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Quantum Physics: The Dance

U of T grad student Krister Shalm cut the rug to explain his thesis in the "Dance Your PhD" contest

As most PhD candidates will tell you, people will feign interest in your thesis — until you actually begin to describe it. But why use words, when you have your entire body at your disposal? That seems to be the idea, at least, behind the second annual “Dance Your PhD” contest, co-sponsored by Science magazine and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The most recent competition, held this past fall, yielded entries from 45 PhD candidates around the world, including one from U of T. The thesis author must participate in the dance, but she or he is allowed to recruit others. Winners in four categories — biology, chemistry, physics and social science — each receive $500, and the overall winner gets another $500.

Krister Shalm, who recently defended his PhD in physics at U of T, has been swing dancing for five years. He choreographed a Lindy Hop routine — a type of swing dance that began in Harlem in the 1920s — and practiced with friends for six weeks. Shalm’s entry, “The Quantum Ruler,” features dancers who represent photons, the smallest particles of light. When photos become entangled (dancing with partners), they make better measurements than when they act as individuals (dancing alone).

“Having a better ruler is fundamental to science,” Shalm said. “Before we had microscopes and lenses, the most we could do in the world was work with what we could see with our eyes. If we can use quantum mechanics to make a better ruler, we can study concepts in physics that we have theories for but we’re unable to test.”

Although he didn’t win the contest, Shalm said he has accomplished his main goal: getting his mom to understand what he does in the lab. “She really likes the dance,” he said. “I work in a very abstract field. The kind of physics I’m doing is not people come across every day. I’ve tried explaining what I do to my mom in different ways and this stuck.”

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