Innovator Interview: Helen Quinn

Professor Emerita of Particle Physics and Astrophysics, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, and Chair, A Framework for K-12 Science Education, became chair of the Board of the Concord Consortium in January 2019.

Helen’s interest in science began at the dinner table in her native Australia. Her engineer father would ask questions and expect Helen and her three brothers to argue about them. When she entered the University of Melbourne, she was a cadet meteorologist at the weather bureau and knew she would pursue science as a career. But when she was 18, her family decided to move to the U.S.

With two years of coursework from the University of Melbourne complete, Helen headed to Stanford, where she was admitted with three years of credit, counting her last high school year as well. Assistant Professor Jerry Pine encouraged her to audit courses and figure out for herself where she belonged. “Because of him, physics was the easiest major to complete in a year,” Helen laughs. She stayed on, planning to complete a master’s degree and become a physics teacher. But her plan was spoiled. “Physics was too interesting,” Helen insists. Instead, she earned a Ph.D. in 1967, becoming one of very few female physicists in the world at the time. Her father may have helped her find her calling in science, but Helen credits growing up with three brothers with helping her survive being a woman in the all-male world of physics.

For the next five decades, Helen pursued some of the biggest—and tiniest—questions in particle physics at Harvard and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC). She describes particle physics as “the most reductionist of sciences. We look at the very smallest things and the interactions between those that form everything we see.” With Howard Georgi and Steven Weinberg, she demonstrated how the three types of particle interactions (strong, electromagnetic, and weak) become very similar in extremely high-energy processes. They hypothesized that when the universe was very young and hot—shortly after the Big Bang—these forces might have been unified into a single force, which then “broke symmetry” as the universe cooled.

Particle physicists know that for every matter particle there is a corresponding antimatter particle, with opposite charges. They also know that the laws of physics for antimatter are very similar to those for matter, except for a small difference that shows up in weak but not in strong interactions, which is a puzzle. Working with Robert Peccei she focused on how to modify the theory of these interactions, so that the strong interactions were protected from the symmetry breaking. That modification to the theory also predicts the existence of a new type of particle, dubbed the “axion.” This particle, which has yet to be observed, is a candidate for comprising the so-called “dark matter” known to permeate the universe. “That’s the wonderful thing,” Helen muses, “We weren’t thinking about dark matter. We didn’t notice that we predicted that particle! Other people noticed that.” The search for the axion continues to this day. She says excitedly, “Recent measurements are reaching the needed sensitivity to find it if, in fact, that is what dark matter is made from.”

Helen’s work spans both science and science education. When the Carnegie Corporation asked the National Academy of Sciences to develop A Framework for K-12 Science Education—the precursor to the Next Generation Science Standards—Helen was asked to direct the effort. She says, “I know what it means to do science, and I had been learning about science education. It was the right time for me to retire and take that on full time.” She has been committed to the Framework’s three-dimensional vision—linking disciplinary core ideas, science and engineering practices, and crosscutting concepts—ever since.

As part of the work, Helen advocated for some important aspects of the Framework. In addition to Physical Science, Life Science, and Earth and Space Science, Helen made sure to include Connections to Engineering, Technology, and Application of Science. “If you’re just teaching pure science, kids don’t recognize how much it’s around them and how much the way they live depends on the fact that we understand these things.” She is pleased with how the Framework portrays how science is done. “The scientific method is oversimplified and misapplied. The practices are a better description of what inquiry should be,” Helen says. And the crosscutting concepts? “Lenses for problem solving,” she explains.

“The Concord Consortium fits that vision nicely,” she says, supporting science education with an emphasis on students doing science like scientists, building their own models, and developing their own explanations of phenomena. “Technology can help since many things can’t be looked at directly because they are too big or too tiny, or happen over too long a time scale to see in the classroom. We can only investigate a limited range of phenomena hands-on. Technology can help us explore a much larger range, and to interpret data that others have gathered about them.”

In 2018 Helen was awarded the prestigious Benjamin Franklin Medal in Physics from the Franklin Institute. As part of this honor, she had the opportunity to develop a tabletop exhibit to explain her work in particle physics to high school students. Her “backwards jigsaw puzzle” showed students a variety of shapes that “scientists in a two-dimensional world” had discovered, and others that were never seen. Students had to determine what were the basic pieces that formed all the shapes, and find rules for putting them together that could explain both what was found and what was not found. She says this is what particle physicists do for the real world. How did she deal with all the attention from the students and the medal ceremony? She laughs, “I was like a rock star, which was fun.”