Thesis: Quantum Carnival

How can I make a difficult subject– for example, science– fun and encourage people to explore it further?

Step right up, and enter the Quantum Carnival!  

Quantum Carnival is a proposal for a museum exhibition that presents key principles of quantum physics in the form of a carnival sideshow performance.  

Concepts like Schrödinger’s Cat experiment, the double slit experiment, relativity, Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty, multiverse theory/butterfly effect, probability, and others are shown as sideshow acts or staged as carnival games.  

A central goal of this project is to cut through the widespread perception that quantum physics is too complex for most people to understand, by offering an introduction to this important and fascinating scientific field in an engaging and playful way.  

The smoke-and-mirror aesthetics of turn-of-the century fairgrounds is well-suited to explaining principles of quantum physics, due to its penchant for playfully blurring the lines of reality and uncertainty. Embracing the performative, welcoming, and down-to-earth tone that has come to define this unique part of American culture allows audiences an immediate, appealing connection to quantum physics – which, just like the sideshows that dotted the boardwalks and campgrounds of the early 20th century, is full of mind-bending wonder that can truly astound.  

For my undergrad thesis, I looked into speculative biology. New Eden showed a fictional world. An alternate Earth elsewhere in space filled with ocean giants and living dinosaur-like reptiles. A little more science fiction, but the research was grounded in science truth.

So it wasn’t surprising that I would continue this with another topic. This time something a little more tricky to illustrate and explain.

On top of reading and familiarizing my concepts, I begun sketching ideas for the experience and exploring  a potential performative facilitated experience with my prototype. Part of our initial Thesis projects, we were required to create a diorama or Cornell Box as an inspiration for our concept.  I also considered other things such as constructing a literal Cabinet of Wonder, building out of an antique suitcase, and magician’s box.

If I’m honest, this came first. After all, finding the aesthetic of the projected would determine the possible print media elements and such. I took a weekend looking into many different posters, looking at typographic samples and compiling a palette that  I believed best evoked the Carnival/Sideshow posters of old. In reality, I painted the posters last, after building the trunk.

And as such, when I decided my concepts to Illustrate, they had to have a certain element of strange wonder to it.  Either taking some concepts morel literally (The Quantum Immortal being a headless woman–both dead and alive– just as Schrodinger’s Cat.), like and twisting others to almost anthropomorphize them.  (The Refracted Man being a representation of the Double Slit Experiment.)

These are a rough sketch walk through of the exhibit. Ideally made with a mix of live acting, animatronics, like the old days, and juxtaposing new technologies such a projection mapping and interactive screens, maybe even holographic projection ala Pepper’s Ghost.

What was going to be three boxes eventually became the concept of 3 sideshow acts, 2 games, and 5 interactive elements.

The Trunk of Uncertainty Process:

Is the light in your fridge on or off? How do you know? When you open the door it’s on– unless it is broken– but we’ll assume it’s working. It could be on or off when the door is closed- there could be a little party going on and you would never know because when you open the door, everything changes.

And that is Heisenberg’s principle of Uncertainty in its simplest form. And that is how the Trunk of Uncertainty came to be. 

My Trunk of Uncertainty is a prototype for a carnival style guessing game to help illustrate that concept of uncertainty I’ve just explained. 

A facilitator would be there like a carnival game to encourage interactivity and help explain the concept as they play, as well provide a sort of reward (click) following the game tradition. Because let’s face it, we like free things, and as a species tend to be reward motivated.

The trunk itself is a restored wooden box acquired from a junk shop, stripped of its paint, stained, lined, and modified for the electronics. Press the button on the trunk, and using the trinket M0 microcontroller, determines randomly to turn the LED light bulb on or off in an unpredictable way. The code is not 100% truly random,but presents itself enough to be unpredictable.

Research | Suggested Reading:

  • Chown, M. (2006). The quantum zoo: a tourist’s guide to the neverending universe. Washington, D.C: Joseph Henry Press.Davies, H. (Director). (2002).
  • Copehagen[Motion picture on Online Streaming]. United Kingdom: BBC.
  • Cox, B., & Forshaw, J. R. (2012). The quantum universe: everything that can happen does happen. London: Allen Lane.
  • Ferrie, C. (2017). Quantum physics for babies. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Jabberwocky.
  • Gamow, G., & Hookham, J. (2013). Mr Tompkins in paperback. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Munroe, R. (2015). What if?: serious scientific answers to absurd hypothetical questions. London: John Murray.
  • Norman, D. A. (2013). The design of everyday things. London: MIT Press.
  • Leterrier, L. (Director). (2013). Now You See Me[Motion picture on DVD]. United States: Summit Entertainment.
  • Rose, D. (2014). Enchanted objects: design, human desire, and the Internet of things. New York: Scribner.
  • Lubar, S. D. (2017). Inside the lost museum: Curating, past and present. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • SAPOLSKY, R. M. (2018). BEHAVE: the biology of humans at our best and worst. S.l.: VINTAGE.
  • Sparrow, G., & Hughes, D. W. (2014). Physics in minutes. London: Quercus.
  • Spiro, R., & Chan, I. (2017). Baby loves quantum physics!Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge.
  • Tesla, N. (2016). Famous Scientific Illusions. Lanham: Dancing Unicorn Books.
  • Coen, J. (Director). (2001). The man who wasn’t there[Motion picture on Online Streaming]. United States: USA Films.
  • Weschler, L. (1996). Mr. Wilsons cabinet of wonder. New York: Vintage Books.

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