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2023 Mary Somerville Medal and Prize

Dr Nicole Yunger Halpern for vivifying Victorian physics in the public imagination by casting (quantum) thermodynamics as steampunk in writing and art, breaking barriers between disciplines.

Nicole Yunger Halpern award winner

Dr Nicole Yunger Halpern has transformed Victorian physics in the public imagination through writing and art that crosses disciplinary borders, casting quantum thermodynamics as the real-world incarnation of steampunk, a genre of literature, art and film. Steampunk stories take place during the Victorian era, in gritty London streets and Manchester’s booming factories, but feature futuristic technologies. Yunger Halpern portrays her research, quantum thermodynamics, as a similar fusion of Victorian backdrop (thermodynamics) and cutting-edge science (quantum computing). This outreach approach is highly original, bridges physics to art, and engages members of the public who regard themselves as ‘not science people’. Yunger Halpern has promulgated ‘quantum steampunk’, as she calls her work, through a genre-bending book, a decade of blogging, collaborations with artists, broadly disseminated articles and multinational public lectures.

Yunger Halpern published her book for the general public Quantum Steampunk: The Physics of Yesterday’s Tomorrow in 2022. The book not only explains quantum thermodynamics, but also features snippets from a quantum steampunk novel that she dreamed up and illustrations by a steampunk artist. New Scientist and Physics Today highlighted Quantum Steampunk as a top science book of 2022. So far, it is being translated into two other languages.

In a follow-up, Yunger Halpern is running a quantum steampunk short-story contest. The 167 entrants span 29 countries, ranging from 13 year-olds to professional writers foreign to quantum physics. Yunger Halpern recruited judges from across writing and science, including a Hugo Award-winning author and a science advisor for films.

Yunger Halpern has expanded quantum steampunk also into other artistic genres. In a professional photoshoot, she wrote partition functions on a markerboard while wearing Victorian dress. The shoot won a silver Council for Advancement and Support of Education Award for its ‘creative work’. Yunger Halpern is now collaborating with another 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 research: a decade of monthly blogging. Her posts, blending physics with literature, architecture and history, have earned nods from Physics World, Nature Briefing and elsewhere. The posts have catalysed articles written by Yunger Halpern for New Scientist, Literary Hub and other mainstream-media publications, often alongside steampunk artwork. Short-form writing of hers has been translated into four other languages and reported on in Popular Mechanics and Fortune.

Yunger Halpern smashes barriers between physics and art. Quantum steampunk not merely brings to life, but electrifies Victorian thermodynamics.