Helping people find out more

When trying to write the story, and work some science into it, it has become apparent that I can’t fully explain complex quantum phenomena in under 200 words. Shockingly. So I have decided to add a ‘Show Me’ link, which will link to a page with YouTube videos and web links. It will have the same background design. I’ve made one so far, but I have a lot to do:

New page – Science

I’ve put a new page up, with a table of the science I want to include, and ways to incorporate that into the story. I’ll post when I update it more.

Here’s what I’ve got so far…

Science Story
Alice and Bob are often used to explain different concepts in quantum theory, especially when talking about information transfer. They will be your companions in the virtual world, and at times you will see them in the distance, carrying out thought experiments.
The twins paradox – if you travel close to the speed of light, you age more slowly because time slows down. The ‘ending’ of one of the stories can be that you get on a very fast spaceship and return to find that everyone is long gone
Quantum tunnelling – alpha particles can escape the nucleus of an atom which they should be tightly bound into, due to the fact that there is a finite possibility that they are actually located outside it If the world was one where quantum effect were much more important, you might be able to run through walls. This might be a good use of a random number generator…
Schrodinger’s cat/wavefunction collapse – things exist in two states at once until someone observes them. So the cat is both alive and dead until you look at it, at which point the wavefunction collapses, and the cat is either dead or alive Your observation could change the way the story goes – there’s a choice to either look or not look, and looking might kill something/cause something undesirable

What’s in a name?

Well quite a lot actually. I’ve been thinking a lot about names. My initial idea was Alice in Quantumland, but I decided that that was a bit clichéd – and sure enough, there are lots of examples to show that this isn’t exactly a novel idea.

Instead, I thought that since the main link to quantum mechanics is through the idea that every decision creates a parallel universe, that calling the site ‘Parallel’ would work. I like this, because it encompasses lots of ideas – parallel universes, the idea that people can read in parallel to one another, the idea that the site ‘draws parallels’ with quantum ideas… ‘Parallel’ no longer looks like a word now.

Web Style Guide: Goals

I have just started working my way through the Web Style Guide, albeit in book form. It’s not a coding book, but instead focusses on how to overcome the particular design and style challenges which the web presents. It’s this aspect of the project which I’m concerned about. As I’ve said, coding won’t be too much of a problem – there are plenty of web guides out there for when I get stuck – but I’m not sure what real challenges the web presents, so it will be good to get more of an idea of that. The first paragraph seems particularly pertinent:

The first step in designing any web site is to define your goals. Without a clearly stated mission and objectives, the project will drift, bog down, or continue past an appropriate endpoint. Careful planning and a clear purpose are the keys to success in building web sites, particularly when you are working as part of a development team.

via Process | Web Style Guide 3.

So, what are my goals?

  • I guess the most important thing is to communicate some of the wonder of quantum mechanics. There are some astonishing things happening at a quantum level, and they are not impossible to explain to a lay person.
  • I’d also like to communicate the science through story and play. I’m aiming this at a young audience, who in general don’t like to be lectured to. I’d like the learning element to be quite unnoticeable, so that they learn a small bit about it, but the main thing they take away is the wonder.
  • I’d also like it to be entertaining enough to be shared between peers, for the entertainment value, not the learning potential. This influences not only the storylines, but also the look and feel of the site – I don’t want it to look educational.

Inspiration strikes

Warning: this post is rather physics-heavy, as it’s very much written for me. I’ll do a much better job of communicating it on the site. Possibly.

Inspiration came from re-reading Marcus Chown’s book The Universe Next Door, which contains lots of strange theories about the way the Universe works – including ideas like parallel universes and time travel. I think I’d like to do a story where the protagonist somehow falls into another world, where quantum effects are much more important. Perhaps the protagonist could be shrunk (this leaves scope for them to grow to then see general relativistic effects). There are lots of very weird effects at the quantum level – like particles teleporting through barriers – which can be quite simply explained. The user’s task would be to get out of the other universe – perhaps by finding Einstein or Feynman to help. I could also get some history of science in – people like Newton and Descartes who would not have liked quantum uncertainty.

This has the really nice twist of being a story about parallel universes which creates them: at each decision point, there are two (or more) possible futures. The user decides which future universe to enter, and leaves the others behind – but they still exist within the website, only the user cannot access them, or know how the story would unfold there.

Website names – not sure. Alice in quantumland? Nice, as also makes reference to ‘Alice’ , who is often used along with ‘Bob’ to conduct thought experiments in physics. However it might be a bit gender specific. Does Alice and Bob in quantumland have the same ring to it?!

Thinking of Alice and Bob, they would need to be your companions in this world – they are used to explain many things – so that could be the first branching point: go with Alice, go with Bob, or go it alone…

I’d need to get a bit more up-to-date information to do this, so I’ll dig out Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You (also by Chown), to look for the more up to date stuff. I’ll use his books as a base, because he writes popular science books, so the topics he picks will be the easiest to popularise.

CSI investigations

Sorry for the exciting looking title – no such luck. I’m actually having a look around the forensics idea first. I’m a bit dubious about it – there are too many forensic graduates in the country anyway, and this would just reinforce the misguided idea that forensics is like CSI. However, it would be good to explore some of the science behind the methods, things like how UV light for blood detection works, how fingerprint analysis works.

One similar thing I found is this, which in my opinion doesn’t really work. When I didn’t know which tool to use, I just randomly clicked on tools until one of them worked. This didn’t really teach me anything, and I got bored very quickly. This site on the other hand, is very good. It’s close to what I would want to do – it shows real science techniques in an interesting way, and doesn’t shy away from terminology. However, it does demonstrate to me that this sort of thing looks best when it is very image-heavy, and I don’t think I have the time to do a project this detailed, so I shall have to leave this particular idea for now.

Ideas for stories

As I see it, there are three main options for the storyline:

  1. Solving a real scientific mystery, one which has already been solved (lots of good examples here. This would have the advantage of having solid science communication content. This idea would teach the user about the area of science, as well as about the scientific method in that particular field.

The story that immediately springs to mind is the <a href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_neutrino_problem”solar neutrino problem. This came from an experiment to measure how many neutrinos (a special type of particle, smaller than an atom) were being created from by the Sun. The experiment showed that the Sun appeared to be producing only a third of the expected amount of neutrinos. The reason this would work well for this type of story is that scientists had lots of candidates for what had gone wrong: either the experiment was wrong, or we don’t understand something about the Sun, about nuclear physics, or about neutrinos. There are lots of dead ends, which makes it a good candidate. Also, I have done a lot of research on the topic for other reasons, so this would be (comparatively) easy to write.

The big con for this idea is that it can never be truly interactive. Because it is a story which actually happened, the user cannot truly influence the outcome, which could defeat the point of the project. Also, neutrino physics, and the eventual solution of the problem, is out of the realm of even some undergraduate courses, so the subject may be too advanced for the audience.

  1. Solving a fake scientific mystery. The obvious candidate for this is a forensic crime scene investigation – so you have to ‘spot’ clues, and interview witnesses. This would be more difficult for me, as it wouldn’t be using the science I know, but I have a colleague at the University of Kent, which has an on-site forensics lab: perhaps I could do some filming there. The science behind each test can be explained, and this might help dispel some of the myths about CSI!

My worry with this one is that it may need lots of animation to make it do-able, which could get very time consuming. Writing a multi-storyline website is quite a big challenge as it is, and if I want to try and include some multimedia, then animations could just make the project an impossible task. I also worry that this may have been done before.

  1. Solving some kind of mystery where you have to do science/maths puzzles to unlock clues. Here, the story wouldn’t be the main way to communicate the science, so I’m worried that the science content wouldn’t come across, but I do like this idea as a way to get some dialogue going – there could be an accompanying discussion forum, where people could talk about the puzzles.

I think the final product will be a combination of these ideas, drawing from each. I like bits of all of them, but none of them quite work at the moment. I’ll do some more research (again), and see if there’s anything similar out there to draw inspiration from…