LabEscape sequel 'Return to the Lab' open in Urbana

Siv Schwink
3/1/2018

Professor Paul Kwiat
Professor Paul Kwiat
LabEscape is calling all agents back to the lab to solve the continuing mystery of the disappearance of Professor Schrödenberg, a University of Illinois physicist who developed a top-secret quantum computer that can crack any digital-security encryption code in the world. Once again, it’s up to you and your team to save the free world from evil forces plotting its destruction, and you have precisely 60 minutes to do it. Mysterious circumstances and new intelligence have reopened this investigation—unhackable messages were hacked three days ago, there are power surges coming from Dr. S’s abandoned secret lab, and her missing technology and a hard drive that were lost before her disappearance have now resurfaced.

LabEscape, a science-themed escape room at Lincoln Square Mall in Urbana, first opened in January 2017. Paul Kwiat, a physics professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, initiated the nonprofit LabEscape project two years ago as a community outreach effort, with the goal of showing that science can be fun, beautiful, useful, and accessible to all.

To date, nearly 2,500 agents have passed through in groups of up to six participants at a time. The sequel adventure, “Return to the Lab,” picks up the storyline three months after the first adventure. It features all new interactive puzzles that are based on amazing physics phenomena. Just like in the first adventure, no science knowledge is required—all information required to solve these puzzles is provided among the clues in the escape room.

“The sequel’s storyline was already planned when we wrote the first adventure,” shares Kwiat. “It’s really important that the storyline make sense and that the puzzles fit the storyline. I’m excited about these new puzzles, because they really are jaw-dropping. The agents who have revisited the lab have enjoyed the sequel as much or more than the original. Both adventures have received rave reviews. We’re particularly gratified that many of our attendees have described LabEscape as the best escape room they’ve ever done; this is nice testament to the many, many hours the puzzle development teams invested to create the space.”

In his own leading-edge research, Kwiat develops techniques for secretive communications with unbreakable encryption by manipulating the quantum behaviors of entangled photons—so he very much identifies with Dr. S’s storyline.

A Tesla coil produces voltages in excess of 50,000 volts that are able to arc through the air (the bright blue spark coming from the metal sphere at the top) and light up neon bulbs that aren't connected in any way. Photo by Paul Kwiat, Department of Physics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
A Tesla coil produces voltages in excess of 50,000 volts that are able to arc through the air (the bright blue spark coming from the metal sphere at the top) and light up neon bulbs that aren't connected in any way. Photo by Paul Kwiat, Department of Physics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Kwiat adds, “We’ve had a wonderful time exposing people to the joy of being a scientist, with the rewards for solving a difficult problem commensurate with the difficulty. It’s been great to see directly how important diversity is, too—groups with a mix of backgrounds often have a much easier time, even over groups that are all scientists. In fact, one of our record times is held by a group with no technical background at all.”

LabEscape will host a 13-month anniversary party and sequel celebration on Friday, March 2, from 5 to 9 p.m. There will be fun activities, contests, gifts, and free 15-minute escapes. Reservations for full escape adventures must be booked online at LabEscape.org. Tickets are $20 per person, or $15 with a student ID.

Day-to-day operations at LabEscape are handled by U of I undergraduate students who have completed introductory physics courses. Two levels of play are available in each storyline; the ‘challenge’ mode adds several puzzles beyond those in the ‘novice’ mode.

Kwiat plans to keep the escape room open for about two more years, after which he hopes to pack it up as a travelling exhibit on loan to science museums in major U.S. cities.

Financial support for this outreach project has been provided by the National Science Foundation through the American Physical Society, and by the Department of Physics and the Academy for Excellence in Engineering Education at the U of I at Urbana-Champaign. Proceeds above the cost of development and operation will support Urbana-Champaign’s STEM-related community outreach efforts.

Recent News

  • Research Funding

The United States Department of Energy awards $2.2 million to the FAIR Framework for Physics-Inspired Artificial Intelligence in High Energy Physics project, spearheaded by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications’ Center for Artificial Intelligence Innovation (CAII) and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The primary focus of this project is to advance our understanding of the relationship between data and artificial intelligence (AI) models by exploring relationships among them through the development of FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable) frameworks. Using High Energy Physics (HEP) as the science driver, this project will develop a FAIR framework to advance our understanding of AI, provide new insights to apply AI techniques, and provide an environment where novel approaches to AI can be explored.

This project is an interdisciplinary, multi-department, and multi-institutional effort led by Eliu Huerta, principal investigator, director of the CAII, senior research scientist at NCSA, and faculty in Physics, Astronomy, Computational Science and Engineering and the Illinois Center for Advanced Studies of the Universe at UIUC. Alongside Huerta are co-PIs from Illinois: Zhizhen Zhao, assistant professor of Electrical & Computer Engineering and Coordinated Science Laboratory; Mark Neubauer, professor of physics, member of Illinois Center for Advanced Studies of the Universe, and faculty affiliate in ECE, NCSA, and the CAII; Volodymyr Kindratenko, co-director of the CAII, senior research scientist at NCSA, and faculty at ECE and Computer Science; Daniel S. Katz, assistant director of Scientific Software and Applications at NCSA, faculty in ECE, CS, and School of Information Sciences. In addition, the team is joined by co-PIs Roger Rusack, professor of physics at the University of Minnesota; Philip Harris, assistant professor of physics at MIT; and Javier Duarte, assistant professor in physics at UC San Diego.

  • Research

This year, 31 research teams have been awarded a combined 5.87 million node hours on the Summit supercomputer, the OLCF’s 200 petaflop IBM AC922 system. The research performed through the ALCC program this year will range from the impact of jets on offshore wind farms to the structure and states of quantum materials to the behavior of plasma within fusion reactors—all computationally intensive scientific applications necessitating the power of a large-scale supercomputer like Summit.

  • In Memoriam

Jim was widely viewed as one of the best teachers in the Physics Department. He was frequently listed in the University’s roster of excellent instructors and won awards for his classroom skills. In 2012, he received the Arnold T. Nordsieck Physics Award for Teaching Excellence for his “patient, insightful, and inspiring physics teaching, one problem at a time, that encourages undergraduate students to take their understanding to a new level.”

  • Research

Now a team of theoretical physicists at the Institute for Condensed Matter Theory (ICMT) in the Department of Physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, led by Illinois Physics Professor Philip Phillips, has for the first time exactly solved a representative model of the cuprate problem, the 1992 Hatsugai-Kohmoto (HK) model of a doped Mott insulator.