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You have conquered the Escape Room. But can you escape the lab?



URBANA, Ill. – It was 10:00 pm, and we were detained in a room in the mall.

It had been a long day. I woke up at 5 in the morning to finish an article. Then I spent a day talking to students and professors from the University of Illinois. The Physics Department had invited me and two other academic writers to better explain to students of science and engineering what they are doing.

I drank a couple of glasses of wine at dinner.

And now here I was in a locked room in Lincoln Square Mall, trying to remember my old physics education to get out .

We four – me and Phillip Schewe, a longtime scholarly writer; David Ehrenstein, editor of the American Physical Society; and Karin Dahmen, a professor of physics at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, had an hour to find out all about a missing scientist.

The fate of the free world was at stake. Of course. In this video our mission was set out.

"It was super fun," Dr. Kwiat, although they could not solve all the Sherlock Holmes puzzles in the given time. On the same journey he made another escape in Prague. (He is now 25 years old.)

Before we entered, we received some leaves with basic properties of light. We flew over the information about different wavelengths of light, including radio waves and X-rays, and the law of refraction, which describes how the light bends when it penetrates into a material such as water or glass. Kwiat said it was not necessary to memorize all this knowledge, but it was good to look and think about it.

In the room we went to.

As it turns out, a background in physics does not necessarily help. I'm a former student who left Illinois a quarter of a century ago without a doctorate, after I decided I could better ask other scientists what the answer was.

Both David Ehrenstein and Phil Schewe have completed their doctoral degrees before deciding that they prefer the communications side of physics. And Karin Dahmen is a physics professor.

However, we lacked the traits of trained escape-zone followers. This included the methodical organization – inventory everything in the room – and concentrate. Communicate clearly with your teammates. Do not let anything distract you.

Dr. Schewe, for example, began to search a stack of old Physics Today magazines on a bookshelf. "Phil!" I said angrily. "Stop looking for your items!" (Tip: Do not waste time reading the magazines, so you may want to take a closer look.)

During the development of LabEscape, Drs. Kwiat, with a vision of visions that seems like computer-generated special effects, instead manipulates phenomena of real materials.

To avoid confusing the puzzles for future laboratory workers, consider using a plastic tank that was once in the LabEscape Welcome Area.

Kwiat the optical alchemy of acrylic and corn syrup.

At first glance, the tank was clear and seemingly empty. But put on 3-D IMAX glasses, and three-dimensional letters depicting LabEscape in psychedelic colors suddenly appeared in front of you .

The tank was not empty, but filled with 18 gallons of corn syrup. There were also the letters made of acrylic. However, since the two materials have roughly the same index of refraction, the light penetrated without bending over from one to another and the letters were almost invisible.

But corn syrup is also "optically active" in its sugar molecules because of its shape.

Polarized light, in which the oscillating electric fields of the photons are arranged in parallel, like airplanes flying in formation, was aimed at the tank. As the light went through the syrup, the polarization spun. (Remember the airplanes that work synchronously with the casters.)

Blue light is about twice as strong as red light. Since acrylics are not optically active, the rays that passed through the letters – and flowed less through the syrup – had a different orientation.

Their eyes do not perceive polarization, but a polarizing filter in the IMAX goggles turned the invisible colorfully visible.

The sign is no longer there because Dr. Kwiat overlooked another fundamental property of corn syrup – it's denser than water. Under the burden of extra weight, the plastic broke and triggered a sticky deluge.

The rescue room was for Dr. med. Kwiat in other ways a learning experience.

A puzzle involves extracting a key to open a lock for another clue . Dr. Kwiat developed the solution, but was surprised when a participant found an alternative way to get the key.

Then someone found out a third way and someone else found out a fourth way. Finally, he stopped being surprised. Escape space players have now found 18 different ways to fish out the key.

A debriefing after you finish your time in the room will create fascinating tidbits. Did you know that your digital camera can capture infrared light that your eyes can not see? I have not

And there really was a federal agency called the Disruptive Technology Office. Dr. Kwiat even received a scholarship.

But he does not expect people to be educated about the refractive index or how a laser works.

Instead, Dr. Kwiat that participants will appreciate better how scientists find beauty and awe in deciphering the universe.

"If you overcome any of these puzzles, the feeling of triumph is great," he said. "Just like in science."

Erica Phillpott, a receptionist at a health club, brought her six children aged 10 to 19 to LabEscape. When she first looked at the factsheets, she was nervous.

"I've just paid this man to add extra stress to my life," she recalls. "None of us know anything about science."

But Ms. Phillpott and her children have managed to leave the room. "We saved the world," she said.

After that, her 12-year-old daughter whose birthday she was celebrating became more excited by science. She now thinks she would like to study forensics or something similar.

"She really made the best of it," said Ms. Phillpott.

Even with student sales at the university, there may not be enough customers to run LabEscape in Urbana indefinitely.

Dr. Kwiat plans to relocate it to a science museum in a larger city, and hopes that a company that invests in quantum computer research – perhaps Google – may, he said wistfully, become a sponsor.

The goal would not be to take people to a science museum to try to escape, but vice versa: to lure escape-space lovers to a science museum.

As for the three science writers and the physicist we did not solve all the problems, and when our time was up they were banished to the "quantum kingdom".

But it was fun to end the day.


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