Particle Physics for Preschoolers | symmetry magazine
Jason Heeris, a physicist and signal processing engineer in southeastern Australia, went semi-viral in mid-September 2019 for a tweet about how he tried to put his 3-year-old son to sleep with a lecture on the Standard Model of Particle Physics.
It did not work. And after that, Heeris tweeted, her son demanded to hear the lecture every night.
Particle physics and nuclear physics are not included in any standard school curriculum; physics, in fact, is often not taught at all below college level. But some educators and parents who have tried it have found surprisingly cute success!
Heeris’ son, Eric, already loved to-do lists. He had memorized all the streets between his home and his nursery, and all the train stations between the one closest to his house and Sydney Central Station.
But with tiny particle physics, it wasn’t just memorization. He connected the concept of atoms to Heeris’ explanation of how substances dissolve in water. And when he heard that electricity was the flow of electronshe exclaimed, “It’s the things outside of atoms!”
Heeris rejects the idea that fundamental particles are too abstract for young children. “Almost everything is abstract for a child,” he says. “Kids can learn that there are eight planets, and here are the names, but the planets aren’t real to them.”
Even so, “they don’t need to touch the planets to marvel at the solar system and look at the night sky and think, ‘Ah, that’s what they were talking about.'”
Alice Bean, a physics professor at the University of Kansas and a member of the CMS experiment at CERN, is also impressed with how children think about concepts like space.
She says she once visited a young relative who had posters of the planets and the solar system all around her bedroom. When Bean asked what her favorite planet was, the girl replied, “I don’t know, I haven’t visited them all yet.”
She wondered: if a child could feel a connection to distant planets, why couldn’t he be interested in the much more personal subject of the particles that make up everything around him?
“People said to me: it’s because the particles, you can’t see them, you can’t touch them,” she says. “But we’ve shown that kids as young as 5 know there are things out there that you can’t see: they know what germs are.”
Studies on topics such as K-12 science education and the integration of university science students into elementary school classrooms have shown that early exposure to science or outdoor activities is an important factor in developing a positive view of science. “And if you look at all the Nobel laureates, they all had early childhood activity,” says Bean.
Bean grew up in Flagstaff, Arizona, near the Lowell Observatory, where amateur astronomer Clyde Tombaugh first discovered the dwarf planet Pluto. She discovered the planets at a young age, but she didn’t hear about particle physics until she went to college. Even then, she was surprised by all the unfamiliar terminology and language involved.
“That was one of the barriers that kept me from wanting to work in particle physics,” she says. “He had this weird language of all these particles, and I didn’t know it.”
“So maybe just spreading that language is the first step in how we teach particle physics.”
In 2006, with the help of collaborators at the University of Kansas Museum of Natural History, Bean launched an educational website called Quarked!. The website includes games such as “Meson Mania” and “Photon Invaders”, as well as informational videos featuring fundamental particles as animated characters. The games and videos are all about particle and nanoscale physics concepts.
“I saw a ninth grader play Baryon Blaster,” Bean said, referring to another Quarked! Game.” And his father said, “Well, why don’t you shoot that particle? And she says, ‘No, dad, a lambda particle has a U, D and an S quark’ [otherwise known as an up, down and strange quark]. Most of our graduate students don’t know that!
Karen Gibson, a particle physicist who did research at the US Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, was comfortable talking about physics with her kids before kindergarten. But as she spoke with other parents, she realized she was an outlier.
“I’ve been interested in awareness since I’ve been at Fermilab,” she says, “and kids have a natural curiosity about the world in general.
“The future lies in the construction of this literacy. Children are really the future taxpayers, who may be able to pass this message on to their parents. They are more receptive than many older members of the public who do not view these concerns as important.
In 2016, Gibson wrote an article in the magazine physics today about his experience introducing young children to particle physics and encouraging particle physicists to do the same.
Gibson has since noticed an influx of technology and engineering awareness into his children’s schools, pursuits like video game design and robotics. “Parents recognize that STEM is important,” she says, “but there’s a lot of engineering and not a lot of science. I think physicists really have this opportunity with all this STEM outreach to really get their message across.
After her physics today article came out, commenters seemed divided, with some readers enthusiastic about the idea and other critics saying it was a “bad idea” to teach such a difficult subject to children of this age.
Responses to Heeris’ tweet, on the other hand, have been overwhelmingly positive, with many parents sharing their own stories of their kids getting excited about science concepts. A young boy asked for uranium for his birthday and emailed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission asking for a job when he was 8 years old. A good number of stories ended with the child going on to study science at the university level or pursuing a career in science.
One respondent noted that physicist William Henry Bragg used to tell his sons stories about the atoms and chemical elements of the periodic table. Bragg and his son, William Lawrence Bragg, won the 1915 Nobel Prize for their research in X-ray crystallography.
Another respondent advised caution when talking to children about at least one science topic: “Don’t talk too much [excitedly] about black holes to a 4-year-old at bedtime,” the parent wrote. “4-year-old child shaking: ‘Nothing comes out? Never?’ No sleep…”
Telling the kid about Hawking’s radiation apparently didn’t help.