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Discovering your inner scientist

Chad Orzel

Chad Orzel in action.

By Matin Durrani

Chad Orzel writes one of the most active and longest running science blogs on the net, having posted the first entry on his blog Uncertain Principles back in June 2002. A physicist at Union College in Schenectady, New York, he’s also written two popular-science books, based on the cute premise of trying to teaching first quantum physics and then relativity to his dog.

So, a couple of months back, when we noticed that Orzel was coming to the UK, we decided to invite him to give a talk as part of the Bristol Festival of Ideas. Orzel kindly accepted our offer and last night saw him speak here at the offices of IOP Publishing, which publishes Physics World. The talk was entitled Eureka! Discovering Your Inner Scientist, which just happens to be the title of Chad’s next book. (And what’s wrong with a spot of self-publicity?)

The theme of the talk was that science is not some weird, other-worldly activity, but actually part and parcel of everyday life. We’re all scientists, even if we don’t realize it, in that science is simply about trying to make sense of the world. To prove the point, Orzel gave three examples – solving crossword puzzles, playing bridge and taking part in sport – that all require us to think like scientists.

Take football (or soccer, as Orzel desperately tried to avoid calling it for his British audience). Footballer players aren’t necessarily the brightest cookies in the jar, but they do think like scientists. A top goalkeeper like Tim Howard of the US national team, for example, will be constantly monitoring what’s happening on the field of play, noting which players shoot where (and how), and essentially building up a mental model of the game.

Based on that model, which he’s continually testing and refining live on the field, a player like Howard then makes assumptions about where an onrushing opponent is most likely to strike the ball – doing his best to keep it out of the net. (Footballers are even like scientists in that they can’t wait to tell everyone about what they did, albeit that they start blabbering in the confines of a post-match interview rather than via a scientific paper.)

Children, too, think like scientists, until the school exam system suffocates their “inner scientist”, that is. I’m not sure Orzel has the answer to why many people lose their intrinsic interest in science, but hopefully his book will encourage more of them to refind that latent passion.

NB As if to prove how active Orzel is, he’s already blogged about last night’s talk, beating us by several hours.

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  1. Muhammad Azeem

    Scientists are considered backbone of a nation. However they are promoted in public R&D sectors only. Private companies does not have time to hire them, instead they look for design engineers and technologists. This all is true in developing countries. Hence it’s your consistency of reading, researching, and experimenting science that you identify your inner self as successful scientists.

  2. That is great Chad Orzel.
    “–science is not some weird, other-worldly activity, but actually part and parcel of everyday life. We’re all scientists, even if we don’t realize it, in that science is simply about trying to make sense of the world—”
    I hope the ‘scientific community’ realises that and don’t simply ignore the scientific opinions of ‘non-scientists’.

    • Dileep Sathe

      Yes, Dr. G. Srinivas, my expectation is also like yours. But PER shows that students give *contrasting* answers – depending on whether the evaluation is based on *marks* or not. Such a contrast was reported first by John Warren in Physics Education in 1971, on a question based on uniform circular motion. I hope it will receive due attention in 2015 in the events to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s G.R.

      • drgsrinivas

        Unfortunately most physicists don’t realise that. To be able to talk physics, they believe that
        - one must have at least a masters degree in physics,
        - must have been part of CERN team or so,
        - and most importantly one must only converse in complex mathematics so that ordinary people don’t easily comprehend physics and don’t underestimate the intelligence of physicists.

    • John Duffield

      I’m what you’d call a relativist, and I took a look at your website. Have a look at the Baez website re the speed of light:

      “Still, we can say that light in the presence of gravity does have a position-dependent “pseudo speed”. In that sense, we could say that the “ceiling” speed of light in the presence of gravity is higher than the “floor” speed of light.

      Einstein talked about the speed of light changing in his new theory. In his 1920 book “Relativity: the special and general theory” he wrote: “… according to the general theory of relativity, the law of the constancy of the velocity of light in vacuo, which constitutes one of the two fundamental assumptions in the special theory of relativity [...] cannot claim any unlimited validity. A curvature of rays of light can only take place when the velocity [Einstein means speed here] of propagation of light varies with position.” This difference in speeds is precisely that referred to above by ceiling and floor observers”.

      The speed of light is not constant!

      • On one side you believe that speed of light is not constant and on the other hand you claim yourself as a relativist! How come? Are you trying to prove quantum theory?

        I think you are actually an ‘Einsteinist’ and not a relativist.

      • Dileep Sathe

        Srinivas’s reply (17 August) of reminds me of an embracing situation, which I witnessed in January 2005, in an event in Borivali – a subarb of Mumai, MH, India. A leader had referred to merging of space and time to make the space-time continuum. After the lecture, a person wanted to know what that continuum is – because as per the scientific knowledge of *public* both space and time – both – cannot be sensed by our five senses. But the leader simply repeated his stand and the questioner was not satisfied. The situation had continued bit longer – before the organizer intervened and ended the matter but not successfully.
        As a school teacher (now retired) I stand between public and professionals and have to motivate students of 15-17 to take up a career in physics. This why I am urging leaders to focus attention on problems in *learning* Newtonian mechanics – since 2005 – and now for framing events of the celebration of 100th anniversary of Einstein’s G.R. and I hope that the situation, noted above, will not be repeated next year.

      • Princewill

        true but that’s the whole concept of EINSTEIN’S Relativity theories…that most quantities that are proved by classical mechanics to be constant actually aren’t based on the position of the observers relative to it, it is applicable in time dilation and length contraction

  3. Dileep Sathe

    Mother: first physics teacher

    Yes science is everywhere, anyone can teach it anywhere to anyone at any time. This is the reason, I guess, why Albert Einstein used say that *a child learns half of physics by the age 3*.This quotation was mentioned by Roger J. Osborne, from New Zealand, in The Physics Teacher, November 1984. My addition to that is *Mother is the first physics teacher*.

    Another great advantage of discovering inner scientist is that it helps one to cross the religious borders and make friendship with any junior around. I am enjoying this mission (not only profession) and happiness for 40 years and I am very grateful to Sir John Kendrew – my Guru – who gave me the most appropriate direction to my life through the inspiring correspondence between 1970 and 1974.

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