Dr. Rhett Allain

If you're looking for a smarter, not harder, alternative approach to learning about physics, Dr. Allain is your guy. His book (shown above), Geek Physics, would be a good place to start. An associate professor at Southeastern Louisiana University, Dr. Allain has a talent for getting you interested in physics by illuminating the ways in which physics plays a role in those things you're interested in. Have you ever wondered how many zombies you could actually drive through? If so, physics holds the answer, and Dr. Allain translates that message effectively.

 

The following interview took place on April 9, 2016. 

INTERVIEWER

          Where did you grow up?

 

ALLAIN

          If I had to give one answer to this question, I would say “Naperville, Illinois” –                     however, I also spent some time in both Texas and Mississippi (but I still have                   trouble spelling Mississippi).

 

INTERVIEWER

          Was it physics from an early age?

 

ALLAIN

          It was always science (or maybe engineering). I loved both science and building                 stuff. You have probably heard a story like this before – but there was this one                   teacher in high school that really made physics interesting. I like to point this out             because one person can have a huge influence and you might be that person                     influencing others – you never know.

          Entering college, I wanted to do some type of science. Biology had too many          things to memorize and chemistry had too many exceptions to the rule. That leaves    physics. The great thing about physics is that you can start with a few fundamental    ideas and then derive a bunch of stuff. You don’t have to memorize the equation for    the magnetic field due to a long wire and a loop and a solenoid – they can all be          derived from the Law of Biot-Savart.

          Oh, they didn’t have engineering at the university I attended. It’s probably for      the best.

 

INTERVIEWER

          What’s your favorite book or books or your favorite book at a particular age? I know           this is a stupid question, but I think it’s an important one.

 

ALLAIN

          In middle school I went through a bunch of books. I liked spy novels (which is weird           now), science fiction and fantasy. You know the standards – but also weird stuff                 that I can’t even remember now – probably because they actually weren’t very good           (but I enjoyed them anyway).

          Now when I think of books, I still love The Hobbit. It’s way better than Lord of      the Rings series because it’s one simple story. I still re-read it from time to time.          Too bad the movie version tried to make it not-so-simple.

 

INTERVIEWER

          Do you have any favorite science books? Who are your favorite science writers?

 

ALLAIN

          Asimov’s history of science (can't remember the title) ((Asimov's Chronology of                 Science and Discovery?)) is pretty awesome. I love all of Richard Feynman’s books.           I think he had a big influence over my writing style that I have now. Oh, and also               Dave Barry’s column in the Miami Herald is awesome (not science, but also big                 impact).

 

INTERVIEWER

          Who and what inspired you as an early scientist?

 

ALLAIN

          I accidentally answered this question earlier. But I can add my parents to this also.             Both my mother and father supported my curiosity mostly by not stopping me                   from doing dumb things. On that similar topic, I would like to thank a non-human:             boredom. Being bored is so important for kids – it is both the source of                               supervillains and super heroes. There is nothing better than being bored to give               you the time and motivation to finish some project.

          Sadly, kids these days are robbed of boredom since they have entertainment at    their fingertips with phones and computers.

 

INTERVIEWER

          You were a research assistant at CERN! Can you tell us a little bit about the                       application/acceptance process and what you worked on while there?

 

ALLAIN

          When I was a graduate student at the University of Alabama (Roll Tide), my                       research advisor was in experimental high energy physics. Our group originally               was building detectors for the Superconductor Super Collider - but that got canceled           so we focused on CERN. We had funds to send a student over for the summer, so I             went.

          Switzerland is awesome and I had a great time. There were of course some          problems. First, I don’t speak French. I am, however, fluent at pointing in French (I    will have THAT to eat). Second, experimental high energy physics is totally cool –        but my job was writing programs (in FORTRAN) to look at detector alignment data.    Not that exciting. But still, overall it was great and fun being in a world class               research facility.

 

INTERVIEWER

          When did you decide to transition from research to teaching? Or had you always               wanted to teach?

 

ALLAIN

          I did NOT want to teach. But as a graduate student I had labs to teach. It wasn’t so             bad. The best part (as many will agree) is that I got to learn more physics. I am still           surprised how much physics I learn by teaching an introductory level physics                   course. I think I’m being selfish since I learn more than the students. Oh well, they             can do the same thing when they teach each other or become teachers themselves.

 

INTERVIEWER

          Your article, “Science Education Is Woefully Uncreative. That Has To Change,”                     should be required reading. It’s difficult to determine whether this new American             (and you could argue global, and also maybe that it’s not that new) attitude of “Well,            that’s just the way it’s always been done,” is cynicism, practicality, or laziness, but              it’s supplanted itself as an overbearing philosophy in politics and societal/cultural             reform, as well as teaching and educating. Taking a look at our standing in                       science/math aptitude across the world, where does reform begin for science                     education?

 

ALLAIN

          Instead of asking where to begin, perhaps we should ask “why did we stop reform”?           We shouldn’t think that there is an end to reform and we can reach some perfect               educational system. Instead, it should be constantly changing and adapting to                   students, technology and society.

          With that said, I would add that the most important change is at the individual      level. If you have some type of global educational mandate, it’s not the same as one      teacher making a change because that teacher sees a better way. I’m all in favor of      individual teachers making classroom decisions instead of a one-size-fits all                mentality.

          If education is about content – then there should just be one educational              system. But I think teachers are more like mentors than lecturers. Imagine if all        the mentors followed the same script. That would be crazy.

          Education is a journey, not a destination.

 

INTERVIEWER

          Bill Nye is back. Neil De-Grasse Tyson, Seth McFarlane, and Ann Druyan                            rejuvenated Cosmos. Nerds are cool. Science seems more prevalent in popular                    culture today. Do you pay any attention to that?

 

ALLAIN

          I’m happy that it’s no longer looked down on as being “nerdy” – but that really                    shouldn’t change the way people think and act. If you like science and other “geek”            stuff, then that’s what you should do. But let’s be clear – you can be nerdy about                lots of stuff, not just science. In a way, people that follow professional sports are                  just athletic nerds. Right?

 

INTERVIEWER

          Do you pay much attention to other areas of science outside of physics? Biology,               chemistry, nanotechnology?

 

ALLAIN

          Yes. I’m a science fan – I love the process of science. Once you understand science             (or as I like to call it – model building) you can see all sorts of cool things in other             disciplines. In fact, I have a short daily radio segment on the local station where I               talk about all sorts of cool science stories (not just in physics).

 

INTERVIEWER

          Climate change denial, creationism, and anti-vax movements are constantly found             in today’s print. As a science educator and communicator, do you feel compelled to           carry the flag of science against those who deny hard evidence? Are there any                   topics in particular that really piss you off?

 

ALLAIN

          All of these piss me off in the way people incorrectly use “science”. There are two               ends that are both wrong. There is the “just a theory” side of the argument that                 basically says you can believe whatever you want. Yes, you can believe what you                 want but you can’t call it science. The other side is bad too – it says “science is the             truth”. No, science never finds the truth either. Science is all about making models.           Some models are great – like The Energy Principle. It works all the time – but that             doesn’t make it true. It’s still just a model.

          So for pseudo science stuff, I like to redirect the conversation to the nature of      science. Usually this doesn’t work since people have likely already made up their        minds. I think if we keep correctly using scientific ideas we can win over the              undecided votes.

 

INTERVIEWER

          Taking a look at the national budget, say science is involved in a primary against               all the other sectors for discretionary spending dollars. What is science’s motto and           running platform?

 

ALLAIN

          Science wouldn’t campaign in the primary. I know that sucks – but I feel that                     science supports often argue about all the great things we get from science. While             this is true – that doesn’t mean that science is more important than art or music or           literature. Science (along with the other things) are part of what makes us human.             Yes, we get cool things from science – but that’s just a bonus.

 

INTERVIEWER

          What sort of initiatives, that might not be known by the public majority, are already           in place for shifting the way we think about/teach science?

ALLAIN

          I think it’s been going on for a while (a really long while) – but the idea that telling             is not teaching. Science education needs to be more about doing science rather                 than looking at the results of science.

INTERVIEWER

          You’ve published multiple books. You’ve been writing for WIRED magazine since               2010. What has it taught you about writing about science?

ALLAIN

          Writing books is not nearly as fun as blogging. When I have an idea to blog about –             BOOM, I can do the math and writing and post it in as little as a couple of hours. I               like that. I know it might not be a super polished post – but it’s quicker. Writing                 books can take WAY too long with all the editing and other stuff that goes with it.

          But other than that, I’ve learned about book proposals and contracts and stuff      like that. Often (but not always) if you want to get a book published you might have    to find some middle ground between what you want to say and what the publisher      thinks will sell.

          Oh, actually I’ve been blogging since 2008 (but at Wired since 2010).

 

INTERVIEWER

          What is or will be the biggest breakthrough in physics in your lifetime?

 

ALLAIN

          What about workable nuclear fusion? What about detecting life (or evidence of life)             on Mars or another planet? Maybe finding signals from intelligent life? That would           be huge. A human on Mars would also be pretty cool. What about some type of                   nanobot that can cure illnesses?

 

INTERVIEWER

          If you could do what you do in another country, where would it be and why?

 

ALLAIN

          I think the cool thing is that I could easily do what I do somewhere else. Really, the             Internet IS somewhere else. Ok, but I need to pick another country. Sweden seems             cool, but maybe it’s too cold there.

 

INTERVIEWER

          Last, but not least: Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, or Pink Floyd?

 

ALLAIN

          Led Zeppelin. They weren’t my favorite as a teenager, but they have several songs             about Lord of the Rings and that’s pretty cool.

 

 

Check out Dr. Allain's Dot Physics articles at Wired here

Feel free to leave your thoughts on the interview in the comments section.

©2019 by EG Lund.