Three Pints of Lager and a Quantum of Physics, Please

09/06/2016 11:08 | Updated 08 June 2017

"So what you're saying with this quantum particle stuff, right, is that it's like taking a single wave out of the ocean? We can't easily, um, isolate that one wave? We have to somehow freeze all the other waves?

Is that it? Have I got it?"

Well, sort of...

It's questions like those that mean I love speaking about science in venues far outside the traditional academic comfort zone. This time the queries didn't come from the depths of a cavernous lecture theatre, nor from a keen student during a visit to an A-level college, nor was it asked of me following an open day lecture at our university. Instead, I was quizzed during a Skeptics In The Pub event in a packed room in the wonderfully-monikered Holy Inadequate pub in Stoke-on-Trent last month.

The Skeptics... meetings are based on a very simple 'equation': speaker + audience + alcohol = fun, informal and informative discussion. I've spoken at a number of these meetings over the last year and have always been extremely impressed by the willingness of the audience to interact and ask probing questions. Some of these questions can initially take me aback but, more often than not, a good dialogue ensues and I end up seeing some aspect of science in a different light.

The science-in-the-pub experience has recently gone global with the arrival of Pint of Science in 2013. I spoke both at this year's launch event for PoS (as described here) and at the festival itself the week before last, in the "Making The Future" event in Nottingham. In just three years PoS has grown so that it spans 20 cities in the UK, with events now also happening in five different continents.

What I find remarkable is that the level of interaction and discourse during these pub-based events can often be much greater than at international scientific conferences I've attended. The audience generally doesn't have a background in science beyond the physics, chemistry, and/or biology they learned at school and that means they don't get hung up on some obscure technical aspect of the work; they're much more interested in the broader picture than the minutiae. This is very refreshing, if not a little scary at times. As a PoS speaker, you're continually thinking on your feet; there is no script and it's extremely difficult to second-guess what a question might be (in a way that's usually possible at a scientific conference).

Those of us at the University of Nottingham involved with the family of channels developed by the talented and prolific Brady Haran have got used to this unnerving-at-times format over the years. Since 2009, a considerable number of us in the School of Physics and Astronomy have worked with Brady on the Sixty Symbols channel with the aim to explain physics concepts to as wide an audience as possible.

Brady, as film-maker and interviewer, plays an exceptionally important role in this. As someone who has an intense interest in science but is not a scientist, he asks the questions that many in the Sixty Symbols audience will be thinking. This can not only prompt many off-the-cuff conversations with Brady during the video but can seed further discussion and debate among the Sixty Symbols audience in the YouTube comments threads. (This below-the-line commentary often bucks the trend for the quality of discourse on YouTube, which, as this xkcd cartoon lampoons so well, too often embodies the condensed collective stupidity of humanity).

Online interactions are all well and good, of course, but nothing beats engaging with an audience in a venue where you can see the whites of their eyes. This "real time" interaction can not only be a huge amount of fun, it often stimulates quite deep discussion which can border on themes in philosophy and metaphysics. (This in turn can occasionally work to the speaker's disadvantage, particularly if one of the audience members fancies themselves as a sage who has been callously ignored by the "establishment" and wants to wax lyrical, and at great length, about their particular revolutionary grand unified theory of everything).

One recurring theme in my science-in-the-pub presentations, which incorporates some of these aspects of philosophy (of the cod variety and otherwise), is the deeply frustrating quantum pseudoscience peddled by the likes of Deepak Chopra. I'll be speaking on this topic again for the Cheltenham Skeptics... society next week and will, as ever, be making the somewhat contentious point that we scientists have to shoulder some of the blame for the woo generated by Chopra et al.

A burgeoning "quantum life coaching" industry has built up around the type of nonsense that Chopra et al. generate. Skeptics In The Pub, Pint Of Science, and similar initiatives are exceptionally important in not only disseminating science in an engaging way, but in providing a platform to counter quantum woo and the many other breeds of pseudoscience out there. As tonight's Skeptics... event in Nottingham, How To Be a Psychic Conman, shows, there's huge entertainment value in debunking the more outlandish claims. And hosting these events in pubs means that we're not necessarily preaching to the converted...

This post was first published at Symptoms Of The Universe