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(Breakthrough/YouTube)

This Teen's Brilliantly Simple Explainer on Quantum Mechanics Just Won a Global Prize

9 DECEMBER 2020

A Canadian teenager from Fort McMurray, Alberta has won a major scientific competition for an electrifying YouTube video in which she brilliantly simplifies the complicated concept of quantum tunnelling.

 

Maryam Tsegaye, a 17-year-old student from École McTavish Public High School, took home top prize at the sixth annual Breakthrough Junior Challenge for the explainer, in which she engagingly delves into quantum mechanics, likening the behaviour of electrons to how her brother cheats at video games.

Quantum tunnelling refers to the quantum mechanical phenomenon whereby electrons can 'tunnel' through barriers that they theoretically wouldn't be able to cross from the perspective of classical physics.

To Maryam's mind, her brother using a cheat code in a video game – enabling his character to pass through in-game walls – is basically the same kind of thing.

So begins her hilarious and informative explainer, which uses animations and quick, clever edits to break down and visualise this often challenging topic.

Believe us, it's three minutes of joyous science communication you'll want to watch more than once:

For taking out the top prize – which was judged by Sal Khan, the founder of Khan Academy, and former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, among other experts – Maryam will receive a US$250,000 college scholarship. Additionally, her science teacher will be awarded US$50,000, and her school will receive a new science laboratory worth US$100,000.

"Congratulations to Maryam, who truly shines as an exemplary science communicator," said Julia Milner, co-founder of the Breakthrough Junior Challenge.

 

"Maryam created a unique, one-of-a-kind video that explained a complicated scientific theory using relatable terms and humour – an impressive feat."

This year's competition saw entries from more than 5,600 students aged 13 to 18, spread across 124 countries.

This giant field was narrowed down to 30 semifinalists in September, whose videos reached more than 2 million people.

In the end, Maryam's quirky quantum explainer won the day, for its seemingly effortless way of communicating challenging subject matter in a fun and easy way.

"Maryam's video is a prime example of how to cleverly simplify a complex idea, and she provided a remarkable explanation of quantum tunnelling," Kelly said.

"Congratulations to Maryam, her teacher, her school, and all the students who will benefit from the new lab."

 

For her part, Maryam, who credits the unusual quietness of this year's schooling-at-home conditions for giving her the time to make an entry, says she is humbled to win, and never expected it, having only entered for the sake of the challenge, and the fun of it.

Her original topic was going to be entropy, until she switched to quantum tunnelling after becoming intrigued by the concept, she explained to her local paper.

"It means a lot to be out here right now," she told The Globe and Mail. "I did not see a figure in science who looked like me or made me feel represented until I watched Hidden Figures in Grade 8 or Grade 9."

In its own way, her inspiring success neatly ties in to the tongue-in-cheek coda of her prize-winning video.

"Maybe the quantum world is telling us that, when faced with an obstacle, there's a small chance we can defy expectations and breach barriers," she says.