Pi-powered hands-on statistical model at the Royal Society

Physics! Particles! Statistical modelling! Quantum theory! How can non-scientists understand any of it? Well, students from Durham University are here to help you wrap your head around it all – and to our delight, they’re using the power of the Raspberry Pi to do it!

At the Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition, taking place in London from 4-9 July, the students are presenting a Pi-based experiment demonstrating the importance of statistics in their field of research.

Modelling the invisible – Summer Science Exhibition 2017

The Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition 2017 features 22 exhibits of cutting-edge, hands-on UK science , along with special events and talks. You can meet the scientists behind the research. Find out more about the exhibition at our website: https://royalsociety.org/science-events-and-lectures/2017/summer-science-exhibition/

Ramona, Matthew, and their colleagues are particle physicists keen to bring their science to those of us whose heads start to hurt as soon as we hear the word ‘subatomic’. In their work, they create computer models of subatomic particles to make predictions about real-world particles. Their models help scientists to design better experiments and to improve sensor calibrations. If this doesn’t sound straightforward to you, never fear – this group of scientists has set out to show exactly how statistical models are useful.

The Galton board model

They’ve built a Pi-powered Galton board, also called a bean machine (much less intimidating, I think). This is an upright board, shaped like an upside-down funnel, with nails hammered into it. Drop a ball in at the top, and it will randomly bounce off the nails on its way down. How the nails are spread out determines where a ball is most likely to land at the bottom of the board.

If you’re having trouble picturing this, you can try out an online Galton board. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

You’re back? All clear? Great!

Now, if you drop 100 balls down the board and collect them at the bottom, the result might look something like this:

Galton board

By Antoine Taveneaux CC BY-SA 3.0

The distribution of the balls is determined by the locations of the nails in the board. This means that, if you don’t know where the nails are, you can look at the distribution of balls to figure out where they are most likely to be located. And you’ll be able to do all this using … statistics!!!

Statistical models

Similarly, how particles behave is determined by the laws of physics – think of the particles as balls, and laws of physics as nails. Physicists can observe the behaviour of particles to learn about laws of physics, and create statistical models simulating the laws of physics to predict the behaviour of particles.

I can hear you say, “Alright, thanks for the info, but how does the Raspberry Pi come into this?” Don’t worry – I’m getting to that.

Modelling the invisible – the interactive exhibit

As I said, Ramona and the other physicists have not created a regular old Galton board. Instead, this one records where the balls land using a Raspberry Pi, and other portable Pis around the exhibition space can access the records of the experimental results. These Pis in turn run Galton board simulators, and visitors can use them to recreate a virtual Galton board that produces the same results as the physical one. Then, they can check whether their model board does, in fact, look like the one the physicists built. In this way, people directly experience the relationship between statistical models and experimental results.

Hurrah for science!

The other exhibit the Durham students will be showing is a demo dark matter detector! So if you decide to visit the Summer Science Exhibition, you will also have the chance to learn about the very boundaries of human understanding of the cosmos.

The Pi in museums

At the Raspberry Pi Foundation, education is our mission, and of course we love museums. It is always a pleasure to see our computers incorporated into exhibits: the Pi-powered visual theremin teaches visitors about music; the Museum in a Box uses Pis to engage people in hands-on encounters with exhibits; and this Pi is itself a museum piece! If you want to learn more about Raspberry Pis and museums, you can listen to this interview with Pi Towers’ social media maestro Alex Bate.

It’s amazing that our tech is used to educate people in areas beyond computer science. If you’ve created a pi-powered educational project, please share it with us in the comments.