Mr. Tompkins in VR

Mr. Tompkins in VR

A few years ago, when I was still in college (ok, maybe it was more than a few years ago) I read and enjoyed a little book from George Gamow titled Mr. Tompkins in paperback.  As you can read in Wikipedia, the books are structured as a series of dreams in which Mr Tompkins enters alternate worlds where the physical constants have radically different values from those they have in the real world. This results in the counterintuitive results of the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics becoming obvious in everyday life.

Reading such books, we can immerse ourselves, to some extent, in worlds with tweaked physical laws, and thus learn more about what they mean.

We could revisit this learning approach using new technologies, i.e., immersive virtual reality. For example, what would happen if the speed of light and the associated structure of space-time was reduced to the scale of everyday experience. I don't know, say it was 50 m/s. We could experience, through VR,  length contraction, time dilation and the twin paradox, the relativity of simultaneity and other relativistic phenomena going to work, or on a trip to a meeting. We could, or rather, would have to internalize these physical phenomena: our survival would depend on it. What about quantum physics? What would you experience if the quantum for action, Plank's constant, where much larger? We could experience tunneling and other interference phenomena, for example. Path integral "existentialism" would become commonplace. 

Well, the world we experience is not this one. Yet, using VR we could immerse ourselves in such worlds and learn, in a deeper way these concepts. How does the world feel at nanoscale? This "immersion" is more or less what physics students do when they learn these abstract boxes: develop intuition relying on our own "reality machine" simulations. We play with concepts, try to visualize, until we internalize the basic conceptual structures.

In fact, I would claim we learn quite a bit of classical physics by experiencing it. Our bodies know about forces, inertia, gravity, friction ... Could we not teach ourselves more?

Another interesting idea would be to implement in VR an experience like the one suggested in Greg Egan's Quarantine, where some people can avoid collapsing the wave function when the make an observation (in QMs, it is assumed that measurements are somehow responsible for the collapse of the wavefunction). Or what about falling into a black hole? Could we somehow experience that?

Finally, VR could be used in the process of research itself, as a tool to supplement or instantiate what physicists often use: gedankens, or thought experiments (see Reiner and Burko, On the Limitations of Thought Experiments in Physics and the Consequences for Physics Education , Science & Education 12: 365–385, 2003.)

The possibilities appear to be endless.