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How do you teach a 1-year-old quantum physics?

By ZHANG ZHOUXIANG | China Daily | Updated: 2019-04-06 07:44
One-year-old Zhang Junyao reads a book beside her small bookshelf. Photo by Wang Jingjing / For China Daily

Like most fathers, I have kept up the habit of buying cartoon books for my baby girl, who is now one year old, to encourage her to develop an interest in the outside world.

However, as I opened a new box of books last week, I thought I had placed the wrong order. On the cover of the first book the boldly colored headline jumped out: Quantum Physics. The second book I picked up was titled Quarks. The third one, Aerospace Engineering, looked a little more practical at first glance. However, it was only after much closer examination of the cover that I found two much smaller words prefixing each of the headlines: Baby Loves.

Wow! Do the authors of the books expect a 1-year-old girl to learn what her father did not study until the third year of university? How could I explain such complex concepts as, say, superposition states, to my 1-year-old daughter?

Yet, as I started this "mission impossible", I soon realized it might not be as difficult as I first thought. The quantum physics book is, like all the books I buy for her, still a cartoon book, containing very few words.

Open the first page and you see a baby running after a cat, drawn in a simple, colorful style that every infant will fall in love with at first sight.

Then the story became faster-paced. The cat jumped into a box and the box shut automatically. The baby sat next to the closed box, not knowing what his furry friend was doing inside.

"Is the cat asleep or awake?" A question emerged from the book, with the answer on the next page: "It can be both and in quantum physics. We call it a superposition state of being asleep and awake. When the baby opens the box, the superposition becomes a sure position."

Having been taught the whole thing with interest by me, my daughter picked up our dog and tried to undertake a similar experiment, which I fortunately, managed to stop in time. I am pretty sure she still knows little about quantum physics and won't understand the concept behind it for at least another decade.

However, at least she has been told the story and will find it of interest when the teacher mentions it in class.

More importantly, for her, physics won't be the boring subject that many consider it to be. It won't be full of concepts that perplex her mind, but of funny stories that she's glad to hear about.

And this is the direction that all primary education institutions should be looking to take.

As a result of the accumulated wisdom of the top thinkers over the centuries, natural science is a really difficult subject to learn for those without a strong interest in it. The more quantum physics books that are tailored toward infants, the more children will develop an appetite for the subject in their early years.

More importantly, these science books are written in a way that most young children can understand. Inste ad of throwing a complicated concept at the infant reader, it puts everything into a small story that the reader can enjoy with the help of their parents.

Honestly speaking, I would have preferred my quantum physics textbooks in university to have been written in this way, instead of the traditional way. Maybe I could have attained higher marks if my professor had brought a cat into the classroom to explain Schrodinger's thought experiment using an actual cat, instead of simply telling me about it.

But the idea of making science interesting doesn't just apply to children's education. A survey by the Chinese Association for Science and Technology found that only about 3.3 percent of China's total population have a basic knowledge of natural science, compared to figure of over 10 percent who do in developed countries. A key reason for that, according to experts, is the lack of proper scientific learning materials, especially those for adults.

This in turn explains, at least in part, why Chinese engineers have been faring better than Chinese scientists. A certain proportion of the population with a good understanding of natural science should be the basis for a nation to produce large numbers of excellent scientists, which in turn will render firm support to the prosperity of the nation.

Having finished the book on quantum physics, I made a thorough check of my daughter's little bookshelf and divided her books into a few different categories. The topics of the books ranged from dinosaurs to animal tongues, then to everyday wisdom, yet they all had one thing in common: They were interesting.

Dinosaurs

Besides the Baby Loves Quantum Physics book, there were books like How Dinosaurs Lived and Why Dogs Are Your Friends. These cartoon books tell stories just like animations, with the only difference being is that they're printed on paper, not viewed on an LED display.

In one of the books, different kinds of dinosaurs appear in both a logical and engaging order, passing along the infant protagonist to one dinosaur after another. They introduce themselves so that the reader gains a clear understanding about their names and their height, weight, favorite food, etc.

Animal tongues

In another book about the tongues of animals, the author and cartoonist not only drew different kinds of animals and their tongues in various ways, but also fixed certain materials to related parts of the animals so they feel like real ones. For example, when the reader touches the head of the camel, they feel actual camel hair. When they touch the tail of the snub-nosed monkey, they touch a small piece of cloth that's feels like a real tail.

My daughter's favorite is the tongue of the frog, made of plastic with a rough surface.

Zoo sounds

Another series of interactive books my daughter likes contain audio elements. Each of the pages is about 3 to 4 millimeters thick, with electric wires hidden inside, linking a small piece of metal to a tiny speaker and battery. When she taps the metal pad with her finger, animal sounds emanate from the page.

Flexible strips

Another book in the series is Baby Visits the Zoo. Each of the pages has flexible strips that the reader can move with their little fingers; When she finishes sliding them, the strips in their correct positions form a picture of an animal in the zoo.

Thanks to this book, my daughter has learned about the zebra, the lion, the elephant, the tiger, as well as the bonobo.

Chicks and daily behavior

Another series of books called The Polite Chickie stars a newborn chick named Qiuqiu, which means "ball" in Chinese because it resembles a furry ball. In the books, she learns how to talk with others, speak with her mummy, and how to play outside without risking falling out of her chair. She has already taken the chick around with her for company, just like our furry canine friend.

I am now planning to place an order for Baby Loves Programming for my daughter. I was a coding monkey in the lab during my university days and I hope she can have a taste of that. Happy coding!

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