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Everyday science

Everyday science

Discovering your inner scientist

14 Aug 2014 Matin Durrani
Chad Orzel

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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