Using Quantum Physics to Solve an Escape Room

TU Berlin researchers test new tool for science communication

How can laypersons understand the importance of quantum technologies and gain a sense for their mysterious underlying laws? According to Dr. Robert Richter from the TU Berlin Chair of Work, Technology, and Participation, increasingly popular escape room games are one possibility. Escape rooms are adventure games in which a group of players solve different puzzles to “escape” from a room. Funded with 180,000 euros from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research for a period of one and a half years, Richter and his team in the EsCQuTe project are currently developing storylines and experiments for the use of escape rooms in science communication.

Dr. Richter, isn’t quantum physics far too complicated for an escape room game?

Because our game is intended for the general public, it, of course, cannot require specialist knowledge of physics. However, quantum physics is well suited to escape rooms for two reasons. The subject area in itself is inherently enigmatic, even for us researchers. Nobel laureate Richard Feynman once remarked “I think I can safely say that nobody really understands quantum mechanics.” Considering the recent developments in the field, this has never been truer. The rules of quantum theory are extremely well described mathematically, but often contradict our everyday experiences. For example, two particles can form a joint physical system even if they are lightyears away from each other. Einstein called this “spooky action at a distance.” But it is real, as researchers have determined. In addition, things can happen just like that, for example the decay of an atomic nucleus, without there being a concrete cause, and this very much contradicts our world view which is based on causality. During an escape room game, people are much more open to such mysterious rules.

Ok, I buy the mystery. And the second reason?

The typical storyline for an escape room goes something like “You have 1 hour and 13 minutes to save the world.” This aligns with the great importance quantum technologies play for our future. One day, quantum computers could crack all standard encryption procedures and reveal classified documents. At the same time, quantum cryptography offers the possibility of absolutely secure communication. With the help of quantum computers, simulations of complex molecules can be used in the fight again climate change, as these allow us to find new catalyst materials which turn carbon dioxide into raw materials for chemical factories. Additionally, such simulations are useful in protein research which, for example, is key in the development of vaccines.

That really does sound like something out of James Bond. But that’s more for the game’s storyline. Aren’t the puzzles that have to be solved more important?

Yes and no. We want to communicate the potential of quantum technologies and that’s best achieved through the story. Real quantum experiments are far too complex and expensive for an escape room. However, that doesn’t mean that the effects for the puzzles don’t have anything to do with the topic.

Which experiments have you come up with so far?

We can’t give everything away now but one task, for example, requires players to precisely adjust a frequency. This is important in quantum physics, if I want to - loosely speaking - lift an electron in an atom into a higher orbit. I need to radiate the exact energy needed as light onto the electron. It cannot be more and or less. The energy of the light is directly related to its frequency, and thus ultimately to the color of the light. So how can we give people a sense for the difficulty of such a task? We take a fan with a message written in neon on the blades. The message isn’t visible when the fan spins. However, somewhere in the escape room there is a strobe light. Players have to think to take the flashbulb and play with the frequency of the flash. When the frequency of the bulb matches the number of revolutions of the fan exactly, the blades will appear to stand still, and they can read the message.

However, you then still have to come up with a good story to go with it.

Yes, and it’s important that it isn’t too didactic. That’s the real tricky part. Another experiment which more closely mirrors real applications are polarizing filters. A light wave can oscillate in different directions, like a pendulum which moves on different planes. Individual light particles, which by the way are the “quanta” in quantum physics, can also oscillate. Now, polarization filters are only permeable for one direction of oscillation, like a horizontal or vertical oscillation. In quantum cryptography, you can thus specifically sort the direction of oscillation of light particles. And with this, you can suddenly generate digital codes by saying, for example, that a horizontally oscillating light particle symbolizes a "1," and a vertically oscillating one a "0."

Robert Richter and the Escape Room team at TU Berlin

Dr. Robert Richter was born in 1983 in Berlin and completed his doctorate on the photoluminescence of nanodiamonds at TU Berlin. During this time, he headed the Physics Project Laboratory, an innovative lab class for physics students. He was also co-founder of the Experimental Stage Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to the communication of science through art. At the beginning of 2016, he was requested to help build the “Naturkunde Medialab” at Berlin’s Museum für Naturkunde. He returned to TU Berlin at the end of 2017 and is responsible, among other things, for the courses lab:prepare and lab:present which focus on student science communication. In addition, he leads the quantum escape room project EsCQuTe, which is funded by the federal ministry’s funding line for novel quantum technology outreach concepts (Quantum aktiv – intuitive Outreachkonzepte für die Quantentechnologien). His team includes physicists Benjamin Maaß and Charlotte Maurer. The working group Physical Foundations of IT Security, led by Professor Dr. Janik Wolters at TU Berlin, provides the team with technical assistance. Following extensive tests with participants, the escape room concept will be opened to educational institutions and event organizers free of charge.

Is it that easy to produce individual light particles?

No, such single photon sources are very sensitive and expensive. But the filter effect also works with many light particles. In our puzzle, the escape team has to precisely turn several filters, so they are all set to the same oscillation direction, thus allowing the entire arrangement to become clear. Then they can read a message that will help them escape from the room.

Are you the first to actually use this format for science communication?

No, there are others such as Sascha Vogel, a science communicator from Frankfurt am Main, who designed a physics escape room or Paul Kwiat from the University of Illinois in the USA. There, 1,700 scientific escape room missions with 8,500 participants have been successfully completed. We are in close contact with both of them. However, we are the first to create an escape room dedicated to quantum technologies.

Is it possible to still participate in the project, for example as a student studying natural science?

We are definitely open to ideas and interested participants! Within the scope of “Project Sci.Com” funded by the Berlin University Alliance, we are offering a course called lab:prepare at all the major Berlin universities next semester. In the course, students learn about both the basics and organization of good science communication. Last semester a group of students developed a possible puzzle for the escape room. The entire escape room project goes hand in hand with DIY and maker culture. In addition to the task at hand, the fun of working with others and exchanging ideas play a central role.

Interviewer: Wolfgang Richter.