Call it a Marvel-ous entanglement: some of the nation’s leading experts in quantum science and multiverse games gathered Wednesday night in downtown Chicago with the general public for an advanced screening of Marvel’s newest film, “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” followed by a discussion about quantum science on film and in real life.
Quantum information science and engineering is dedicated to understanding how our world works on the smallest scale: the subatomic level. Electricity, magnetism, light—all the phenomena we interact with on a daily basis are driven by principles found in quantum mechanics.
Among the panelists was David Awschalom, professor at the UChicago’s Pritzker Molecular Engineering, senior scientist at Argonne National Laboratory, and director of the Chicago Quantum Exchange.
“One of the most entertaining aspects of tonight is that we’re all getting a chance to explore inner-space,” said Awschalom. “Quantum science operates on rules that seem strange and counterintuitive, and yet we’re making great strides every day. Quantum technology is being developed right now around the world. Here in Chicago there is a quantum network running beneath us, creating and distributing quantum entanglement across the suburbs, transmitting quantum states tens of thousands of times per second.”
Throughout the movie, Ant-Man/Scott Lang (played by Paul Rudd) encounters several quantum principles as he and his family navigate the bizarre and otherworld “quantum realm.” In one scene, Ant-Man encounters a “probability storm,” in which every potential choice is manifested as a different version of himself, creating a veritable army of Ant-Mans. This probability storm is a creative representation of superposition, a quantum principle in which objects can exist in multiple states simultaneous, and it’s only after they are measured that their probability collapses and they are reduced to a single state.
Putting the science in sci-fi
Following the movie, panelists discussed superposition, along with other phenomena that appeared in the film—spending extra time on the question of time travel, and whether time travel is possible as it’s depicted in Marvel movies. The panel was moderated by Kate Waimey Timmerman, the CEO of the Chicago Quantum Exchange, a consortium headquartered at UChicago's Pritzker Molecular Engineering that includes UChicago, Argonne, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Northwestern University. The CQE convenes leading academic researchers, top scientific facilities, and innovative industry partners to advance quantum science.
“I won’t say that we can travel through time,” said panelist Gregory Grant, a PhD student studying quantum science and engineering at Pritzker Molecular Engineering and Argonne National Laboratory, and sci-fi enthusiast. “But quantum and time is a really interesting question. I can tell you that one thing we’re attempting is to put a photon into a superposition of right now and a time shortly in the future, between early and late. So, while there is no multiverse that we can access, we can nudge particles so that they arrive at different times.”
Games and virtual worlds also were a central topic, both in reference to the movie’s antagonist, Kang, and on their utility in engaging and educating new generations of the scientifically curious about concepts such as quantum superposition and time travel.
“This is a great moment to think about how you communicate about things like quantum science,” said Ashlyn Sparrow, learning technology director and lead game designer for the Weston Game Lab at University of Chicago’s Media Arts, Data and Design (MADD) Center. “As a game designer, I’m excited about all the possible ways that we can help students and future students learn these principles and be inspired to create things that we would have never thought about.”
The panel also featured Sunanda Prabhu-Gaunkar, director of science for Pritzker Molecular Engineering’s STAGE Lab at UChicago, who led demonstrations of the Quantum Casino in advance of the screening. The Quantum Casino is a suite of tabletop games aimed at introducing quantum principles to players in a way that’s engaging and accessible. The project was created by STAGE Lab, a full-scale laboratory focused on research at the intersection of art and science at Pritzker Molecular Engineering.
Chicago is Quantum City
Chicago already is home to some of the nation’s foremost institutions studying quantum science and engineering. Beyond the University of Chicago, the area hosts two national laboratories—Argonne and Fermilab—pursuing quantum science; two U.S. Department of Energy quantum centers (Q-NEXT and the SQMS Center); and Duality, the country’s first quantum accelerator. Chicago also has seen a boom in quantum startups over the past several years thanks to the collaboration between partners and investment by the state, and the city claims one of the longest quantum networks in the country, measuring 124 miles.
Some of the world’s most advanced quantum research takes place at Illinois’ Argonne National Laboratory, where scientists pursue materials for quantum information, quantum computing, and quantum sensing. Argonne also hosts Q-NEXT center, which brings together national laboratories, universities, and leading U.S. technology companies with the single goal of developing the science and technology to control and distribute quantum information.