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Interview with Chris Ferrie

Updated: Sep 19, 2020

📷 University of Technology Sydney

Journalist: Renu Rajamahesh

Renu: Hello, everyone. Welcome to Sci Section radio. Today I am Renu, your journalist and you can find SciSection Radio at CFMU 93.3 F.M. Today I am joined by Dr Chris Ferrie. He is a theoretical physicist at the University of Technology Sydney, and he's also the author of a popular children's book series called Baby University, where he condenses complicated scientific topics into short sentences and simple illustrations. Hello, Dr. Ferrie. How are you doing?

Chris Ferrie: I'm well, thank you.

Renu: Thank you very much for joining me today. So to start off, I have to ask you about Quantum Physics for Babies. And can you tell me how the journey of developing the idea to getting to the point where you wanted to publish it went about?

Chris Ferrie: Yeah, it was a bit spontaneous. I mean, it's hard to remember. And when we think back on history, we always simplify things and exaggerate things. But, there was a process to it. It wasn't well planned. It was more, here's an idea, and then sit on it for a while and then go back to it and say, hey, what about that idea I thought of?. And then you notice things like, for example, I thought maybe I'll write a book, but then I thought, no, you know, I have a job. I don't need another job. And it's hard to get books published. And then I noticed the self publishing options. And so I thought, oh, what about that idea I had? Maybe I can self publish it. And then I started kind of putting it together. And once I started putting it together, then I thought, yeah, this could probably work. So I initially self published it and it was self published for quite a while, maybe three years or more. And it was available on Amazon and it was print on demand. So, you know, it's very easy for us like authors to do this because there's no upfront costs. So if you just want to just try it out, You can just do that. And you don't have to pay anything upfront. When somebody buys the book, it gets printed and sent to them. And that's all organized by these print on demand services. So I just kind of went about my job as an academic and not really paying that much attention. And I was told by some publishers that contacted me, they're like some of the most popular self published books. At least ones that are printed. I mean, there's romance novels that are apparently very popular e-books. Yeah, and so they wanted to get into this space of nonfiction for children. And it's quite rare that a publisher will take a self published book turn it into a, like republish it. But yeah, these ones were doing well enough that they decided to do it and was kind of a novel enough idea. And then they are now available in this kind of nice board book format with, you know, design, cover and everything. Yeah, those are kind of a, you know, a random route. And there was some intention involved, but then it was mostly, like happenstance and and, you know, putting things out there.

Renu: And now it's grown to a series of over 30 books. How many is it?

Chris Ferrie: Yeah. So Sourcebooks, my publisher by the end of the year will publish 50 of my books. They're not all something for babies, you know, on the Baby University series. So I also write picture books. So there's some picture books now, but. Yeah. And I think in the Baby University series maybe something like thirty?

Renu: That's so cool. So do you think that exposing children, especially babies, to these physics topics before they're exposed to social stereotypes, do you think that'll really encourage women and especially minorities come into STEM?

Chris Ferrie: I hope so. It's a challenge in that, especially in where the books are published, like in the US, that the difference between, you know, different minority groups kind of aligns with economic differences as well. And books aren't cheap. Right. So it's it's a challenge to get books into the hands that you want them to be in. So I certainly think that I mean I hope that there'll be lots of new children that are interested in science and especially, you know, higher level science than would have been in the past, because mostly what I think the books are doing is alleviating this anxiety and fear that parents have. And if that's done, then the children don't kind of absorb and adopt their fears of their parents. So I think for girls, it's especially useful because I see in the school yard the way people talk about young children like kindergartners. And already this kind of stereotype of girls aren't good at math, and girls aren't good at science is cropping up. And, you know, as soon as somebody gets one question on one test wrong, the response is: "Oh, well, maybe you're not a math person. Maybe you can focus on this other, like, traditionally stereotypical thing that women do." So I'm hoping that we can move away from that. But I don't know if, you know, the readers of these books. You know, I don't know the demographics of them. But my suspicion is that because they're printed like high quality books. And the price point that the publisher has chosen is a bit on the on the higher end that the majority of the people that own a copy of the book will be people with disposable income. So that's a big challenge, you know. But we get them in schools and in libraries. So hopefully we can solve some of these issues.

Renu: So you said that a lot of people, after one wrong answer, feel like they're not a math person. When did you start to realize you were a math person?

Chris Ferrie: I can even remember distinctly, actually. It was in grade one. And we would play this game where you would compete with one of your classmates to answer a flashcard math question as fast as possible. And if you answered it, then you would move on. You would be standing up there, they would be sitting in the desk, and you would move on to the next person and you would be asked a new question. And if you got it wrong, then you had to sit in their desk and they got to move on. And I don't know. I just when it was my turn, I would just go around and around the room and be able to answer these questions faster than the other students. And it wasn't so much that, you know, maybe it's just happenstance that I happened to be quicker at answering these questions. And, you know, that could have been due to many factors, you know, could have been that I happened to practice those ones or just confidence or it could've been anything. But what happened after that was the positive feedback. Right. So the teacher identified me as someone who might excel at math. And so then they focus their attention on me. Right?

Chris Ferrie: And in math especially, I don't think that anyone is incapable of doing it. I don't think anyone's incapable of doing math at the university level.

Chris Ferrie: But what happens as they go through school is that they get behind. And once you get behind, there's absolutely no way to catch up. There's no formal path for students to catch up. And they just feel like that this isn't for them. They're not good. It's not a talent they have because the classroom is being taught one thing, but they're at a slightly lower level. Now, if they were just taught at their own level, then they would be fine as well. So I kind of just got lucky in that I never fell behind and, you know, if I was in a classroom with some of the students that I ended up going to university with, I would be ignored and the class would be taught towards a higher level. And, you know, I wouldn't have studied math in university. So there's unfortunately a lot of like just sheer luck that goes into the situation that you end up in. But I think there's a way around that. It's difficult because you have to focus attention on each individual student. So I think that's why ultimately the responsibility of education, especially young children, rests in the hands of the parents. We can't assume that a teacher with a classroom of 30 students is going to be able to give all the students the attention that they need.

Renu: I also think math isn't taught as a excitingly as it should be. And a lot of people just have the misconception that university level math is just longer, long divisions.

Chris Ferrie: Yeah, that wouldn't be exciting at all. No. I think math is at its core, just the puzzles and games and yeah, those can be fun. I mean, they're embedded in any game that you play and math is embedded in in all kind of aspects of life. So I think that it's definitely challenging. Actually math has this kind of, the problem, I think, is that it's too easy to test right? Because in other subjects like yeah, in other subjects like history, you you just tell the students some factual information and that's immediately relatable to their to their own lives because it involves people and, you know, the kids are excited. And so you think that you've done a good job, whereas math, it's just so easy to say, oh, I'll find out if you're good at it. I'll just give you a test. Right. So practice all of the questions that might be on the test and then give them the test. And there's I see a lot around the world that initiatives to try to change the way math is taught. I know in Ontario, when I was there, they had moved to this what they called discovery math, where it was kind of this kind of flipped learning model where the student led and they found that kids didn't do better on the tests with this new method. Well, of course not, because you haven't changed the way you did the tests and before you just had them practice writing tests. Of course, they're going to be good at tests. So it is a challenge to get right. And I think the problem is it just comes back down to it's just so easy to give someone a math test. And then when you have all of these other things to do, you end up doing the easiest one. So math gets kind of the short end of the stick there.

Renu: So since you are currently lecturing, do you have any advice for how students can make the most of their online classes?

Chris Ferrie: I don't know. I think yeah, I think so. I don't know if it's good advice. But from the teachers perspective, maybe this is unique to like a university. And this, I think, probably is like works generally for most online meetings and collaborations. I find that when you're doing this online, people have a tendency to just put their video and audio on mute and go to another window and get distracted. And so some people even joke that like online classes and meetings are good to get them to focus on something else they want to do. So if there's a meeting going on, they can't actually leave the room so they can sit and focus on the work that they want to do. And the meeting is just keeping them there. Well, if that's the case, then you're not actually participating in the class or the meeting. And so as a lecture, I'm just talking to my screen like I don't even know if the people on the other end are listening. And so they're not giving me feedback. And if there's no participation, then then there's very little that is really coming out of this. So for students, I would say, you know, participate in the lectures. And even if that's just, you know. Put your video on so that the teacher can see that you're paying attention and nodding your head and certainly give feedback. It can be challenging because, you know, as a teacher, you might say during the first 10 minutes, you might say, OK, minute one, OK. Does anyone have any questions? And silence. Minute two? Does anyone have any questions? Silence. And at some point you think it is pointless to even ask if there's any questions. And so you start asking if there's any questions. And then when someone finally has a question, they're like. Am I allowed to interrupt? He's not asking me if I have questions anymore. So, you know, it could be worthwhile to just mentally reset. Go back to the beginning and say, OK, we're going to do this with the same enthusiasm that we started with. And really participate.

Renu: So I won't make you choose between your books. But what's perhaps your favorite medium to write in? You write books, blogs. You are pretty active on Twitter.

Chris Ferrie: Yeah, blogging. I like I don't know what it is about it, but I like writing things that are longer than a tweet but don't require the commitment of a forty thousand page book. So I think blogging kind of hits that. And, you know, that kind of five minute read mark. I feel like that's the thing that I enjoy. It's a little bit selfish, like I am usually writing for myself. Maybe it's my future self, or maybe it's just to crystallize the ideas I have.

Chris Ferrie: And I find it very helpful to write these down and put them in public because it forces you to clarify exactly what it is that you mean.

Chris Ferrie: And so, you know, I write some books and maybe some blog posts that are pretty esoteric. And, you know, you can say all of these platforms give you, like, the ability to look at the stats of your things. And, you know, some of the ones that I enjoyed writing the most are the ones that have like one view, which is me, which is fine because, yeah, you at least you know that when you write for yourself that there's one person that will enjoy it.

Renu: And what about writing journal articles?

Chris Ferrie: Writing journal articles, I’m a bit over that, to be honest. I prefer giving academic seminars about my research than I do writing academic journals. There's a lot of constraints that come along with writing for journals. And I mean that people have this kind of platonic ideal conception of what academic publication means. And it involves, like, you know, writing down your arguments and then being criticized and peer reviewed and there's some sort of feedback process so what finally gets published is like, you know, this thing that can go in the epitome of science. And that's not how it works at all in practice. It's messy and there's all sorts of competing financial interests and just competing social interests. And the way that works and practices is more of a game of mates, as they say, in Australia. So who knows who? And it's really kind of sad, to be honest. So I don't like those aspects of it. I think that I will continue to write academic journals or journal articles, but I won't, you know, in my field in particular, there's a new trend where you post your article online. It's not peer reviewed. It's not published. But people can read it. And a lot of the, you know, the best work in the field is recognized and kind of vetted before it ever gets sent to reviewers to peer review. And then it never actually gets published. And it just, you know, another thing on the Internet. But it's cited thousands of times and it's become part of the scientific literature, even though it hasn't been formally peer reviewed. And that that kind of irks people. But we have to remember that peer review often involves just one other person reading it, probably, you know, five minutes before the deadline when they're supposed to submit the review and didn't really give it much thought. Whereas if you have something posted on the Internet and you know that thousands of people have read it and have looked at it and used it in their further research, and that that's a better vetting process in my mind than the traditional academic model.

Renu: In theoretical physics, are physicists happy in the abstract world of math, or do they try to explain it in a words to create a picture in our heads?

Chris Ferrie: Yeah. At some point, you you're working with ideas and concepts that have not been translated. So when you first initially start looking at, say, symbols and mathematics, they're used to shorten, like compress things. So I remember like word problems from schools like you know, you put a ladder against the wall and what angle do you need to put it at... Something like that. And then the first thing you're supposed to do is just like create a variable like, you know, let x be the distance of the ladder from the wall. Right. Something like that. So instead of writing out that full sentence, every time you replace it with this variable X and it's not that high, higher level mathematics, you have all of these symbols and concepts which are just compressions of things you can say in in English, for example. But just take a lot longer to say they're actually new concepts that have not been phrased in the language in in any sort of spoken language. So you use almost forced to use these and only these, and it's doing that translation that is sometimes difficult. I mean. So you have like these concepts and symbols. And this is what mathematics is. And they have their own set of rules for how they go together. And you know how to use those rules, like, you know, how to use language. But there's no translation to any spoken language.


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