A federal scientist embedded full-time on the University of Maryland campus has been recognized by the Institute of Physics (IOP) for innovative writing that sparks public interest in physics and quantum thermodynamics.
Nicole Yunger Halpern, a theoretical physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, is the 2023 Mary Somerville Medal and Prize winner. The award, named for the noted Scottish scientist and author Mary Somerville, comes with a medal and a £1,000 ($1,220 USD) prize.
It is given each year to early career scientists that engage the public in physics and related scientific topics. Yunger Halpern was specifically noted for her 2022 book, “Quantum Steampunk: The Physics of Yesterday’s Tomorrow,” which the IOP said “vivified Victorian physics in the public imagination by casting (quantum) thermodynamics as steampunk in writing and art, breaking barriers between disciplines.”
In announcing this year’s winners for multiple awards, including the Somerville medal and prize, IOP President Sir Keith Burnett said, “There is so much focus today on the opportunities generated by a career in physics, and the potential that our scientific discipline has to transform our society and economy. I hope the stories of our winners will help to inspire future generations of scientists.”
At UMD, Yunger Halpern is a Fellow in the Joint Center for Quantum Information and Computer Science (QuICS), a senior investigator in the NSF Quantum Leap Challenge Institute for Robust Quantum Simulation, an adjunct faculty member in the Institute for Physical Science & Technology and a co-founder of the Maryland Quantum Thermodynamics Hub.
But it is through her writing and accompanying artwork that Yunger Halpern has transformed Victorian physics in the public’s imagination. Her literary work crosses disciplinary borders, casting quantum thermodynamics as the real-world incarnation of steampunk, a genre of literature, art and film that take places during the Victorian era in gritty London streets and Manchester’s booming factories but features futuristic technologies.
This outreach approach is highly original, reviewers have said, bridging physics to art, and engaging members of the public who regard themselves as “not science people.” New Scientist and Physics Today highlighted “Quantum Steampunk” as a top science book of 2022, and the book has been translated from its original format into two other languages.
As a follow-up, Yunger Halpern launched a quantum steampunk short-story competition. The contest’s 167 entrants spanned 29 countries, ranging from 13-year-olds to professional writers that are foreign to quantum physics. She is also collaborating with a steampunk artist on an educational interactive sculpture that depicts a quantum engine alongside its Victorian counterpart.
These works crown what Yunger Halpern is best known for outside of her research and scholarship—a decade of monthly blogging in the Quantum Frontiers site at Caltech. Her posts, blending physics with literature, architecture and history, have earned nods from Physics World, Nature Briefing and elsewhere. The posts have also catalyzed articles written by Yunger Halpern for New Scientist, Literary Hub and other mainstream-media publications, often alongside steampunk artwork.