attosecond light pulses allowing researchers to study electron movements.  In addition, this past year’s chemistry prize, awarded for the development of quantum dots, is closely intertwined with physics, and Moungi Bawendi, one of the recipients, presented at the conference.

This year, the organizers—including Illinois Physics Professor Smitha Vishveshwara who served as last meeting's Chair and this meeting's Past Chair—sought to host the Nobel laureates as part of a thoughtful opening session for the conference. The session, “Honoring 2023 Nobel Science: Attosecond Physics, Quantum Dots, Human Rights,” included an outward-looking perspective in honoring the physics and chemistry laureates alongside their peace prize counterpart, Narges Mohammadi. Mohammadi, who is currently imprisoned in Iran, received a bachelor’s degree in physics as well as the APS Sakharov Prize for Human Rights in 2018. L'Huillier, Agostini, Bawendi and Mohammadi were all featured as part of the session.

“Bringing the launch session together led us to several incredible people and much soul-searching as we sought to strike the right balance and to share the message of human rights, peace, and science for all,” Vishveshwara says, who later presented about the event’s coordination at the session “Breaking Barriers in Physics.”

Past Chair Smitha Vishveshwara speaking at the APS March Meeting Opening Nobel Session (Courtesy Lauren Hernandez, APS)
Past Chair Smitha Vishveshwara speaking at the APS March Meeting Opening Nobel Session (Courtesy Lauren Hernandez, APS)



LabEscape, the “world’s first” science-based escape room, was also prominent at the March Meeting. It is the brainchild of Illinois Physics Professor Paul Kwiat who started the project several years ago. Since then, players, or “agents,” participating in the escape room have seen various missions, including new versions featured at the meeting.

“We interact with people from all over the world here,” Kwiat explains. “The hope is to make connections and reach a wider group of individuals.”

The puzzles to be solved as part of the escape room touch on various quantum concepts including qubits, superposition and entanglement. “We also talk about why quantum computing is better than classical computing,” says Kwiat, who presented the initiative at a session on outreach.

The missions ran continuously with close to 400 conference attendees given a chance to save the world, including over 60 middle and high school students.

“It was kind of a requirement for me that we would be able to have local school students come through and give them an exposure to the broader quantum realm and physics in general,” Kwiat says. He is also quick to point to LabEscape’s ability to get that audience in the door, adding that “Because they are already here, some might go to talks or check out the exhibit hall. The hope is also that they will see hundreds and hundreds of physicists interacting socially instead of just standing around in a white lab coat.”

On Sunday, Anton, a Twin Cities resident and former scientist, chaperoned a group of middle school boys after hearing about LabEscape’s presence from local physics groups. “Everyone who is doing it is really passionate about it,” he said.

The group was just one of many that day, with missions running from morning until late at night. With all those sequential missions, the graduate students who make up the LabEscape crew had their work cut out for them.

“LabEscape is, in some ways, a live performance event where the audience members are the lead actors, and they don’t have the script. As the ones running LabEscape, we’re both supporting actors and the tech crew. As such, much like science, things don’t always go according to plan,” says Benjamin Nussbaum, a graduate student in the Kwiat group and part of the LabEscape crew at the conference.

“It is a delicate act to keep our puzzles intact, participants engaged, and science digestible,” adds Aarya Mehta, an undergraduate crew member.

However, all the hard work is justified by the immensely positive reception of the initiative by conference attendees and local visitors alike. Another graduate student crew member, Ujaan Purakayastha summarizes: “There is nothing more rewarding than seeing people enthralled by a puzzle or their experience of the room. When both junior high and high school students with little to no laboratory experience and graduate-level physicists exclaim with wonder over puzzles, all the effort seems worth it! It is important to break the notion that science is inaccessible, hard and not fun.”



LabEscape participants are given a briefing by Professor Paul Kwiat before attempting their mission.
LabEscape participants are given a briefing by Professor Paul Kwiat before attempting their mission.


Another avenue for outreach featured at the March Meeting is the recently inaugurated Public Quantum Network. In Minneapolis, Illinois Physics graduate student Keshav Kapoor presented an overview of the network’s launch event in November.

Kapoor is the research groups of Kwiat as well as Illinois Physics Professor Virginia (Gina) Lorenz, who collaborated in this endeavor to make quantum science accessible to the public in a quite literal manner. The task is not as easy as it might seem. Kapoor details how he contributed to constructing a source of photons – light particles that have a quantum nature that can carry quantum information over long distances – as well as the measurement device used to demonstrate the existence of entanglement (the phenomenon necessary for many quantum protocols) between Lorenz’s physics laboratory and a public library over a mile away.

“I was motivated to present at the March Meeting because we think we have done something unique in launching the Public Quantum Network and we want to share our experience doing something not traditionally done in a research setting with other physicists,” Kapoor says.

Previous March Meetings served as an inspiration and foundation for this year’s outreach activities. LabEscape’s first March Meeting appearance was in Boston in 2019. Kwiat notes that “that was much harder.” Not only was Minneapolis a shorter drive from Urbana, Illinois, but more students were on hand to help run the missions, as well as a supportive convention center staff.

Based on previous experience, the design of the missions themselves were adapted for this year’s appearance and emphasized outreach. According to Kwiat, “We’ve had a lot more school students this time so we came up with rather different versions of the scenarios so that it would be more tailored to them and they would get more out of it. The whole storyline is upgraded now as well.”

Graduate student Keshav Kapoor presents at the March Meeting.
Graduate student Keshav Kapoor presents at the March Meeting.


2019 also marked the appearance of “Quantum Voyages”, a performance piece by Vishveshwara and Illinois Teaching Professor of Theatre Studies Latrelle Bright which premiered at Illinois Nobel laureate Tony Leggett's 80th birthday celebration. Vishveshwara then co-created “Cosmic Tumbles and Quantum Leaps” for the 2023 Las Vegas meeting for which she served as Chair, a collaboration with Los Angeles-based Le Petit Cirque.

“Authenticity is key, but the whole performance needs to be staged and performative,” Vishveshwara says, reflecting on insights from such interdisciplinary work. Overall, it has been a joy to witness how a blend of deep physics and stirring art can reach a diverse audience."

Physicists and non-physicists alike can be assured of a continued large quantum (outreach) presence at next year’s March Meeting in Anaheim, CA. Meeting organizers, including Vishveshwara, are sure to capitalize on the significance of 2025 as the International Year of Quantum Science and Technology and the meeting’s location in the influential Los Angeles region.  

“We are re-envisioning ‘Quantum Voyages’ in big ways for next year’s celebration of the International Year of Quantum,” Vishveshwara promises.