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The point of physics

Something I lost sight of for a long time is the reason I study physics, or the reason I started studying it anyway. I got into it for no reason other than it was an exciting application of mathematics. I was in awe, not of science, but of the power of mathematics.

Now there are competing pressures. Sometimes I find myself “doing physics” for reasons that can only best be seen as practical. Fine—I’m a pragmatic person after all. But practicality here is often relative to a set of arbitrarily imposed constraints, such as requiring a CV full of publications in journals with the highest rank in order to be a good academic boi.

You may say that’s life. We all start with naive enthusiasm and end up doing monotonous things we don’t enjoy. But then we tell ourselves, and each other, lies about it being in service of some higher purpose. Scientists see it stated so often that they start to repeat it, and even start to believe it. I know I’ve written and repeated thoughtless platitudes about science many times. It’s almost necessary to convince yourself of these myths as you struggle through your school or your job. Why am I doing this, you wonder, because it certainly doesn’t feel rewarding in those moments.

On the other hand, many people are comfortable decoupling their passion from their job. Do the job to earn money which funds your true passions. Not all passions provide the immediate monetary returns one needs to live a comfortable life after all. So you can study science to learn the skills that someone will pay you to employ. There are many purely practical reasons to study physics, for example, which have nothing to do with answering to some higher calling. This certainly seems more honest than having to lie to yourself when expectations fail.

(I should point out that if you are one of those people currently struggling through graduate school, academia is not the only way—maybe not even the best way—to sate your hunger for knowledge, or just solve cool maths problems.)

A lot of scientists, teachers, and university recruiters get this wrong. There is a huge difference between being curious about nature and reality and suggesting it is morally good to devote one’s life to playing a small part in answering specific questions about such.

Einstein did not develop general relativity to usher in a new era of gravitational wave astronomy, as cool as that is. He did it because he was obsessed with answering his own questions driven by his insatiable imagination. Even the roots of the now enormous collaboration of scientists which detected gravitational waves started in a water cooler conversation among a few physicists, which is best summarized by this tweet:

In other words, we don’t actually do things through a consensual agreement about its potential value to a higher power called science. We think about doing certain things because we are curious, because we want to see what will happen, or because we can.

Like all other myths scientists and their adoring followers like to deride, science as a moral imperative is just that—a myth. Might we not get further with honesty, by telling ourselves and others that we are just people—people trying to do cool shit. The great things will come as they always have, emerging from complex interactions—not by everyone collectively following a blinding light at the end of tunnel, but by lighting the tunnel itself with millions of unique candles.

The minimal effort explanation of quantum computing

Quantum computing is really complicated, right? Far more complicated than conventional computing, surely. But, wait. Do I even understand how my laptop works? Probably not. I don’t even understand how a doorknob works. I mean, I can use a doorknob. But don’t ask me to design one, or even draw a picture of the inner mechanism.

We have this illusion (it has the technical name in the illusion of explanatory depth) that we understand things we know how to use. We don’t. Think about it. Do you know how a toilet works? A freezer? A goddamn doorknob? If you think you do, try to explain it. Try to explain how you would build it. Use pictures if you like. Change your mind about understanding it yet?

We don’t use quantum computers so we don’t have the illusion we understand how they work. This has two side effects: (1) we think conventional computing is generally well-understood or needs no explanation, and (2) we accept the idea that quantum computing is hard to explain. This, in turn, causes us to try way too hard at explaining it.

Perhaps by now you are thinking maybe I don’t know how my own computer works. Don’t worry, I googled it for you. This was the first hit.

Imagine if a computer were a person. Suppose you have a friend who’s really good at math. She is so good that everyone she knows posts their math problems to her. Each morning, she goes to her letterbox and finds a pile of new math problems waiting for her attention. She piles them up on her desk until she gets around to looking at them. Each afternoon, she takes a letter off the top of the pile, studies the problem, works out the solution, and scribbles the answer on the back. She puts this in an envelope addressed to the person who sent her the original problem and sticks it in her out tray, ready to post. Then she moves to the next letter in the pile. You can see that your friend is working just like a computer. Her letterbox is her input; the pile on her desk is her memory; her brain is the processor that works out the solutions to the problems; and the out tray on her desk is her output.

That’s all. That’s the basic first layer understanding of how this device you use everyday works. Now google “how does a quantum computer work” and you are met right out of the gate with an explanation of theoretical computer science, Moore’s law, the physical limits of simulation, and so on. And we haven’t even gotten to the quantum part yet. There we find qubits and parallel universes, spooky action at a distance, exponential growth, and, wow, holy shit, no wonder people are confused.

What is going on here? Why do we try so hard to explain every detail of quantum physics as if it is the only path to understanding quantum computation? I don’t know the answer to that question. Maybe we should ask a sociologist. But let me try something else. Let’s answer the question how does a quantum computer work at the same level as the answer above to how does a computer work. Here we go.

How does a quantum computer work?

Imagine if a quantum computer were a person. Suppose you have a friend who’s really good at developing film. She is so good that everyone she knows posts their undeveloped photos to her. Each morning, she goes to her letterbox and finds a pile of new film waiting for her attention. She piles them up on her desk until she gets around to looking at them. Each afternoon, she takes a photo off the top of the pile, enters a dark room where she works at her perfected craft of film development. She returns with the developed photo and puts this in an envelope addressed to the person who sent her the original film and sticks it in her out tray, ready to post. Then she moves to the next photo in the pile. You can’t watch your friend developing the photos because the light would spoil the process. Your friend is working just like a quantum computer. Her letterbox is her input; the pile on her desk is her classical memory; while the film is with her in the dark room it is her quantum memory; her brain and hands are the quantum processor that develops the film; and the out tray on her desk is her output.

The real magic of quantum computing

By now you have read many articles on quantum computing. Congratulations. You know nothing about quantum computing.

There is a magician on stage. It’s tense. Maybe it’s a primetime TV show and the production value is super high. The celebrity judges look nervous. There is epic build up music as the magician calls their assistant on stage. The assistant climbs into a box that is covered with a velvet blanket. Why a blanket? I mean, isn’t the box good enough? What a pretentious as… forget it, I’m ruining this for myself. OK, so the assistant is in the box with their head and legs sticking out. What the fuck? Who made this box, anyway? Damn it, I’m doing it again. Then—oh shit—is that a saw? What’s going to happen with that? Fuck! No! The assistant’s been cut in half! And then the quantum computer outputs the answer. Wait, what? Where did the quantum computer come from? I don’t know—quantum computing is magic like that.

By now you have read many articles on quantum computing. Congratulations. You know nothing about quantum computing. I know what you are thinking: Whoa, Chris, I wasn’t ready for these truth bombs. Take it easy on us. But I see a problem and I just need to fix it. Or, more likely, call the rental agent to fix it.

You probably think that a qubit can represent a 0 and a 1 at the same time. Or, that quantum computing takes advantage of the strange ability of subatomic particles to exist in more than one state at any time. I can hardly fault you for that. After all, we expect Scientific American and WIRED to be fairly reputable sources. And, I’m not cherry picking here—these were the first two hits after the Wikipedia entry on a Google search of “What is quantum computing?” Nearly every popular account of quantum computing has this “0 and 1 at the same time” metaphor.

I say metaphor because it is certainly not literally true that the things involved in quantum computing—those qubits mentioned above—are 0 and 1 at the same time. Why? Well, for starters, 0 and 1 are defined to be mutually exclusive (that means it’s either one OR the other). Logically, 0 is defined as [NOT 1]. Then 0 AND 1 is equal to [NOT 1] AND 1, which is a false statement. “0 and 1 at the same time” just doesn’t make sense, and it’s false anyway. Next.

OK, so what’s the big deal? We all play fast and loose with words. Surely this little… let me stop you right there, because it gets worse. Much worse.

The Scientific American article linked above then deduces that, “This lets qubits conduct vast numbers of calculations at once, massively increasing computing speed and capacity.” That’s a pretty big logical leap, but I’d say it’s a correct one. Let’s break it down. First, if a qubit can be 0 and 1 at the same time then two qubits can be 00 and 01 and 10 and 11 at the same time. And three qubits can be 000 and 001 and 010 and 011 and 100 and 101 and 110 and 111 at the same time. And… well, you get the picture. Like mold on that organic bread you bought, exponential growth!

The number of possible ways to set some number of bits, say n of them, is 2n—a big number. If n = 300, 2300 is more than the number of atoms in the universe! Think about that. Flip a coin just 300 times and the number of possible ways they could land is unfathomable. And 300 qubits could be all of them at the same time. If you believe that, then it is easy to believe that quantum computers will just calculate every possible solution to your problem at once and pick the right answer. That would be magic. Alas, this is not how quantum computers work.

Lesson 1: don’t take a bad metaphor and draw your own simplistic conclusions from it.

Try this one out from Forbes: “A bit can be at either of the two poles of the sphere, but a qubit can exist at any point on the sphere.” Spot on. This is 100% accurate. But, wait! “So, this means that a computer using qubits can store an enormous amount of information and uses less energy doing so than a classical computer.” The fuck? No. In fact, a qubit cannot be used to store and retrieve more than 1 bit of data. Again, magic, but not how quantum computers work.

Lesson 2: don’t reduce an entire field to one idea and draw your own simplistic conclusions from it.

I can just imagine what you are thinking right now. OK hotshot, how would you explain quantum computing? I’m glad you asked. After bashing a bad analogy, I’m going to use another, better analogy. I like analogies—they are my favorite method of learning. Teaching by analogy is kind of like being in two places at the same time.

Alright, I’m going to tell you the correct analogy between quantum physics and magic. Let’s think about what a magic trick looks like abstractly. The magician, who is highly trained, spends a huge amount of time choreographing a mechanism which is then hidden from the audience. The show begins, the “magic” happens, and we are returned to reality with bafflement. If you are under 20, then you also take a selfie for the Insta #fuckyeahmagic.

Now here is what happens in a quantum computation. A quantum engineer, who is highly trained, spends a huge amount of time choreographing a mechanism which is then hidden from the audience. The show begins, quantum computation happens, and we are returned the answer to our problem. Tada! Quantum computation is magic. Selfie, Insta, #fuckyeahquantum.

Let’s dig into this a bit deeper, though. Why not uncover the quantum computer—open the box—to reveal the mechanism? Well, we can’t. If we “watch” the computation happen, we expose the quantum computer to an environment and this will break the computation. The kind of things a quantum computer needs to do requires complete isolation from the environment. Just like a magician’s trick, if we reveal the mechanism, the magic doesn’t happen.

OK, fine. The “magic” will be lost, but at least I could understand the mechanism, right? Sure, that’s right. But here’s the catch: a magician spends countless hours training and preparing for the trick. Knowing the mechanism doesn’t help you understand how to actually perform the trick. Nor does seeing that the mechanism of quantum computing is some complicated math actually help you understand how it works. And don’t over simplify it—we already know that doesn’t work.

Let’s look at the example of a sword swallowing illusionist. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s exactly how it sounds—a person puts a sword the length of their torso in their mouth down to the handle. How one figures out they have a proclivity for this talent, I don’t want to know. But what’s the explanation? Don’t worry, I already googled it for you, and it’s simple: “the illusionist positions their head up so that his throat and stomach make a straight line.” Oh, is that it? I’m suddenly unimpressed. So now that you too know how to swallow a sword are you going to go and do it? I fucking doubt it. That would be stupid—about as stupid as reading a few sentence description of some “explanation” of quantum computing and then declaring you understand it.

Lesson 3: don’t place your analogy at the level of explanation—place it at the level of the phenomenon. Let your analogy do the work of explanation for you.

If you like figures, I have prepared a lovely summary for you.

Well there you go. Quantum computing isn’t magic, but it can put on a good show. You can learn about how to do the tricks yourself and even perform a few with a little more effort. I suggest starting with the IBM Quantum Experience. Or, start where the real magicians do with Quantum Computing for Babies 😂

Journal | December 2018

Ahhhhh! Summer in Australia. Why did I not know about you sooner?

Eureka!

I’ve been working on a card game on and off for the past few months. Partly as an experiment and partly out of laziness, I decided to “give it away for free”. In practice, this was more work than I expected. For one, I had to learn a little bit about copyright. Long story short, it is released under the license CC-BY4.0, which means—loosely speaking—you can do anything you want with it provided you cite your sources.

One of the big cons of this approach is that you have to find your own way to print your own cards, which is either cheaply done on a desktop printer (lame!) or expensively done on high quality cardstock (ugh!). I’m not sure a way around this.

You can find the instructions for printing and playing the game here.

Reading!

Children’s Literature Recommendations

Pig the Grub by Aaron Blabey

Fun. But would you expect anything less with a Pig book? All the kids love a good Pig story.

Ada Lace Sees Red by Emily Calandrelli and Renaee Kurilla

This is the second book in the Ada Lace series and I think this one is even better than the first! There are lots of relatable elements to this story. But the science—oh, the science—for me made it all the better!

Adult Literature September Reads

Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect by Judea Pearl and Dana Mackenzie

OK, full disclosure. I made a huge mistake in buying the audiobook for this one. There is just too many references to figures to follow along. I made it through alright by slowing it down and already having some experience with causal networks, but I can’t really recommend, or not recommend, this one. Some of the historical anecdotes were interesting, but it was at times hard to read (errr… listen) to the author’s self-pity about not being more recognised.

Through Two Doors at Once: The Elegant Experiment That Captures the Enigma of Our Quantum Reality by Anil Ananthaswamy

Hands down the best popular account of quantum physics. This tells in beautiful detail the key issues surrounding the controversies of quantum physics. The way the author does this all from the lense of a single experiment is inspiring.

Bare Minimum Parenting: The Ultimate Guide to Not Quite Ruining Your Child by James Breakwell

Comedy mixed with unintentional parenting wisdom. The jokes and style get a bit repetitive, but overall I enjoyed the laughs.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

Finally got around to reading this highly recommended book. Wish I had read it sooner. Every positive thing written about this book is probably true.

Currently reading: Woo’s Wonderful World of Maths by Eddie Woo

Writing!

Today is the day for ABCs of Engineering with Dr Sarah Kaiser. Check out my #12DaysOfEngineering over on Twitter.

While you are at it, pick up a copy of Blockchain for Babies with Marco Tomamichel.

The final cover for Cat in the Box (1 June 2019) is here. I’ve seen the internal illustrations and they are great as well! Looking forward to see this one hit the shelves next year! If you can’t quite read the book blurb, it says: Schrodinger’s famous paradox reimagined for the modern world, with more talking animals and fewer dead cats.

Arithmetic! (academic news)

Big news for the Ferrie group! Dr Clara Javaherian and Dr Shibdas Roy have joined as postdoctoral researchers. They will both be working on the AUSMURI project, which is about machine learning and quantum control. Stay tuned to hear about some exciting new science this year!

Events!

  • Vacation!

Up next!

Both Blockchain for Babies and ABCs of Engineering are released on 1 Jan 2019! But, seeing as it is still peak summer in Australian, we’ll still be at the beach 😁

⟨B|raket|S⟩

Welcome to ⟨B|raket|S⟩! The object is to close brakets, the tools of the quantum mechanic!

Created by Me, Chris Ferrie!

2 PLAYERS | AGES 10+ | 15 MINUTES

Welcome to ⟨B|raket|S⟩! The object is to close brakets, the tools of the quantum mechanic! You’ll need to create these quantum brakets to maximize your probability of winning. But, just like quantum physics, there is no complete certainty of the winner until the measurement is made!

No knowledge of quantum mechanics is require to play the game, but you will learn the calculus of the quantum as you play. Later in the rules, you’ll find out how your moves line up with the laws of quantum physics.

What you need

A deck of ⟨B|raket|S⟩ cards, a coin, and a way to keep score.

The instructions are here.

I suggest getting the cards printed professionally. All the cards images are in the cards folder. I printed the cards pictured above in Canada using https://printerstudio.ca. However, they also have a worldwide site (https://printerstudio.com).

You can print your own cards using a desktop printer with this file.

You can laser cut your own pieces using this file.

Open Source

Oh, and this game is free and open source. You can find out more at the GitHub repository: https://github.com/csferrie/Brakets/.

Journal | November 2018

Someone told me we need another child so we can cover all 7 colours of the rainbow. As they say in Australia: yeah, nah 😁

Eureka!

The big aha! moment was seeing how much school children love YouTube stars. OK, maybe I should say “stars”. And by “stars” I mean people that have at least one YouTube video with them in it.

So, I planned on going to McCallums Hill PS to read to the Stage 1 students and do some physics activities. It was a great time and we all had a lot of fun.

But, what I didn’t expect was for the teachers and students to do a little research on me before I arrived. At some point they came across this video from the Perimeter Institute.

And, that was it, they decide I was a YouTube star 😂 When I arrive they swarmed me asking, “Are you the author from YouTube?!” Then they took turns taking pictures with me. It was all very charming and amusing.

Reading!

Children’s Literature Recommendations

Doll-E 1.0 by Shanda McCloskey

Fun illustrations and story of the technology infused world of today’s children. It’ll fit great in any bedtime picture book rotation. It also works to motivate the tinkerer in young listeners.

Ada Lace is on the Case by Emily Calandrelli and Renaee Kurilla

One of the few “first chapter books” that isn’t all about problems encountered at school. Ada, the main character, has to investigate and solve a neighborhood mystery that had my kids thinking and guessing along the way. Whereas many STEM-inspired fiction in this reading category resort to science fiction, Ada Lace sticks to real science and engineering.

Amulet 2 & 3 by Kazu Kibuishi

We continued reading the Amulet graphic novel series. It only gets better! We definitely recommend this for any age. Again, reading aloud a graphic novel may seem counterintuitive, but it definitely works!

Adult Literature September Reads

This Idea Is Brilliant: Lost, Overlooked, and Underappreciated Scientific Concepts Everyone Should Know by John Brockman

This is such a great book to have lying around. It is so easy to dip in and out of. Each chapter is a unique description of a new scientific idea. While they are on the shallow side (think: somewhere between a tweet and a TED talk), the book makes up for it in quantity. I really enjoyed learning about so many new scientific ideas.

Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life by Peter Gray

Read this book whether you have children or not. It’s not just a story about children and schooling, but one of Western society more generally. It really sharpened my observations of my own children’s experience in the school system. There is plenty of advice in here for parents.

Currently reading: Woo’s Wonderful World of Maths by Eddie Woo

Writing!

Wow! 8 Little Planets was named Best Children’s Book 2018 for ages 0-2 by Amazon!

9781492671244_orig.jpg

Next year, some books on engineering topics will be released. Here is the final version of the first cover! It’s ABCs of Engineering with my amazing co-author, engineer and lasers-in-space physicist, Dr Sarah Kaiser.

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It’s been a while in the making but the first translations of the new versions of the book are available. First up we have Italian! Available now are Ingegneria spaziale and Relatività generale. Next April, Ottica fisica and Fisica Quantistica will arrive.

Molto buona! I did an interview with the Italian publisher, which you can find here. (Google will do a great job translating it from Italian as well 😁)

Arithmetic! (academic news)

All this exciting children’s book news sure illustrates how slow academia moves! Of course, when trying to prove fundamental truths about the world, we are happy to take our time 😉

This month I’ve been dealing with reports from referees. Criticism is a necessary part of science and in many cases referees have provided crucial insight. But, you also have to develop a fairly thick skin.

This rather is rather timely since a podcast recorded last month with Sc-gasm about peer review just aired.

Events!

  • ACEMS 2018 Retreat Keynote titled “All your Bayes are Belong to Us”.

  • I spent a couple days in Perth talking about the children’s books and reading to a great crowd.

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Perth! You're awesome ♥️

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  • MathsCraft is workshop for high-schoolers which encourages them to “think like a research mathematician”. Each workshop brings together students, teachers, and mathematicians guide the students in their “play” at maths. It was a great experience and fun to watch the students explore their curiosity with maths.

Up next!

December in Australia combines the holiday season and summer. You’ll find me at the beach!

Journal | October 2018

Happy Halloween! We escaped the cold in Canada and are now back in Australia, ready for second summer 😁

Eureka!

The big aha! moment was seeing how much stories resonate with parents! Over the past year and a half, I’ve been reading from Rocket Science for Babies and doing some paper activities (paper airplanes, demonstrating lift, etc.). It’s been great and I think the children have lots of fun. But because it’s mostly an interaction between me and the children, perhaps some parents feel left out? Or, maybe they are just happy to sit back let their children take the lead.

This month, though, I started reading 8 Little Planets at events as well, and the response from the parents was amazing! Nothing like a good story to excite the imaginative child in all of us, I guess 😁

This month I also got some hilarious feedback on social media. Here are a few highlights:

Reading!

Children’s Literature Recommendations

What do you do with a problem by Kobi Yamada, Illustrated by Mae Besom

Inspirational story about a young person tackling a problem head on and finding beauty in it. It’s a bit abstract, meaning it might take a while for a child to “get it”, but the illustrations are beautiful and the pace was right for a bedtime read.

The Atlas Obscura Explorer’s Guide for the World’s Most Adventurous Kid by Dylan Thuras and Rosemary Mosco

I think adults will find this more amusing than children. My guess is that these real places are suppose to be surprisingly, well, obscure. But, to a child, these are just slightly less fantastic than what they can dream up in their own imagination. It can still keep a child’s attention and led to some interesting questions.

Amulet: The Stonekeeper by Kazu Kibuishi

I was skeptical about reading a graphic novel aloud, especially the pages with no words! But, it actually worked quite well. Even the non-readers could understand the plot. The story itself is amazing. We all can’t wait to continue the series.

Adult Literature September Reads

Scale: The Universal Laws of Life, Growth, and Death in Organisms, Cities, and Companies by Geoffrey West

This one is about the science of complexity and some simple rules that govern how things (from animals to suburbia) scale. There are lots of interesting tidbits in here. My favorite is an understanding, using scaling laws, for why every species of mammal has the same number of heartbeats over their lifetime, from the tiny shrew to the enormous blue whale. It can get a bit wordy and repetitive, but still worth a read.

Currently reading: This Idea Is Brilliant: Lost, Overlooked, and Underappreciated Scientific Concepts Everyone Should Know by John Brockman

Writing!

Big news this month was the release of 8 Little Planets! It’s super-fun and has amazing illustrations by Lizzy Doyle.

Next up is Blockchain for Babies by my UTS colleague, and blockchain expert, Marco Tomamichel. Just in time for the new year and next Bitcoin boom. HODL on for this one! It’s due 1 Jan 2019.

In terms of writing, I am working on a new ABC’s book. I don’t want to give away the details yet, but here’s a hint: it’s not a STEM topic!

Arithmetic! (academic news)

Last week I attended Quantum Gates, Jumps, and Machines, which was a workshop in honor of Gerard Milburn’s 60th birthday. If you ever get a chance to go to a “birthday workshop”, do it. The talks have great science alongside hilarious anecdotes and roasts of the guest of honor. Barry Sanders documented much of it on Twitter.

University of Technology Sydney will soon offer some undergraduate credit subjects in Quantum Computing. We’ve been having some high level discussion about organizing that and getting it approved through all the bureaucratic channels. There may even be some associated online content! Keep your eyes peeled next Spring term!

After submitting their papers, the students in the group are learning hands on the joys of peer review, including what to do about “interesting” referee reports! Look out for some publications soon.

An Honors student at the University of New South Wales submitted a thesis that I co-supervised. This was my first time officially supervising an undergraduate. It was a very rewarding process as the student was from outside of the field and wrote a thesis on quantum learning applications in statistics.

Events!

  • I read and signed some books at the Vancouver Public Library to some excited preschoolers.

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Fun at the Vancouver Public Library!

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  • Byrne and Wade from Sci-gasm Podcast came by the office and we recorded a not-so-family-friendly interview. Stay tuned for that—you might even win a signed copy of Quantum Computing for Babies.
  • Where the Wild Things Are bookshop in Brisbane hosted an event where I read and did some activities with some West Enders. I always have a good time in Brissie!
  • I joined a panel at UTS about Communicating as a researcher: Strategies for building value and reputation. It was quite interesting to contrast my fake-it-before-you-make-it style with one that was more structured, and another that was goal-oriented. Perhaps there is a useful middle ground?

Up next!

In November I’ll be visiting Melbourne and Perth. Come on out and get your science on 6 Nov!