Simone De Liberato is an Associate Professor in physics at the University of Southampton. His interest in outreach and an Artist in Residence grant contributed to the shortlisted film Approaching Reality. He explains:
WATCH THE FILM FIRST!
What is your background?
I am mainly a theoretical physicist and technological entrepreneur. I also like to do outreach. If I am in a pub for long enough for someone to ask what I do and I say I am a theoretical physicists – I have Planck’s constant on my neck, on a silver pendant a friend had cast for me, so people ask – people listen to you. After a few minutes 9 out of 10 people stop listening, but there is always one who is really fascinated. That’s what I love. I know how great it is to be fascinated and I love to be the medium for this. People have a deep-seated curiosity that often they do not show. People assume they cannot understand so they do not even ask.
How did this film come about?
I’ve tried various times to make outreach materials about quantum mechanics, and I’ve found that people don’t understand the concept of linear superposition. Once I produced some visual material to explain Schrödinger’s cat using different colours. I could not see anything – it was horrible! Then I said, why not do it through music.
How can music help?
In music it’s actually much easier to listen to multiple things at the same time: a chord is basically multiple sounds. I found a Leverhulme Trust Artist in Residence grant to support a musician, Martin Fogel, to work on this idea. For me it was an outreach tool, but for the musician, he also saw it as chance to do new compositions. The musician gave a concert at one of our department events, we put the music online and we presented it at a festival.
If the music came first, how did it turn into a film?
I realised that just with the music itself, you still needed someone to explain it to you. I got another, smaller outreach grant from the University of Southampton to pay two animators.
How did you develop the concept for the video?
One of the artists is another Martin, said in the French way though. He showed me a few ideas and I told him what I liked and what I didn’t.
The music is telling the story of a generic system in a superposition, via several tones heard at the same time. With the musician we used to call it a cat just out of the usual Schrödinger’s cat reference. Then eventually it stuck and we used cats in the video. The other artist, Ulysse, has something about cats. In his apartment there is a sculpture of like 100 chinese fortune cats waving at him.
How did the two components come together?
The music was created to be a piece of music. It was nice when you listen to it but it was very long. When we put it with the video, you get the message quickly and it gets boring. It was painful because the music was really beautiful, but we cut bits to make the video shorter. If you enjoy the music, you can find the longer version on the project’s website at approachingreality.org
How did you end up submitting to Quantum Shorts?
A former PhD student of mine who knew about the project sent me a link just a few days before the festival deadline saying "hey, look there's a festival for short films below five minutes about quantum physics". It was really perfect.