[This was an interview series I did in 2008 on my previous blog.]

After a few weeks of hiatus on the blogging, we’re back with the third in the series of science outreach interviews. This week it’s a pleasure to hear from Chad Orzel, a blogger, author, and physicist at Union College in Schenectady, NY.

(P.S.: If you enjoy the interview, you might like to go help him in his blog’s DonorsChoose campaign for raising money for high schools.)

How did you get into science?

Depends on what you mean by “get into science.”

I quite literally can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in science. My grandmother tells a story about taking me to work with her once when I was about four, and having one of her co-workers ask what I wanted to be when I grew up. I replied “I’m going to be a paleontologist” (or, in one version, a “vertebrate paleontologist,” just to be extra clear).

Exactly which science I was interested in changed from time to time growing up, but I was always interested in some sort of science. I latched onto physics in my junior year of high school, when I took physics (out of the usual order, for reasons that escape me), and saw all the cool toys that my teacher got to play with. I went to college being pretty sure I was going to major in physics, and stuck with it.

I really enjoyed being a physics major at a small liberal arts college, especially because it gave me the opportunity to get involved in research very early on, starting the summer after my first year. It seemed to me that my professors had a pretty sweet job, so I went to graduate school with the goal of getting a Ph.D. and ending up teaching physics at a small liberal arts college, and I was lucky enough to manage that.

I can’t really say I’ve fulfilled my childhood dream (I’m not, after all, a vertebrate paleontologist), save in the very general sense of becoming a professional scientist, but I have ended up pretty much exactly where I wanted to be when I graduated college, which is pretty cool.

You have written a book about quantum mechanics and you have been blogging about physics for many years. What motivates you to put so much effort into these projects?

In the case of the book, I’ve been paid a substantial sum of money. That never hurts…

The book came from the blog, though, and I was writing about physics on the Internet well before people started paying me. I started the blog because I was a big reader of blogs already in 2001, and I like to hear myself talk. I started talking about physics on the blog because it’s an area where I have actual knowledge to share, as opposed to just running my mouth about things I don’t really understand (which is not to say I don’t do that, too, but I like to have a little credibility…).

I keep doing it because when it goes well, it’s a real kick. It’s the same thing as teaching a class, in some ways– when a lecture goes really well, and I can see a difficult idea really “click” with a class, that’s a huge kick. It makes the occasional drudgery involved in the job seem insignificant.

The same sort of thing happens with the blog. When I find some novel way of explaining a difficult idea, and manage to do a good job of getting across the excitement and wonder of physics research, I find that really exhilarating. And knowing that hundreds or thousands of people read that explanation makes it even better.

The origin of the book project was completely surreal, but once I was convinced that it was a worthwhile idea, it was actually a lot of fun to write. In the first pass, at least– editing drafts down is always a world of pain. After a little fumbling around, though, the dog voice turned out to flow really easily, and I found it really helpful to the straight physics explanations to be able to use the dog to interrupt things when the going started to get a bit rough. It injects a little much-needed levity into what can otherwise be a pretty ponderous subject.

The book has ended up being both more and less work than I thought it would be. Polishing the text has been really annoying – it’s amazing how much I overuse the word “really” – but the actual writing went faster than I expected in a lot of places.

Do you do other outreach work, or have some ideas for the future that you’d like to share with us?

I floated the idea of an online “film festival” a while back, and discussions over how to make that happen have gotten bogged down a couple of times, but I still like the idea. I’ve been really impressed by the creativity and ingenuity people display on YouTube, and I think it would be really great if we could harness that to do something positive for science. I’m going to keep re-visiting that idea, and see what we can pull together.

I’m also signing up for things like the “Adopt-a-Physicist” program, and trying to do more to help local outreach efforts (the college chapter of the Society of Physics students has done demonstration days at local high schools, for example). I’m also trying to push the sort of outreach evangelism I was preaching in my talk at the Science21 meeting into new venues, with mixed success.

What do you think is one of the most interesting new things happening in science outreach?

I think the broadening of communications options has really done a lot to expand the audience – and the potential audience – for science content. When I was a kid, the only place you could really find science programming was on PBS, maybe two or three nights a week. Now, I’ve got a half-dozen channels on my cable tv that carry science (or at least science-ish) programs every night. ScienceBlogs has an audience of millions, and there’s a respectable number of other sites bringing science to the web.

I’m also really encouraged by things like the Science Cafe phenomenon and the success of the World Science Festival in New York this past May. I think that, contrary to a lot of the siege mentality you hear from science bloggers, it’s actually a great time to be a scientist, and that a larger fraction of the public than we realize is willing and eager to hear about science, if we make the effort to reach out to them.

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