In a scene from last year’s surprisingly fun Ant-Man and The Wasp, Paul Rudd’s character (who has a name, although he’s mostly Paul Rudd) interrupts a debate about the plot-rich potentialities of messing with the quantum realm to ask: “Do you guys just put the word ‘quantum’ in front of everything?”
When I tell Chris Ferrie, a senior lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney’s Centre for Quantum Software and Information, that the number of occurrences of the Q-word in his website bio reminds me of that quote, he barely blinks. Instead of giving me a blast of Neil deGrasse Tyson-esque disdain for the degraded ways in which science gets portrayed in popular culture, he tells me he not only knows the Ant Man clip, he’s used it in one of his presentations.
It’s a very on-brand reaction from Ferrie, who is the last person to demand reverence when it comes to science and mathematics. In addition to his day job as a university lecturer and researcher in the field of quantum mathematics, Ferrie is a very prolific children’s author who, in just the past two years, has published a shocking 28 non-fiction books that break down difficult scientific concepts for very young readers. The bulk of his kid-lit output to date is a series of board books with titles such as Quantum Computing for Babies, Electromagnetism for Babies, ABCs of Physics and 8 Little Planets. His newest picture book, out this month, is There Once was a Black Hole That Swallowed the Universe, in which stars, planets, cells, atoms and more get gobbled by an insatiable space-time event (which, because this is for kids, has hair, eyes and a tooth-filled maw).
Ferrie was born and raised in Chatham, Ont. After earning a doctorate 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 who’ve been born in three different countries. As we chat, Ferrie’s youngest, a two-year-old girl, vocalized insistently in the background. “She’s found her independence, and is happy to assert it everywhere she can,” Ferrie says, laughing.
It’s because of his kids that Ferrie started writing the books in the first place: He wanted something to read to them, specifically something that addressed his own passion for math and science. “I was kinda doing the research for free,” he says. He started self-publishing his For Babies books, using a print-on-demand model, until an editor from Illinois-based Sourcebooks offered to put them out – all of them, plus whatever else he could come up with. Ferrie happily made the leap to commercial publishing and has no issue with having to give up total 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 have to just accept that there are people who are experts in aspects of the project that you aren’t,” he says.
Even giving a voracious black hole human-like features in his new book is something of a creative compromise. “In the majority of my books, the illustrations are very technical, very much like illustrations you might see in academic papers,” Ferrie says. “That works for a lot people, but it didn’t work for everyone – some people thought it was boring and bland. So if it takes putting a face on a black hole to get people interested in science, then I’m okay with that.”
Ferrie’s efforts to make science accessible to infants (and their parents) has not been a problem for most of his academic colleagues. “There’s still an old guard that thinks that one should stay in the highest point of the ivory tower and never look down, but they’re the minority,” he tells me. If he does get grief about the books, it’s usually from a humourless undergraduate student. “Occasionally, someone in that demographic will see [one of the books] and start to get technical about what’s correct and what’s incorrect, but they’re not the target audience,” he says.
Ferrie says that, as an author, he’s on a 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 a non-fiction book for adults, and is contemplating the idea of writing science books for teens. (Once his own kids are that old, of course.)
At the same time, when Ferrie considers the ideologically driven resistance to science that exists in certain cultural and political circles, he sees the potential solution not in scientific literacy, but in a greater understanding of the realities of media manipulation. “I think people should really recognize that what is being shown to them in this information-overloaded, media-rich world is not something they found because they were interested in it, it’s 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, that would lead them to an acceptance of what is scientific consensus – because that’s the closest thing we have to objective facts.”
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