Children’s book author Chris Ferrie makes science accessible to little kids

Author Chris Ferrie in Toronto on August 19, 2018.Vito Amati/Document

In a scene from last year’s surprisingly fun Ant-Man and the WaspPaul Rudd’s character (who has a name, although he’s mostly Paul Rudd) interrupts a debate about the intrigue-rich potentialities of messing with the quantum realm to ask, “Do you just put the word ‘quantum in front of everything? ”

When I tell Chris Ferrie, a senior lecturer at the Center for Quantum Software and Information at the University of Technology Sydney, that the number of occurrences of the Q-word in his website biography reminds me of this quote, he barely blinks. Instead of giving me a Neil deGrasse Tyson outburst of disdain for the debased ways science is portrayed in popular culture, he tells me that he not only knows the The ant Man clip, he used it in one of his presentations.

It’s a reaction very much in keeping with the mark of Ferrie, who is the latest person to demand respect in science and math. In addition to his daily work as a university professor and researcher in the field of quantum mathematics, Ferrie is a highly prolific children’s author who, in the past two years alone, has published 28 shocking non-fiction books that break down difficult science concepts. for very young readers. Most of his child-lit output to date is a series of hardcover books with titles such as Quantum computing for babies, Electromagnetism for babies, ABC of physics and 8 small planets. Her latest picture book, out this month, is Once upon a time there was a black hole that swallowed the universein which stars, planets, cells, atoms and more are engulfed in an insatiable space-time event (which, because it’s for kids, has hair, eyes and a mouth full of teeth) .

Ferrie was born and raised in Chatham, Ontario. After earning a PhD in Applied Mathematics from the University of Waterloo in 2012, he worked at the University of New Mexico for a few years before landing in Sydney, Australia, where he and his wife have four young children. born in three different countries. As we chatted, Ferrie’s youngest, a two-year-old girl, vocalized insistently in the background. “She’s found her independence and is happy to assert it wherever she can,” Ferrie laughs.

It was because of his children that Ferrie started writing the books in the first place: he wanted something to read to them, especially something that dealt with his own passion for math and science. “I was doing a little research for free,” he says. He started self-publishing his For babies books, using a print-on-demand model, until an Illinois-based Sourcebooks publisher offered to publish them — all of them, plus anything he could find. Ferrie has happily made the leap into commercial publishing and has no problem having to give up full creative control – a consequence, to some extent, of his training as a researcher and academic. “When you collaborate on research projects – and I’m in a very multidisciplinary field – you just have to accept that there are people who are experts in aspects of the project that you’re not,” he says.

Even giving a voracious black hole human-like characteristics in his new book is kind of a creative compromise. “In the majority of my books, the illustrations are very technical, very similar to the illustrations you might see in academic papers,” says Ferrie. “It works for a lot of people, but it didn’t work for everyone – some people thought it was boring and bland. So if you have to put a face to a black hole to get people interested in science, then that’s fine with me.”

Ferrie’s efforts to make science accessible to infants (and their parents) did not pose a problem for most of his academic colleagues. “There’s still an old guard that thinks you have to stay at the highest point of the ivory tower and never look down, but that’s the minority,” he tells me. If he has any heartache about the books, it’s usually from a humorless undergrad. “Once in a while, someone in this demographic will see [one of the books] and start talking technically about what’s okay and what’s not, but they’re not the target audience,” he says.

Ferrie says that as an author, it’s been his personal mission to popularize the concept of quantum physics in particular, which he sees as “responsible for all the technology we have today.” To that end, he is in the planning stages of an adult non-fiction book and considering the idea of ​​writing science books for teens. (Once his own children are that old, of course.)

At the same time, when Ferrie considers the ideological resistance to science that exists in some cultural and political circles, he sees the potential solution not in science literacy, but in a better understanding of the realities of media manipulation. “I think people should really recognize that what’s being shown to them in this information-laden, media-rich world isn’t something they found because they were interested in it, it’s something something that someone is showing them, because they have a vested interest in our eyes seeing it. If people really internalized that and understood it, it would lead them to accept what scientific consensus is – because it This is the closest we have to objective facts.

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