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Nature vs. Technology

The picture of the world presented in children’s books today is a baby boomer’s fairy tale.

This quote from a recent NPR article about Physics for Babies has been cited several times.

When reading to his kids, Ferrie noticed that most books used animals to introduce new words. In today’s world, that just didn’t make sense to him. “We’re not surrounded by animals anymore,” says Ferrie, a physicist and mathematician at a university in Sydney, Australia. “We’re surrounded by technology.” So he created some math and science books for his own children and self-published them online.

Recently, I received a question about it:

I disagree on many levels having grown up in a neighborhood of kids who played in the creek, woods, underground camps, and treehouses that nature can ever not make sense. It seems possible you aren’t listening closely enough. Technology may surround us but nature surrounds technology…you just have to look past the technology to see it. Would love to hear more of your thought on nature and it’s place in your and your children’s lives.

This was my reply:

Thank you for your message. I tend to agree with you. Of course, by taking a sufficiently broad definition of nature, then technology itself is nature. Computers are built from materials which are made of naturally occurring substances which are made of fundamental particles. All is nature on some level.

When talking to reporters, I usually speak for about 30-45 minutes. But what gets printed is one cherry-picked sentence. I can only hope I didn’t say anything that sounds terrible out of context.

But in this case I do stand by the above quote about animals, which was referring to the pets, farm, and zoo animals we see all too often in children’s books. Now, whether you are an animal rights activist or not, the trend is clear: farms are becoming invisible to the public, zoos are removing animals or closing, laws about pet ownership are changing, etc. That is, cruelty is becoming more recognizable to the public and will either end (by social or legal pressure) or become more concealed.

The picture of the world presented in children’s books today is a baby boomer’s fairy tale. Creeks and treehouses and sneaking on to Ol’ Man Bill’s field and late summer baseball games and a meadow full of fireflies at dusk—an eternal summer. That is, if it weren’t for [insert Gen X, Y, or Z]. These books are drugs for a generation drunk on nostalgia and reference material for traditionalism.

It is an oxymoronic picture of a world manufactured for a false sense of exploration. For example, it shows us that we should be fascinated by wild animals (lions, tigers, giraffes, etc.) that coincidentally debuted in safari zoos to sate the boredom of that same generation.

But there is a infinite world out there to explore. It’s just that new tools are required to embark on that journey. These are the tools of science and technology. So, yes, not only does nature plays an unavoidable role in my children’s lives, it is the very motivation to give them the tools necessary to discover more of it on their own.

Daily activities to promote mathematical fluency in kids

An outline of a day in my life of practicing mathematical literacy. These are activities I do with all my children, ages 0, 3, 5 and 7.

If you perform an internet search on some topic of interest, say “math puzzles for kids”, you end up with literally millions of pages. It can be overwhelming. But, just pick one and go! Don’t over-prepare or have high expectations or push too hard—the vast majority of experiments fail. In fact, failure is one of the most important ways we learn.

Below is an outline of a day in my life of practicing mathematical literacy. These are activities I do with all my children, ages 0, 3, 5 and 7. I may spend longer on the more complex information or tasks with my 7 year old, but I don’t shield my 3 year old completely from it.

Numeracy

I try to constantly be aware of when I am internalizing numbers or mathematical concepts and then encourage my children to participate. These are all things I usually do silently and unconsciously, but now ask my children. Just this morning I have done the following: I asked the children to read the clock; add change; discuss routes on our daily errand run; count and weigh fruits and vegetables; ask how long is left in a video; set a timer on my phone; ask how many crossings are required to tie a shoelace; and so on.

Puzzles

There are many puzzles and games you can play that can promote and improve mathematical thinking which are branded or advertised as math games. For example, today we played the following games: Tic-tac-toe, Dots and Boxes, made mazes, played some Lego (classic blocks), and built a dodecahedron with a magnetic construction set.

Books

Attempting to connect young minds with abstract ideas is relatively new. Our bookshelf contains: Introductory Calculus For Infants by Omi M. Inouye; Non-Euclidean Geometry for Babies and The Pythagorean Theorem for Babies by Fred Carlson; and a great deal of children’s and adult reference books and encyclopedias. Of course, some nights we can’t get through enough Harry Potter and the math has to wait.

Videos

YouTube is a blessing and a curse in our house. We don’t generally let the kids watch without supervision as the value seems to be quite low without constant feedback and discussion. Today we watched a few episodes of Amoeba Sisters and I showed them some MinutePhysics, which is directed more toward adults. I keep those sessions short as the language is often too complex.

Drawing

Drawing and coloring are great ways to relax and have many cognitive benefits. Sometimes I need to give them something to imitate by joining in and other times, like today, I just put a blank sheet and some markers out. My 3 year old has recently graduated from scribbling to drawing discernible faces and intentional shapes. The other day, my 7 year old found Art for Kids Hub, a fun and engaging set of drawing tutorials which has boosted her confidence quite a bit.

Coding

Getting children into computer programming has received a lot of attention in the past couple of years. Each of my 3, 5 and 7 years olds play the games and go through the exercises on Code.org. I find it very helpful when they work simultaneously or in a pair. We didn’t do any coding today on the computer, but we did play Robot Turtles, a board game meant to teach coding skills.

We also went to the park and ran around in circles screaming, for no reason in particular.

Phew! Even when I write it all out, it looks like a lot. But, it only adds up to a few hours spread over an entire day—time I would be spending with them anyway. I try to make life rewarding and engaging not only for them, but for me as well.

Let kids be kids

Quantum Physics for Babies. Some find it hard to believe. But it is indeed a real book, and other books which introduce abstract scientific concepts to young minds have followed. It’s a quirky idea and I’ve told the story about how it all came about before. And people do love the quirkiness, but the honeymoon is short and sobering questions are soon to arise, like, “Isn’t this a bit much—do we really need another thing to teach children?”

Fear and uncertainty about the daunting task of teaching children about science and mathematics comes to the forefront and then it hits, shot straight from the hip, “Let kids be kids.” You hear that a lot. In fact, it’s said in so many contexts that it’s lost any meaning it might have had, but I think the gist is this: whether guided by gut instinct or scientific research people know the value of play in childhood—but their idea of education as an activity is the exact opposite of play.

I believe this is the wrong way to interpret education. The formal education system that you and I grew up with has existed more-or-less unchanged for several decades. It chops up knowledge into components which are introduced in a linear fashion. Sometimes the paths fork and the major branches are called “careers”. For a time, the system worked quite well—but that time is passed.

This is understandably a source of stress for parents. The education system was supposed to be the rock. Of course we don’t know everything, and so we send the kids to school, which has experts on all topics to fill those gaps. But technology is becoming more and more ingrained into society and everyday life. The problem is that technology is changing so fast that it is nearly impossible to keep up. The idea of having a single career has gone out the window.

This leaves us questioning the role, even the identity, of education. My view is simple: life is education. Maintain that childhood curiosity and drive to ask questions, and whatever you call education will come for free. Besides the obvious things—survival, independence, morality—what is the mark of successful parent? Even ignoring the fact that it is an immense privilege to entertain such a question, this is dangerous territory. But I’ll risk an answer: the goal of parenting is the help your child find their passion, which is that thing that fuels their curiosity.

Are you happy? If so, it’s probably because you do something that you love, at least as a hobby. I’m very lucky in that people pay me to do the things I love. Wouldn’t it be great if I could arrange for that situation to be a little bit more likely for my own children?

So how am I going on helping my children find their passion? I don’t really know. I guess I won’t find out for some time. But here is one step I think can go a long way: variety. Not necessarily for them, but for you. If there is something you avoid, they will never experience it.

I can’t think of any interest my children might have that scares me. But many parents I talk to find mathematics and science scary. Whether it is intentional or not, they steer them away from these topics. The situation is so bad that we discuss when is too young to introduce science to children. Science is just a formalized way of exploring our natural curiosity. You don’t introduce it; you reintroduce it—and only because you’ve taken it away.

Books about mathematics and science for young children are not educational tools for the children. They are reminders for the parents that this is not something to fear. This is something that people derive a lot of passion from. And, if some day your child sees some science topic that interests her, she won’t be afraid of it, because you are not afraid of it.

So, don’t feel you need to read Quantum Physics for Babies because you need to keep up with the Zuckerbergs Joneses. Read it because it’s something you wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to. Read it because you might be curious about the topic. Read it because you had a really cool friend that gifted it to you. Read it because it’s fun. And, if it only leaves you with more questions, good—ask away.

This post originally appeared on the Early Learning Review.

Quantum Physics for Babies

This talk was given at the University of Sydney School of Physics Colloquium 19 June 2017.

It’s​ great to be back here. That feels a bit awkward to say since it’s only been 6 months since I left and I’m only 10 minutes away. But King and Broadway might as well be the Pacific Ocean for academics. I’m Chris Ferrie. I’m just down the road at the Centre for Quantum Software and Information. It’s an awesome new Centre. We’re on Twitter. You should check us out.

Now, though the title of the talk doesn’t make it obvious, I am a serious, well… maybe not serious, but I am an academic. But I also have a hobby… tennis. No, I write children’s books. Yes, it is a real book. And, yes, I wrote it and self published it several years ago when I was a postdoc. Why, and how, and for what purpose, well… that is the purpose of this talk.

measure-1509707_1920Measure twice, cut once. So the old proverb goes. It certainly it makes sense if you only have enough material to build a thing. However, and I see this all too often in otherwise very smart people, too much measuring leads to over optimisation and inaction, not enough cutting. Whereas, I like cut several times, toss things out, try new cutting instruments, and so on. I almost never measure. Ultimately, this is the story of Quantum Physics for Babies. I just did it. It wasn’t carefully planned, nor was there a spark or ah-ha moment which spawned the idea. I started, I failed, I started again.

And, for better or worse, the book became popular. Journalists starting asking me, “why did you write this book?” and, more seriously, “why teach quantum physics to babies, why is that important?”

brain-2062057_1920So, I started to rationalize. Why did I write this book? And, is it important? In particular, is it important for all children, not just my own? (because it is always important to find a way to discuss your passion with your own kids.) I think the answer to “is it important?” is yes. In this talk I’ll walk you through the various levels of rationalisation I’ve went through. Each has an element of truth to it, both for myself personally and what the experts on the topic of early childhood education espouse.

But let me start at the same place I start most things, with a joke. Someone that has known me for only a short time probably wouldn’t be too surprised that I was voted “class clown” in high school. Humor plays a crucial part of almost every aspect of my life. I laugh with my partner, I laugh with my children, I laugh with my friends, and I laugh with other scientists. (Einstein didn’t think it was very funny—but, then again, he never liked quantum physics.) Happiness is the difference between your reality and your expectations. Humor often defies expectation and happiness ensues. So, hopefully you didn’t come to this talk with too many expectations and you’ll leave a little happier then when you came in. At least there’s cake.

There is no denying that I saw the irony as good for a laugh the first time the title popped into my head. Of course, the level of humour I’m talking about is not at all for the advertised audience. I’ve never seen a child laugh at the title of the book. Adults, on the other hand, love the juxtaposition of quantum physics with “for babies”. So I knew that at least a few people would buy it as a gag gift for a nerdy friend having a baby. What I didn’t expect was this nerdy friend getting a copy.

I’ve joked with various people about making other goofy “for babies” books. Why not “contract law for babies” or “geopolitical policy for babies”? Though, the only person in the world that needs to read such a book is too busy tweeting insults at women. But quantum physics—yeah—people seem to agree that is worth being more than a joke, and hopefully I knew something about it.

In the end, I put real thought and effort into the content. The goal became clear enough: how to fill a baby book out with short sentences, no jargon and a coherent description of quantum physics. It was a challenge and there is still probably room for improvement. But I’ve already had people say, “we all had a good laugh, then I started to read it and there was real quantum physics inside.” Many adults even claimed they learned something. But were the children learning?

The unanimous advice for new parents is to read to your newborn. Most say it doesn’t even matter what it is, just read. But, let’s play a little game here. Suppose a parent does read to their child and has no time to add a new book to the rotation. Then, Quantum Physics for Babies needs to replace a book. What book should it be? First, I don’t think it should replace fiction. Fiction and fairy tales serve many purposes and, besides, variety is the spice of life. So we are left with nonfiction, which for baby books is limited solely to only a few types of reference material.

Quantum Physics for Babies - Sydney Uni 19 June 2017 (1)A huge fraction of any newborn’s library will begin with the word “first”: “First Words”, “First book of numbers”, “First alphabet book”, and so on. One quickly gets the impression that these are essential reference books for the early learner. But beyond the obvious things—letters, numbers, shapes, three letter words—are a myriad of books about animals, and mostly farm animals.

Now, learning is tricky concept to define even for adults. There are numerous models of early childhood cognitive development, and so it is hard to say conclusively what is being “learned” and at what level, but something is clearly happening since every 3 year in the world knows what sound a cow makes. Do you? I think I do. But I have never heard one myself. Maybe there was a time when that was important, or at least relevant, but I don’t think that time is today.

Quantum Physics for Babies - Sydney Uni 19 June 2017 (2)Here is another example. Do you know what these birds are? My children seem to know and can identify the difference between a penguin and a puffin. Why? Why are there more books about puffins than there are puffins and no books about transistors when you are probably sitting on a billion of them right now. In your phone lives a few billion transistors making up, by the standards of only decade ago anyway, a supercomputer. A child today will probably spend their entire life closer to computer than they will an animal of comparable size. I’m not suggesting than all books on animals be replaced by physics for babies books, but we could maybe replace a few.

I won’t claim my children understand quantum physics, but they certainly understand it at the same level they understand anything else gotten from a book. They will tell you that everything in the world is made of atoms and atoms are made of neutrons, protons and electrons and electrons have energy. I think that is about the same level of understanding as being able to identify a puffin, or should I say Fratercula corniculata for the baby ornithologists in the crowd.

So it seems then that Quantum Physics for Babies is here to stay. But we’re all scientists here and we love nothing more than free cake and to categorize things. So where does Quantum Physics fit? In what aisle of the bookshop does it sit on the shelf? Well, it turns out that it has been shoehorned into the new educational buzzword de jour: STEM.

Quantum Physics for Babies - Sydney Uni 19 June 2017 (3).png

STEM (Science Technology Engineer and Mathematics) started out as an initiative to focus on its namesake topics with the goal of training a workforce ready for the careers that were assumed new technologies would create. Interestingly, the first press mention of the acronym seems to go back to 2008 when The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation donated $12 million dollars to the Ohio STEM Learning Network, which is still going strong today. Most never looked back. [By the way, much backlash ensued over leaving out the Arts, for example. So you might see STEAM or even STREAM (Reading) out there.]

Now governments all over the world currently have numerous initiatives at all levels of the curriculum to enhance what they called STEM-based learning. This is vaguely and variably defined and can mean anything from simply having access to more technology in the classroom to the design and building of simple machines to solve practical problems. But the motivation and directives that follow are often based on decade-old studies suggesting rises in STEM-related jobs. One recent state-level education​ department cited a study with data collected prior to the release of the first iPhone (that was only 10 years ago, by the way). The often cited report of the Chief Scientist of Australia contained recommendations citing data accumulated from 1964-2005. Policy is good, but it cannot keep up with the pace of technology.

Disruption! The fear today—fueled by startups, makers, and ever younger entrepreneurs—is that we just have no idea what jobs will look like in the future. And so STEM, at least for the trailblazers, is now a movement with the audacious goal of graduating creators and innovators. We no longer want graduates who simply have more and integrated technical skills.

What does this look like? Let me give you an example. Here is Taj Parabi, now 17, CEO of his own business which ships DIY tablets. His company, fiftysix, also visits schools and puts on extracurricular workshops for students on technology and… entrepreneuring! That’s right. Your children are competing with 8-year-olds trained to be CEOs of their own companies!

On a topic near and dear to my own heart, a now veteran effort from the Institute for Quantum Computing is the Quantum Cryptography School for Young Students (QCSYS)Quantum Physics for Babies - Sydney Uni 19 June 2017 (4), which invites international high-school students for a week of intensive training on quantum technology. Indeed, many of these students eventually become PhD students in Quantum Information Theory. Other efforts include school incursions and the new QUANTUM: The Exhibition which is an all-ages, hands-on exploratory exhibit.

Quantum Physics for Babies - Sydney Uni 19 June 2017 (5)On the other side of the border (remember: the wall is on the souther border), IBM has recently released the “Quantum Experience”, an app that lets you program a quantum computer, a real quantum computer. You create an algorithm and then jump in the queue for it to run on real device housed in IBM’s labs. Here they are video conferencing with a school in South Africa and hosting local students.

So that is the tiniest snapshot of STEM education today. Is Quantum Physics for Babies on par with these efforts? Are the children learning the skills necessary to be quantum engineering start-up entrepreneurs? Of course not. Quantum Physics for Babies, at least as far as reading to actual babies is concerned, is about the parents.

20 years from now, your child might be sitting in an interview for the job of Quantum Communication Analyst or Quantum Software Engineer. How long will it be before such topics feature in the report of the Chief Scientist on the curriculum? How long before it is mainstream in public schools? I’m not holding my breath.

The problem today is that it’s impossible to keep up. Pilot studies, kids maker studios, programming toys and apps, … These are all beautiful, but the growth of STEM education has now outpaced even the technology. The curriculum cannot keep up, and so the onus of STEM education, however you want to define it, is largely on the parents.

Again, the efforts of STEM education researchers are impressive, but a parent cannot assume that their child will happen to be in the school that benefits from these one-off pilot studies or incursions. The education system in most developed countries has been too long taken for granted and is now depleted from underfunding. No doubt there are many great principals and great teachers out there. Two days from now, I’m going to go speak with a dozen principals and teachers about STEM education. But there are almost 1500 primary schools in Sydney alone (over 3000 in New South Wales). There is much that needs to be done at the larger scale—but even if I said that was being done, it is little comfort for parents today.

So—in the end—this is what I both want and expect from the book: the elimination of doubt and fear. I want quantum physics, indeed all physics and math and science, to be normal for a child to take interest in. When your child asks about going to Canada for a summer school on quantum cryptography, that should be seen as normal request. When she asks to help her set up an account for a quantum cloud computing service, you should be like, no worries I already have one.

Today, when 1 in 3 Americans would rather clean a toilet then do a math problem, when a search for “quantum physics” brings up Deepak Chopra instead of Stephen Hawking, and when the facts pointing to climate change are seen as equally compelling as a celebrity’s argument for a flat earth, we need all the help we can get. And we need to start that conversation as early as possible.

Quantum Physics for Babies was just the beginning…IMG_20170606_175007

Am I wrong?

In today’s culture, all you have to do is not be an asshole to be a hero.

We now absolve ourselves by simply denying guilt. Even the hint of criticism is charged as an offense. This fear of shame has run so rampant that a false feeling of innocence has turned into outright narcissism.

You are not a good person. I am not a good person. Let’s admit our faults, make amends, and try to be better.

Story time.

Two of my children are in an art class together. It’s not going well. The teacher does not have much control over the class and favours the returning and skilled students. My two children tend to stick together (good on them), but often get to acting up. Today was particularly bad. The director of the art school had to speak to us about it after class. Their tone was serious, but also apologetic. The report ended with a complement about the children’s art.

At home we reflected on this a bit and decided to call the school. We told them that we were extremely sorry about the disruption and requested the children be split up into different classes and if that was not possible, we would voluntarily remove them from the class. The director was flabbergasted. We were apparently the first parents not to get immediately defensive about their children’s bad behaviour.

They are so afraid of defensive parents that the facts cannot even be stated without being padded with multiple compliments. We were thanked several times and given a free class in addition to accommodation of our request.

The moral of the story: in today’s culture, all you have to do is not be an asshole to be a hero.

Chapter 4: Academic Endgame

Time to go back and unlock all the achievements.

Well, this is itacademic endgame. I am now a faculty member at the University of Technology Sydney. It’s been quite a journey, but it wasn’t mine aloneand I couldn’t have done it by myself. I met Lindsay at the university bar and it was love at first sightand I thought she was all right, too 😛.

Chapter 1 found us in Waterloo, Ontario where we were students at the University of Waterloo. We moved into our first home and had our first two children. In any other profession, we would have been settled down by then. But I was still an academic baby. After finishing my PhD, it was time to embrace the nomadic lifestyle of academia, pack up the family and head west.

Chapter 2 was our adventure into the deserts of south-western USA. We were skeptical at firsthaving watched a bit too much Breaking Badbut Albuquerque quickly grew on us. The people and culture were quite unique to North America as was the landscape. The sunsets, for example, are unparalleled.

We had our third child in Albuquerque and it was every bit as clinical and expensive as you would expect from the American healthcare system. In any case, he is happy and healthy as we haven’t told him him who his president is yet. It was also here where the idea for Quantum Physics for Babies was conceived.

In Albuquerque, I worked as a Postdoc at the Center for Quantum Information and Control with the eminent and ever-quirky Carl Caves. Carl is the most honest and generous physicist I have ever met. I hope to work with him again soon.

All-in-all, we loved our time in Albuquerque and it was very sad for all of us that we had to move on.

Chapter 3 brought us down under, to the land of Oz. We moved in to a closet in the inner-city suburbs of Sydney. Sydney is an unplanned transportation disaster in one of the most beautiful natural harbours in the world which are surrounded by white and golden sandy beaches. In Australia, beach is life.

Geez, can't live in Sydney and not share a picture of this thing. Thought I'd make it interesting with #prisma.

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While we weren’t at the beach, I was a postdoc at the University of Sydney, which is a hotspot for hands-on theory and experiment in quantum computing. One of things that I hadn’t appreciated about Sydney was its position as a hub for quantum information scientists visiting Australia. International travelers often come through Sydney regardless of their Australian destination. Consequently, I met many new people in the field here. This was extremely beneficial, as these connections led to my current position.

Chapter 4 started with bang: new year, new baby, new home and a new joball in the span of a few weeks!

Welcome to the family Evan!

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We’re all settled down now at home and I am not sure if I’ll ever be settled in my new academic home at the Centre for Quantum Software and Information at the University of Technology Sydney.

I’ve never really celebrated the other “milestones” in the academic progressionI didn’t even collect my PhD diploma, let alone frame it. I’ve always felt like there was more to do. And, although a tenured faculty position can be seen as the endgame, it is really just the beginning. There is just so much left to donot only in my own specialization, but scientific research itself needs fixing!


Cover image credit: HIGH SCORE by Kevin Simpson, on Flickr.

Foray into multidisciplinary research

Nearly two years later, it is finally published: Explaining quantum correlations through evolution of causal models.

This was a truly multidisciplinary effort. What we achieved was to combine ideas from causal modeling and machine learning into a new algorithm to analyze real experimental data from experiments on quantum correlations. The team consisted of researchers from 4 different universities and several distinct disciplines.

Interestingly, no one researcher on the project had expertise in all of these areas. Moreover, within each discipline, everything from the way research is conducted to how it is disseminated is different. Couple that to the fact that many of us were senior researchers with other demands on our time and you get a 2 year long project!

Anyway, it is done and I’d gladly do it again with this bunch of talent scientists!