Courtesy of Ellen Jannereth

October 4, 2021

Ellen Jannereth ’25 Breaks Down Quantum Physics as Breakthrough Junior Challenge Finalist

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As a finalist in the international Breakthrough Junior Challenge, Ellen Jannereth ’25 is making quantum physics more accessible to general audiences and is vying for a $250,000 scholarship in the process. 

The annual challenge asks competitors to select a scientific concept and create a three-minute YouTube video explaining the concept in an easily understandable manner, Jannereth said. 

Afterward, a peer review process and several rounds of judging stand between participants and the grand prize of a $250,000 scholarship, as well as a $50,000 award for a teacher who inspired the participant and $100,000 toward building a science lab for the student’s high school.

With the ultimate goal of encouraging scientific curiosity and creative thinking, the challenge draws thousands of submissions from students ages 13 to 18 all over the world. 

Jannereth has reached the final round of judging and stands among the top 16 scorers.

“I honestly don’t think I’m going to win. But if I did, or hope for whoever does win … that’s obviously life changing to be able to get that much money to pay for your education,” Jannereth said.

A physics major from Tampa, Florida, Jannereth stumbled on the competition online during her junior year of high school and decided to enter for fun, thinking nothing of the outcome. 

“There’s so many people who submit video entries. I just thought it would be fun,” Jannereth said. “And I also sent that in with my college applications, so I thought that would be an extra bonus. I didn’t think I would actually win or anything, or become a finalist.”

Entries are scored for engagement of the viewers, clarity of explanation, creativity and difficulty of the subject matter. 

For her entry, Jannereth chose to explain the mystery of quantum tunneling — a phenomenon in which a particle can be found on the other side of a potential energy barrier, despite not having enough kinetic energy to surmount it.

A concept that is taught in college-level physics classes, Jannereth used lively animations, sound effects and scenery to help her break down this complex topic, diving into details typically beyond the comprehension of non-physics majors.

Jannereth explained that in her video, she used the simple analogy of kicking a ball over the hill — unless the ball is kicked hard enough, there is no way of finding the ball on the other side.

“So say, a particle — kind of like the ball stuck on one side of the hill — doesn’t have enough energy to get over it,” Jannereth said. “There’s still a chance that in the quantum world, it’ll be on the other side, even if it doesn’t have enough energy. You can just find it there.”

Jannereth stands next to a ball in her video entry for the Breakthrough Junior Challenge.
Courtesy of Ellen Jannereth

This is possible because quantum physics operates differently from the everyday world of classical physics, Jannereth said. 

“In the macroscopic world, position is very straightforward,” Jannereth said. “There’s no such thing as a probability of finding something somewhere. It just kind of exists there already. You can observe it, you can see it, and the act of observing something doesn’t change it’s position.”

Governed by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, quantum physics dictates that it is impossible to know a particle’s exact position and momentum at the same time. According to Jannereth, since the quantum world is so “tiny,” light hitting the particle during the simple act of observation would be enough to change a particle’s position. 

“It’s just a completely different way of thinking about the world,” Jannereth said.

This unseen quantum world instead relies on probabilities — called wave functions — of finding a particle at a certain position, Jannereth explained.

In the phenomenon of quantum tunneling, a particle’s probability wave can extend through a potential barrier — essentially, be found on the other side of a “hill” — despite not having enough energy to do so.

While quantum tunneling may seem removed from everyday life, it has applications in touch-screen technology and mapping the surface of materials at the atomic level. 

“Most of us can go our whole lives without even caring about quantum tunneling or knowing what it is,” Jannereth said. “But it’s definitely something really interesting to think about.”

Jannereth first stumbled into quantum physics in middle school when she watched The Fabric of the Cosmos, a PBS documentary series. 

But her passion for physics took off in high school, when her physics teacher shifted Jannereth’s perspective toward using math as a way of understanding complicated physics problems. 

“That kind changed my whole outlook on everything,” Jannereth said. “So that’s when I decided that physics is what I want to pursue, and that I actually can pursue it.”

The competition’s selection committee, composed of science experts ranging from astronaut Scott Kelly to Khan Academy founder Salman Khan, is slated to review and score the top group of finalists and select the winner of the challenge by this November.