Krister Shalm: the lindy hop can explain quantum mechanics
Quantum physicist Krister Shalm is using his love of swing dancing to bring his research to a wider audience
Interview by Ian Tucker, The Observer
Krister Shalm is an experimental physicist at the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. His work focuses on unlocking everyday applications for quantum mechanics. He has spoken at TEDxUW on the "Poetry of Physics" and, with a magician, hosted a talk called the The Quantum Physics of Harry Potter. Now his Project Q will take complex science to a wider audience by utilising his other passion – swing dancing.
Did you start dancing to meet girls?
Initially no, but I did meet my wife through dancing. I discovered it while I was doing my PhD in Toronto. A friend wanted to learn so we took some lessons and visited a swing dancing club. When I saw a couple doing the lindy hop, I knew I'd found my calling.
Did you make the connection between dancing and physics at that point?
No, initially they seemed opposed because every minute I spent dancing and practising was a minute I wasn't spending in the lab. Often the dancing would win. Yet it was a creative outlet for me, it was something that rejuvenated me and kept me fresh.
Was learning to dance frustrating?
Very much so. I had zero experience or co-ordination. It took me a long time to develop any kind of rhythm and to work on the isolation of my body and muscle that is necessary.
When did the two things mesh together?
My first inkling of this came when I noticed the "Dance Your PhD" contest run by Science magazine. My field is quantum optics – we study the properties of light and try to examine fundamental issues of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics deals with the rules of how the world works at the level of atoms, electrons and photons, things that you can't see and the rules are very different.
You can use light to test these, but it takes expensive, powerful lasers and special materials to create these states of light. Laser beams have their limits, but if you use quantum mechanics you can create special types of light that measure more precisely. My dance routine showed how this process works. So people who know nothing about quantum mechanics can get the gist of what I am trying to do and those in my field can see the deeper level.
Can you describe your routine?
Swing dancing is a partner dance – you rely on your partner to make things happen. In the lab I try and get different quantum particles to accomplish things that you wouldn't normally be able to do. In the dance, we start out moving independently and can't make the measurements, but as we go through this process of entanglement we just start working together. So the dance transforms from a bunch of individual dancers to couples depending on each other, then you can start switching partners and it becomes a group effort. In the lab I'm trying to choreograph the movements of my photons and their actions to do something you wouldn't normally be able to do .
Is swing dancing particularly suited to illustrating quantum physics?
I'm sure you could do a rumba, salsa or tango as well, but what is fantastic about swing dancing is that is started out as a street dance, not in a ballroom with strict rules and steps. There is a lot of creativity. There's this constant leading and following, one movement flows to the next. I can go anywhere in the world, walk into a swing dance club and start dancing – this reminds me of things we do in the lab, a hydrogen atom is the same anywhere in the universe.