All posts by Chad

Eureka in APS News

There’s an excerpt from Eureka: discovering Your Inner Scientist in the American Physical Society’s monthly newsletter for December. This takes off from Ernest Rutherford’s (in)famous line deviding science between physics and stamp collecting:

Like a lot of kids, I had a stamp collection for a while. I never collected anything particularly notable, but going through old letters and boxes of stamps from relatives who had had collections was enjoyable in a quiet way. And putting the individual stamps together to make a larger picture was fascinating. I remember an intimidatingly large three-ring binder with spots for every US stamp that had been issued to that point, and the satisfaction of completing a page. My hobby also gave a sense of history outside the collection — for example, seeing all the stamps of the 1893 Columbian Issue commemorating the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ famous voyages showed me there was a good deal more to the story than I had heard in grade school.

Beyond the immediate pleasures of building a collection, though, the impulse to collect can be a starting point for science. The most obvious product of collecting hobbies is an array of physical objects, but collecting is also a mental state. Serious collectors develop habits of mind particular to their hobbies — a sort of constant low-level awareness of possible sources of stamps, an ability to spot new specimens, and close observation and knowledge of the fine gradations that separate valuable stamps from worthless bits of colored paper. These habits of mind also serve well in science; the simple act of collecting a diverse array of interesting objects or observations also serves as the starting point for most sciences.

This is drawn from Chapter 1, and the same basic argument is presented in this video:

Eureka at the Big Idea

An essay for John Scalzi’s Big Idea series:

It seems very appropriate to be writing about the new book in a feature called “The Big Idea,” because I can say without hyperbole that it’s a book about the biggest idea in the history of humanity.

OK, maybe there’s a trace of hyperbole there, but just a little. Eureka is about an idea that is radically transformative on every level from individuals to the entire human species. It’s not an Internet technology, or a particular fact, but a process:

You look at the world around you,

You think about why it might work the way it does,

You test your theory with experiments and further observations, and

You tell everyone you know the results.

This four-step process is the essential core of all of science. More than that, it’s central to just about everything we do. Science leads directly to all the technologies that have allowed a not especially threatening species of hairless plains apes to thoroughly dominate the surface of the planet (for good or ill). More than that, science is central to activities that we do just for fun.

Eureka: Discovering Your Inner Scientist is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, IndieBound, Powell’s, and anywhere else books are sold.

Eureka Excerpt at the Science of Us

New York Magazine’s blog The Science of Us has an excerpt from the Introduction of Eureka: Discovering Your Inner Scientist, Scientists Are Not That Smart:

The popular image of scientists is of a tiny, elite (and possibly deranged) minority of people engaged in esoteric pursuits. One of the three most common responses when I tell somebody I’m a physicist is, “You must be really smart. I could never do that.” (The other responses are, “I hated that when I took it in high school/college,” and, “Can you explain string theory to me?” This goes a long way toward explaining why physicists have a reputation as lousy conversationalists.)

While the idea that scientists are uniquely smart and capable is flattering to the vanity of nerds like me, it’s a compliment with an edge. There’s a distracting effect to being called “really smart” in this sense — it sets scientists off as people who think in a way that’s qualitatively different from “normal” people. We’re set off even from other highly educated academics — my faculty colleagues in arts, literature, and social science don’t hear that same “You must be really smart” despite the fact that they’ve generally spent at least as much time acquiring academic credentials as I have. The sort of scholarship they do is seen as just an extension of normal activities, whereas science is seen as alien and incomprehensible.

Eureka: Discovering Your Inner Scientist is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, IndieBound, Powell’s, and anywhere else books are sold.

Past Appearances/ Talks

An incomplete list of selected appearances/ speaking engagements in recent years, to give a sense of the kind of thing I regularly do:

Public Talks, Panel Discussions, etc.:

“Secret Science Club: Particle Fever,” guest scientist for a showing of the documentary Particle Fever; answered audience questions before and after the movie. October 25, 2014, organized by the Secret Science Club, hosted at MASS MoCA in North Adams, MA.

“Discovering Your Inner Scientist,” talk for the Bristol Festival of Ideas. August 13, 2014, at the Institute of Physics in Bristol, UK.

“What to Tell Your Dog About Einstein,” talk for “Physics Days” at the Space Center Houston. May 1-2, 2014, Space Center Houston, TX. (Blog post, with slides.)

“Quantum Crosswords,” talk at the TED@NYC talent search in New York. (TED hasn’t posted video, but it’s the same material as this video). October 8, 2013, Joe’s Pub in Manhattan.

“What Every Dog Should Know About Quantum Physics,” talk at the opening of the Quantum Nano Center at the University of Waterloo. (Video, with some minor technical issues regarding the slides) September 29, 2012, in Waterloo, Ontario.

“Bridging Worlds,” panel discussion at the opening of the Quantum Nano Center at the University of Waterloo (Video of the panel) September 29, 2012 in Waterloo, Ontario.

Science Communication, Science Education:

“Talking to My Dog About Science: Why Public Communication of Science Matters, and How Social Media Can Help,” colloquium talk at the University of Binghamton. December 9, 2013, in Binghamton, NY. (Also many other places, under more or less the same title…)

“What Physics Knowledge Is Assessed in TIMSS Advanced 2008?,” AAAS Annual Meeting, Washington, DC, February 2011. (APS News writeup)

“Lasers in the Undergraduate Laboratory: Precision Measurement for the Masses,” talk at APS March Meeting (slides) March 16, 2010.

“Communicating Science in the 21st Century,” panel discussion at the Quantum to Cosmos festival. (Video) October 24, 2009 at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario.

Technical Lectures

“High Precision, Not High Energy: Using Atomic, Molecular, and Optical Physics to Look Beyond the Standard Model,” Nordita Science Writers Workshop. (Video and slides) August 28, 2014, Stockholm, Sweden.

“What’s So Interesting About AMO Physics?,” American Physical Society Division of Atomic, Molecular, and Optical Physics (DAMOP) Meeting, Atlanta, GA, June 2011.

“Counting Atoms for Astrophysics: Atom Traps, Neutrino Detectors, and Radioactive Background Measurements,” Southern Connecticut State University Physics Colloquium, New Haven, CT, April 2011.

Eureka: Discovering Your Inner Scientist

My third book, published December 2014 by Basic Books.

Amazon, Barnes and Noble, IndieBound, Powell’s

Audio edition (March 2015): Audible

Cover Copy

Even in the twenty-first century the popular image of a scientist is a reclusive genius in a lab coat, mixing formulas or working out equations inaccessible to all but the initiated few. The idea that scientists are somehow smarter than the rest of us is a common, yet dangerous, misconception, getting us off the hook for not knowing—or caring—how the world works. How did science become so divorced from our everyday experience? Is scientific understanding so far out of reach for the non-scientists among us?

As science popularizer Chad Orzel argues in Eureka, even the people who are most forthright about hating science are doing science, often without even knowing it. Orzel shows that science isn’t something alien and inscrutable beyond the capabilities of ordinary people, it’s central to the human experience. Every human can think like a scientist, and regularly does so in the course of everyday activities. The disconnect between this reality and most people’s perception is mostly due to the common misconception that science is a body of (boring, abstract, often mathematical) facts. In truth, science is best thought of as a process: Looking at the world, Thinking about what makes it work, Testing your mental model by comparing it to reality, and Telling others about your results. The facts that we too often think of as the whole of science are merely the product of this scientific process. Eureka shows that this process is one we all regularly use, and something that everybody can do.

By revealing the connection between the everyday activities that people do—solving crossword puzzles, playing sports, or even watching mystery shows on television—and the processes used to make great scientific discoveries, Orzel shows that if we recognize the process of doing science as something familiar, we will be better able to appreciate scientific discoveries, and use scientific facts and thinking to help address the problems that affect us all.

Cover of Eureka: Discovering Your Inner Scientist.
Cover of Eureka: Discovering Your Inner Scientist.

People Saying Nice Things About It:

“This fun, diverse, and accessible look at how science works will convert even the biggest science phobe.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Similar to Richard Rhodes or Dava Sobel, Orzel makes complicated scientific narratives accessible to lay readers.” —Library Journal

“In writing that is welcoming but not overly bouncy, persuasive in a careful way but also enticing, Orzel reveals the ‘process of looking at the world, figuring out how things work, testing that knowledge, and sharing it with others.’” —Kirkus Reviews

“I know, I know, you think you’re just not smart enough to be a scientist. Chad Orzel might convince you otherwise with Eureka. Drawing on basketball, stamp collecting, Angry Birds, Iron Chef, and Antiques Roadshow among his many colorful examples, he ably demonstrates that science is not a rarefied alien endeavor performed solely by those with genius IQs. It’s a process, and a way of thinking about the world available to all. Surprise! You’re probably committing acts of science every day.”—Jennifer Ouellette, author of The Calculus Diaries and Me, Myself and Why

“Chad Orzel is absolutely right: everyone has a scientist inside them, eager to burst out and look at the world in a new way. This book provides great examples that will inspire you to let your inner scientist free.”—Sean Carroll, theoretical physicist at Caltech and author of The Particle at the End of the Universe

“Many people are curious about the natural world, but few consider themselves scientists. Using an engaging array of examples of scientific discovery—some recent, others drawn from history—Chad Orzel takes readers on a wonderful tour of how scientists think.”—David Kaiser, Germeshausen Professor of the History of Science, MIT and author of How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival

“Chad Orzel’s previous two books were just fine and dandy. However, this one is awesome. If anyone wants an insight into nature and the process of science, this is the book to get. Chad uses his witty writing style along with historical stories to show that science is part of our human nature.
Do you have a non-scientist friend? They will love this book. Or maybe your friend is a scientist—yup, it’s for scientists too.”—Rhett Allain, Professor of Physics at Southeastern Louisiana University and author of WIRED Magazine’s Dot Physics

Amazon, Barnes and Noble, IndieBound, Powell’s

How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog

Published by Basic Books, 2012.

Cover Copy

Physics professor Chad Orzel and his inquisitive canine companion, Emmy, tackle the concepts of general relativity in this irresistible introduction to Einstein’s physics. Through armchair —and sometimes passenger-seat —conversations with Emmy about the relative speeds of dog and cat motion or the logistics of squirrel-chasing, Orzel translates complex Einsteinian ideas — the slowing of time for a moving observer, the shrinking of moving objects, the effects of gravity on light and time, black holes, the Big Bang, and of course, E=mc2 —into examples simple enough for a dog to understand.

A lively romp through one of the great theories of modern physics, How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog will teach you everything you ever wanted to know about space, time, and anything else you might have slept through in high school physics class.

For more information, visit How to Teach Physics to Your Dog.

Cover of How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog
Cover of How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog