Physicist Bob Coecke: ‘It’s easier to convince kids than adults about quantum mechanics’

  • December 16, 2023
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The Belgian physicist and industrial musician on replacing maths with pictures, why he’s now working in industry – and why we all need to understand subatomic physics

Belgian physicist and musician Prof Bob Coecke, 55, wants to teach quantum physics to a mass audience. The paradox-filled theory that describes the microscopic realm has become a staple of science fiction, from Marvel’s Ant-Man to the multiple Oscar-winning Everything Everywhere All at Once. It’s famously bizarre and, in the UK, the subject is mostly reserved for undergraduates specialising in physics because it requires grappling with complicated maths. But Coecke, a former Oxford professor, has devised a maths-free framework using diagrams for total beginners, outlined in Quantum in Pictures, his book with Dr Stefano Gogioso that was published earlier this year. Over the summer, they ran an education experiment, teaching the pictorial method to UK schoolchildren – who then beat the average exam scores of Oxford University’s postgraduate physics students.

Quantum physics is notoriously esoteric. Why should most people even want to study it?
Think about AI. Think about how the world is getting fucked up now. Billion-dollar companies are in charge of a revolution that could control the world and nobody understands what they are doing. I used to be an Oxford professor for 20 years and now I work in industry, with Quantinuum, building quantum computers [machines designed to exploit subatomic physics to one day outperform conventional computers]. We want people to understand what we’re doing from the start, before the technology becomes huge. We want to make Stem [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] more inclusive, make quantum more inclusive. It’s completely counterintuitive, but within industry I can now do this educational experiment.

Bob Coecke is the author with Stefano Gogioso of Quantum in Pictures: A New Way to Understand the Quantum World (Quantinuum)

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