Interview with Rhett Allain

Updated: Sep 9, 2020

📷 Rhett Allain

Journalist: Renu Rajamagesh

Renu: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to the SciSection Radio Show. Today, you are joining me, Renu, and I'm here with Dr. Rhett Allain. He is a physics professor at Southeastern University, Louisiana. He writes a fascinating physics blog called Dot Physics, which is a celebration of all things geeky. And he also is a science consultant to popular TV shows, MythBusters and MacGyver. Hello, Dr. Allain. Thank you very much for taking the time to join me.

Rhett Allain: Hello. Thank you for having me.

Renu: So I guess we'll start off with asking you about your blog, your blog basically embodies the idea of show, don't tell. Can you tell me about how you developed this style?

Rhett Allain: I mean, so it originally started with students. So I had students in class that wanted to do some type of extra project for physics class in college. And so I said, you know, that's fine, you could do something really cool, but they didn't do anything cool. And I said, well, OK, maybe they didn't understand what I wanted. So maybe I should write an example. So I think, one of the first ones I did was this commercial where they have this plane landing and then a truck comes out the back of the plane and stops it. And so I analyze that as an example that they could follow. And it kind of helped. But but I enjoyed it. And so I wrote another example. And then I kind of got out of control and I just kept writing more stuff. And so I really enjoy looking at everyday things and trying to analyze them in different ways. And that's that's really where it started. And then I just I never look back.

Renu: Yeah. And I think something that makes your blog unique is that most of your topics are just like mechanics or simple optics. And that really defers to a lot of other science blogs that sort of like to go into the most esoteric topics of physics. So do you have any tips for new bloggers and how they can sort of make the most of whatever little knowledge they have?

Rhett Allain: Yeah. So I agree that there's people that go into quantum mechanics and astrophysics and stuff like that, and that's what they enjoy. And I enjoy that, too. But you don't see as much it is there, but you don't see that in your everyday life. You don't see it as in the movies as much. And, you know, classical mechanics is my favorite because there's so many things you can do and it's literally everywhere. Electric currents everywhere. Light is everywhere. So I'd like to answer questions that I have. And I think that's my number one tip for writers, is to write for yourself. And if other people enjoy them, too, then that's a bonus. But if you just write for other people and you know something that someone may enjoy and but you don't enjoy it, it's really hard to keep that up. And I think that when you do that, when you write for yourself, most people appreciate the passion that they can see in you and they enjoy that, so they actually enjoy it more when you write for yourself.

Renu: So usually you write about the physics in video games, movies and just popular culture in general. Is there a particular analysis that's memorable to you?

Rhett Allain: I think all the stuff I did with Angry Birds, Angry Birds, you know. I remember playing the game on my phone. My kids were younger and I'd put them to bed and I had my phone. It was like the first game I really played on my phone that I enjoyed. And then you play a game like that and you start asking yourself questions, you know, is this projectile motion? It looks like projectile motion. But is it you know, what's the mass of the bird? You know, are these different birds better? And you come up with all these questions and you can't answer them. You can't even create a perfect experiment. You're confined to the game environment itself. And you have to find the perfect level where you can knock over a rock with a bird. And I just enjoyed that game and the analysis of that game so much. And I got so many blog posts out of it that I got a book out of it, too, from National Geographic. So that was kind of fun that that series of blog posts really changed the way I thought about video games and. And for me, the video game itself was kind of like, it is absolutely real science. It's collecting data and building models, but it's inexpensive, really easy. And it's really fun. And other people can do it, too. And so that's what I really enjoy about Angry Birds in particular. I want to find some better video games. I haven't done enough video games in a while, but I really enjoy those.

Renu: Also, you really share your thought process as you attempt to answer these questions in your blogs. Do you think that science education shows enough of that?

Rhett Allain: I mean, that is hard. I mean, the way I show my thought process is because I don't plan out what I'm going to write. I just start writing. And I think of my blog more as a journal of what I'm doing, because I just get to it and I can make mistakes. Right. I can make mistakes.

Rhett Allain: And a mistake is good because you can talk about the mistake. And I like that.

Rhett Allain: I think in general, science education, at least, whether they attempt to or not, the viewpoint from the student is that if you make a mistake, that's bad. You're bad. I'm bad. Everyone's bad. Mistakes are bad. But they're not. You know, mistakes are part of the learning process. That's how we learn. It's like if I was at basketball practice and I missed a shot, that's good, right? Because that means I can improve my shot. It'd be unrealistic for me to make every shot. That's not the way it works. But I think a lot of students have that idea in class that if I did something wrong, you're either a bad teacher or I'm a bad student or I'm dumb. And that's not true. So I try to show that when I'm writing, I meant by showing the thought process. And and I think science education generally works on that. The problem is with what you'd call direct instruction, where just tell you everything and show you everything. It's hard to see the mistakes in the process. And that's why things like active learning, where students work on problems or, you know, do some something where they're doing something is better than just a passive lecture.

Renu: Is active learning particularly difficult online?

Rhett Allain: Well, we're finding out now, huh? You know, we I did online classes at the end of the spring semester. I did online classes in the summer and I really haven't mastered. It took me 20 years to figure out how to do active learning in class. Right. And to get better at that. And now moving to online stuff, it is a lot more difficult to have a class that way. I think it's possible. But the but the types of interactions that you have with students and the students have with each other have this filter of technology in them. And it makes everything a bit slower and a little bit more difficult and harder. So I think I think in theory it can't be done. But right now, I'm still not there yet. I'm still not at the level of where I want to be with with online learning in terms of active learning.

Renu: So moving on to your role as a science consultant, is your job at Myth Busters come about after your blogs about analyzing physics and popular culture?

Rhett Allain: Yeah, actually. So, you know, Myth Busters started before my blog and then I started blogging and I write about things that I love. I love comic books and superheroes and Star Wars. So that's what I read about. And I love Myth Busters. It was one of my favorite shows. And originally, they started off very low level type show where they they just made mistakes. They did everything that didn't explain the science. And that's what made Adam and Jamie so awesome, was that they were just normal people with good building skills and they answer these scientific questions. And then at some point they changed and they started adding these little science explanations into the show. And and that's where they started to make mistakes. And so, of course, I wanted to write about what they did wrong. And I did. And and they found that, they reached out and said, well, why don't you help us make better explanations from mythbusters? And so I did. And at first, you know, I would just answer a few questions a year. But towards the end, you know, I was doing a lot with with them and then with Myth Busters Junior and John and Bryan, that second version of Myth Busters. You know, I worked on a lot of the myths before they did them. And so I got more involved with that. And it was a lot of fun. It's a lot of work, but there's a lot of fun. There's one story I remember from the last season of the Adam and Jamie Myth Busters. They wanted to do the experiment where you take a train tanker car and you seal it off and then it collapses and they know that there's a lot of safety valves on these cars that they have to disable to make it accidently collapse. And so I was calling around a different train, companies and people that had cars to try to figure out who could tell me about these things. And ever just thought it was crazy. And I remember I spent like a week trying to hunt down people that knew something. An expert on train cars. You figure out how we could make that myth work. And that was I was really happy to see that at all. It all worked out in the end.

Renu: I think everyone's favorite part about myth busters is even when the myth guest gets busted, he still gets to see that explosion.

Rhett Allain: Yeah, that's true.

Renu: Is there a myth that never was tested that you wish was?

Rhett Allain: Oh, wow. Mm hmm. There's so many. They've done this. I'm at my point right now. I'm thinking there's so many things that we wanted to do and that that could be done. I can't think of one right now off the top of my head. Wel, I'm just thinking of all the great myths they did do that I really enjoy. I love the ones that were great physics experiments that we do in class and they just take it to a bigger level. The ones that come into my mind are when they took a bullet and shot a bullet horizontally and dropped a ball at the same time. It's a classic experiment we do in physics class, but they did it with actual real bullets and then they got that to work is really cool. Yeah, there's a whole bunch of great stuff there.

Renu: Well, what was a myth that was particularly challenging for you as a science consultant?

Rhett Allain: Sometimes the toughest thing is creating an explanation.

Rhett Allain: Here's a good one. A car crashes a T bone to the car. So he hits it in the side and they want a number. What's the impact number? How can we characterize this collision of how hard this car hit this other car? And there's not an answer, right. I mean, these collisions are complicated and there's a lot of different ways to explain them. But but you want to get something to tell the audience in in 20 seconds, 20 seconds. Go explain this complicated idea in 20 seconds, which is pretty much impossible. But you want to say something. So so you're you're stuck in this position of trying to explain science very, very briefly. It's like it's like physics haiku. Right. You only get three lines and it has to have five syllables and then three syllables and whatever. And you're constrained to this format of explaining something. And that is quite a challenge. But also it's fun to have a challenge like that. But but the car colliding with another car is one of the examples where they want a number. What's what's the impact number? No, the joules or the force or something. And you can't give it. There's no value. So it's really quite difficult to do.

Renu: How different is it being a science consultant for MacGyver?

Rhett Allain: Yeah. Yeah. So MacGyver is fiction. You know, I was so impressed with the directors and the producers of MacGyver. When they reached out to me, they said we you know, we want to give a little level of this authenticity to MacGyver. We want to we want to do stuff that's at least based on science. And that's the key. Everything that MacGyver does is based on something real. So you have the freedom to kind of pick something, a unique solution to a problem that's based on real life science, even though it most of those hacks you couldn't do in the show. He may build something in 10 seconds that would take you probably an hour to build, but it's still a real thing. So that's what's a challenging thing for me, is I'll talk to the writers about writing a script and they say, OK, here's MacGyver, here's a situation. He needs to open this door and here's what you have and I'll give him some options. And this only we like that. But we did something similar to that in season one. OK. And then I'll come up with another idea and then, Well, that's true. But we want something more visual. So you have this these other constraints of, you know, writing that really make it fun. It's a lot of work, but I really enjoy working with the writers. They're really creative. And then sometimes I get to suggest a physics joke and they put it in the script and I always get excited.

Renu: So I guess we'll wrap up with a few short questions. What's a scientific achievement of recent times that really inspired you?

Rhett Allain: You know, I think I was inspired by the detection of gravitational waves. The LIGO Livingston Observatory is 40 miles from here. And when I first started working at Southeastern, that was there. And we had some people that worked there. But I just thought, there's no way this is going to work. I don't know what they're wasting time for. And then it actually worked. I mean, I was excited about all the space stuff too. Space X, which isn't really a scientific achievement, but Space X having a commercial rocket that can that can land back on a barge. That's just crazy. And then it actually works. I mean, I get excited about that.

Renu: It really shows you that the human race is awesome.

Rhett Allain: Yeah, that’s true.

Renu: And finally, if you were to write a book about yourself, what would you call it?

Rhett Allain: Oh, a book about myself. I enjoy writing so much. I'm trying to think of something like a cool title, like "Surely you must be joking, Mr. Feynman." I like that book. Something like that would be fun to write, but I'm not sure the title must be, you know, Rhett's crazy adventures that he thinks are cool, but no one else does. That'd be a good title.

Renu: Very Catchy. Thank you so much for joining us. It is great talking to you. Well, thank you for having me. I've had a good time. All right. Thank you. Bye.

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