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Colin West Q&A: Quantum Physics, Science Fiction, & Saying Yes

Colin WestSTONY BROOK, NY -- For Colin West, a doctoral candidate in Stony Brook’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, 2016 has been an adventure: in January, he competed on his all-time favorite game show, Jeopardy!; the first week in May, he completed and defended his dissertation, and, later this week, he will represent Stony Brook in the International FameLab national final in Washington, DC.

He sat down with the Stony Brook University Graduate School ahead the competition to discuss his work and FameLab preparations.

Tell us about Jeopardy! When did you first think of auditioning?

I've watched the show as long as I can remember. My dad did the cooking, so if he was gone on a business trip, mom got pizza for dinner – which meant we also got to watch TV, which was always Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune. So some of my earliest memories are eating pizza and carrot sticks and watching Jeopardy!

I've always been a trivia guy, so the show appealed to me. I was a huge fan in middle school, when Ken Jennings was on his 74-match winning streak. I remember coming home every day wanting to see if he was still winning. And at the time I told people all the time “oh yeah, when I'm older, I'll try out for Jeopardy!” But it fell off my radar by the time I got to college.

I got married a couple years back and whenever I point out some piece of trivia, my wife, Alison, always teases me. She’ll say “instead of correcting me on this fact about the Dodgers, why don't you go on a game show and use this for our benefit?”

One day she emailed me a link to an online test that was the first step in the audition process. So I took it.

If you do well enough on the test -- I think there's some randomness involved if too many people do well on the test -- but then they'll call you up for an in-person audition. A few months after the test I unexpectedly got this email with an invitation to Boston for a sample game of Jeopardy!

There's another written test, a practice game to see how you handle the physical mechanics of the game, and a practice interview. Afterward, the producers sent us on our way with the understanding that, if they liked us, we might get a call at any point in the next year and a half.

Two months later I got a phone call from them.

As a physicist, how exciting was it to get the question about Isaac Newton?

I have deep incredible admiration for Newton, both for his scientific expertise and to his commitment and interest in matters beyond some narrow, technical discipline. I don't know that I do a good job of maintaining that generality, but I certainly do try.

For me that means having sharp boundaries between my work life and home life. I try to make sure that, barring an emergency situation, I don't do research work once I'm home for the day. If I need to plan to stay at work longer, that's one thing. But I don't want to just to continue to let it bleed into when I get home. It helps that my wife is not a physicist and that her core interests very much lie elsewhere. I spend so long associating with physicists at work I try to make sure the rest of my time I associate with other people so I don't lose sight of what else is going on that they can teach me about.

I don't claim to be very successful at that because I think generality is just surprisingly hard to maintain these days. I don't know a lot of people here short of the ones who are just off-the-charts geniuses who are really good researchers and maintain a lot of active interests outside of that.

I think everyone is born a scientist. That's what it is to be a kid … You're performing experiments all the time because you don't know anything. So I think I was a kid like that, and I had a parent who helped me see that what I was doing was science.

How were you first drawn to science?

My dad is a chemist -- a research chemist, so I was exposed to it early. I don't know why it hooked me, although I always tell people I think everyone is born a scientist. That's what it is to be a kid. You don't know anything about the universe, and you spend your time being like “What happens if I push this over -- does mom get mad? Does it fall? What happens if I jump out of this tree?”

You're performing experiments all the time because you don't know anything. So I think I was a kid like that, and I had a parent who helped me see that what I was doing was science.

I’ve always been drawn to physics in particular because I like that speculative side of it. I'm a sucker for science fiction, and in theoretical physics we get to talk about crazy fancy things like extra dimensions and gravitational waves and black holes. We get to be around people all day who talk about these things like they're real -- they are real -- but we get to play with them as an actual thing and not just something on a movie screen. I get a real kick out of that. I was always reading science fiction and then transitioned into reading books about the science behind the science fiction and it went from there.

What science fiction authors do you like to read?

I like what they call hard science fiction. The centerpiece of the story is some particular speculative scientific idea and the author weaves a story around it to demonstrate that idea or the implications of that idea if it were true.

I grew up reading Isaac Asimov in particular; he's the pinnacle of good hard science fiction, in my opinion. 

I'll leave it at that. I could list so many things, but he always stands out head and shoulders above -- his science fiction short stories in particular are just terrific. 

Broadly, what sort of questions does your lab consider?

We study quantum information theory.

On the scale of atoms and smaller, the laws of physics look a bit different than they do in the real world. The laws of quantum mechanics kick in, and they allow objects on that scale to do things that full-size objects can’t.

So we ask questions about how we might harness these extra capabilities of atoms and allow them to build technologies that can do things full-size technologies never could. The famous example is that the goal of every quantum scientist is to build a quantum computer, a computer that has components are so small that they're atom-sized thereby allowing them to play by quantum mechanical rules. You could design the computer in such a way that it would have enormously more computing power, enormously more speed compared to any regular computer that could ever be built.

So we're interested in understanding how quantum-scale objects interact. What ways can they interact that full-size objects can't? What useful things can be done with these special capabilities – if I have a quantum object that can do something no other object can do, can I use that to my benefit?

The practical reason is two-fold. One, a lot of the advances in technology these days are about miniaturizing things. The smaller you can make the components, the circuits, the more stuff you can pack in, the more flexible you can make it, the better. And the smaller things get, the more the rules of quantum mechanics start to affect them – so we need to understand those rules very precisely to know how to build even more and more miniaturized devices.

Second, once the rules of quantum mechanics kick in some things get much more difficult but other things get much, much easier. We should know how to take advantage of these things that are much easier. For example, you can store a great deal more information in a quantum-sized system than in a regular-sized system with equivalent information capacity for complicated reasons.

What excites you about your work?

There's something very compelling about quantum physics just because it's so, so counter intuitive and so different. If you took a quarter and shrunk it down to a quantum size, we wouldn't have to say it's either head's up or tail's up. It could be head's and tail's up at the same time. And that's so weird. It's so beyond what we have any real experience with -- it sounds like science fiction. So the science fiction lover in me is like “wait, that's real? I can prove that that's a real thing, and now I can go on and investigate what other weirder things I could do using that weird capability?” It's like being in a science fiction playground at all times.

And quantum physics underlies normal physics. The physics that we see in the everyday world is just an approximation of all the quantum stuff that's happening underneath it. So I like the sense that we're digging out the dark secrets behind the real world, that we're looking deeper and seeing, “well, it looks like the universe works this way, but behind the scenes there's all this complicated quantum stuff going on.”   

How did you first get involved with the Alan Alda Center?

I was aware of the Alda Center when I applied to graduate school, and it was part of the reason I was interested in Stony Brook.

How has it changed the way you approach teaching?

The fundamental message of a lot of the Alda Center training is the importance of knowing something about who you're trying to communicate with – and if you don't know it ahead of time, finding it out along the way. 

Much of the training is based on the same techniques used to train people in improv, and a big rule in improv is you never say no to the people you’re improving with because that shuts down their idea and leaves them not knowing what to do.

Sometimes you can't just say yes; sometimes you have to say yes and to build someplace else, pivot the conversation in a direction that you can go together. I try to do that now whenever I'm teaching, especially one-on-one. A lot of times you'll explain something and whoever you're explaining it to will say “oh, so it's like ‘such and such.’” And 'such and such' may be completely wrong. But I try now never to say no. I always try to say “yes, in the sense that…”

There's got to be some piece of what the person said that's valid, and I try to find that part and say yes to it. Apparently that's the part that was understood, and that's where I should be starting – and maybe that means heading in a totally different direction than how I was trying to explain it. In particular, I try never to say no to somebody's question or comment when I'm teaching because it's very rare that there's nothing of value; the person usually understood something, even if it's at a very basic level. Now I know the minimum thing this person understands, and I know that I have to start from there.

It's also affected my research work because research is always about communicating with people – unless you're one of these rare lone geniuses. I spend a lot of my time asking other people for help on problems, and there have been a number of times I've discovered that I could have solved a problem I was working on faster if the people I was working with actually understood it. They didn't recognize that the thing I was stuck on was a different name for something that they had been stuck on two years ago and figured out.

So I try to make sure that I take this into account when presenting research to new people. It can be humbling because there's sometimes pressure to make your work seem more inaccessible than it actually is because it makes you seem smarter, or more accomplished. But I take care now when I present to new people that I present my work in as clear a way as possible, to make sure my goal is not to look cool, but to get them to understand as many of the details as possible because that opens up many more opportunities collaboration and conversation.

How do you prepare for an event like FameLab? What's involved in that process? How do you pick the right-sized topic?

For the regional competition, I brainstormed about 20 topics, and I researched them to the extent that I wasn't already familiar with them. I decided to pick the topics I was personally most excited about because if I have to explain something to someone in three minutes, half the battle is just convincing them that it's interesting. If I'm lucky, and I get them to agree that it's interesting, maybe I can give them some details beyond that point. But if I can't convince them it's interesting, the whole thing is a waste. 

So I had to make sure it was a topic that I thought was enormously interesting and then hope that I could convey that interest and enthusiasm as authentically as possible -- so I picked the ones I thought were coolest.

I wrote out what I thought would be about three minutes worth of material and I performed it in front of a mirror and timed it – and it took about six minutes, so I cut out what I thought was about half the material and I did it front of a mirror and it took about five minutes. I like to ad lib things. So no matter how short my little script, whenever I got up to rehearse, it took longer. So I revised and revised and revised and cut and cut and cut lots of stuff.

That's often the most painful part of communicating to the public for scientists. The parts you have to take out are usually the details you think are coolest -- the high-level details or the little technical tricks that happen behind the scenes. The fun stuff. What's left are things you've known for years and it's not as exciting -- but you have to be a ruthless editor and recognize no one's going to care about the high-level detail if you don't get them to understand the basic part that you thought was cool ten years ago. You need to go back in time and convey that excitement.

And I tried out a billion different opening jokes on Alison every morning on the way to work and she got really tired of hearing “if I put the comma here is it funnier? Does the punchline land better?” She was really didn't think any of them were funny by the end. But the feedback there was really helpful, too.

Stony Brook’s Steven Jaret is also competing in the finals. You can read his profile here.

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