A physics teaching vignette centred on nonbinary gender inclusion

I made a little YouTube video linking coming to terms with particle-wave duality in quantum mechanics with coming to terms with nonbinary gender identities. To help with accessibility, here is the transcript, in full.


Did you know that smartphones, computers, lasers, MRIs, and GPSs all rely on quantum mechanics?

Quantum mechanics is counterintuitive for beginners. If it doesn't sit well with you, you're in good company - Einstein didn't like [aspects of] it either! So why does quantum mechanics bend beginner brains into pretzels? Well, electrons, protons, neutrons, photons (the particles of light), Higgs bosons, and other small objects have been found to exhibit both particle-like and wave-like properties. Whether you see one behaviour or the other in a physics lab depends on which kind of experiment you do.

People like to make a Big Deal about the dissonance, referring to it as Particle/Wave Duality. How can something like an electron move around like a particle and also interfere and diffract like a wave? Yet, in Nature, perhaps impertinently, the electron does precisely that! It has these dual features merely by existing, whether we humans are comfortable with it or not. Physicists like to call the electron a wavepacket or a quantum.

To help explain this quantum duality business, I like to use an analogy to humans like me with nonbinary gender. I have feminine aspects, and I have masculine aspects. As folks like us know from our years of lived experience, it is entirely possible to have both femininity and masculinity in one whole human being. Which behaviours you see in me will depend on which context you put me in with which people, just as electrons may look particle-like in one experiment and wave-like in another. That is not a contradiction, or a hot mess of confusion, for either of us -- it is just complex, nuanced behaviour.

You could make a Big Deal out of my nonbinary nature and say that I have Feminine/Masculine Duality, or you could just get over it and be cool with my existence in the universe. The same goes for particle/wave duality in quantum mechanics. It's not hard to understand, if you're willing to stretch your imagination a bit further than it was used to stretching. Every student of quantum mechanics has to do this intellectual labour, and it can take awhile before it feels natural. Just like with emotional labour and non-normative genders. The key thing is to make a continuing commitment to listening and learning.

This has been a presentation from nonbinary UofT physics professor, A.W. Peet.