Imagine you have a pair of quantum dice. You put the dice in your cup, throw them, and they are both a “six.” You do it again, and they’re both a “three.” You do it again, and they’re both a “one.” No matter how many times you throw the dice, they are always the same number. This is a seemingly random process, but quantum entanglement ensures that these dice will always act in unison.
The thought of tackling quantum entanglement in your classroom can be intimidating. Even Albert Einstein was skeptical of the concept, calling it “spooky action at a distance,” and didn’t think it was possible. If this was a tough sell for Einstein, how can you teach this idea to middle and high school students?
Quantum physics are the laws that govern subatomic particles. It can help explain the movements, interactions, and behaviors of very small things like photons and electrons. How small are particles in the subatomic world? Imagine something a million times smaller than the width of a human hair, or making a soccer ball into the size of the Earth and moving inside. This is how we can understand the scale of the world of atoms and subatomic particles.
Quantum physics is rooted in probability. An electron doesn’t have a specific location in space until it is looked for or detected. When we picture an atom, we often imagine its electrons orbiting the atom’s nucleus in clear defined paths. However, electrons are not the ever-present tiny spheres we imagine them to be. They are really a “fuzzy wave of probability,” ready to be in an infinite amount of locations around the nucleus of an atom until we look at it. The simple act of observing an electron changes the electron’s location.
Quantum entanglement takes this idea one step further, and is a phenomenon where two particles act in unison, no matter the distances between them. Unlike a row of dominoes that rely on the actions of each previous domino to be knocked down over time, entangled particles change instantly once one is detected, no matter how far apart they may be. For example, if a particle on Earth is entangled with a particle in the Andromeda galaxy, they will change at the exact same time once a change is made to one of the particles.
While quantum physics pertains to the smallest units in the universe, the ways in which it impacts our daily lives are immense. Quantum theory played a role in the Manhattan Project and the atom bomb and in the development of lasers and transistors. Our increasingly digital world relies on quantum entanglement to send encrypted messages and quantum computers with massive processing power to solve problems a normal computer could never accomplish.
Quantum physics impacts the technology students use every day. Use these resources from NOVA broadcasts, NOVA Digital, and What the Physics!? to introduce quantum concepts to your students.
Einstein’s Quantum Riddle Resources
Quantum Entanglement: Conceptualize quantum entanglement, the idea that particles can instantaneously influence each other even when they are spatially separated, in this video from NOVA: Einstein’s Quantum Riddle.
Wave Particle Duality of Electrons: Conceptualize the nonintuitive idea that electrons can behave both as a wave and a particle (wave–particle duality) in this video from NOVA: Einstein’s Quantum Riddle.
Collecting Evidence for Quantum Entanglement: Learn why different experimental designs were needed to collect evidence for quantum entanglement in this media gallery of videos from NOVA: Einstein’s Quantum Riddle.
What the Physics!? Resources
Seeing Quantum with the Naked Eye: How can you train yourself to be a quantum detector? You can detect quantum mechanics all over—if you know how to look for it. In this episode of What the Physics!? find out how simply squinting at a lamp reveals the quantum nature of light.
The Biggest Puzzle in Physics: Sometimes the biggest puzzle in physics seems like the worst relationship in the universe. Quantum mechanics and general relativity are the two best theories in physics, but they have never been able to get along. Find out why in this episode of What the Physics!?
NOVA Digital Resources
Quantum Confidential: Watch how a technique called quantum cryptography could save a state secret from falling into enemy hands in this video from NOVA Digital.
Quantum Physics to Protect Votes: Voters want to be assured that every election is fraud-proof and hack-free. With the help of quantum mechanics, it’s possible to do just that — encrypt and transmit a vote in ways that can’t be tampered with.