When I started writing children’s books, they were for my own children. Since I never stop singing the praises of science, I wasn’t much concerned about how scientifically literate they would be. But how am I doing outside my own family? I don’t know! That’s where you come it 😁
Ahhhhh! Summer in Australia. Why did I not know about you sooner?
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.
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
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!
- I visited Booktopia, Australia largest online bookseller, got a tour and did a podcast: https://twitter.com/booktopia/status/1071275736118558722
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 😁
Someone told me we need another child so we can cover all 7 colours of the rainbow. As they say in Australia: yeah, nah 😁
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.
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
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
December in Australia combines the holiday season and summer. You’ll find me at the beach!
You can’t prove 1 is, or is not, prime. You have the freedom to choose whether to include 1 as a prime or not and this choice is either guided by convenience or credulity.
I occasionally get some cruel and bitter criticism from an odd source. I’m putting my response here for two reasons: (1) so I that I can simply refer them to it and not have to repeat myself or engage in the equally impersonal displeasure of internet arguments, and (2) I think there is something interesting to be learned about mathematics, logic, and knowledge more generally.
It all started when I wrote a very controversial book about an extremely taboo topic: mathematics. In my book ABCs of Mathematics, “P is for Prime”. The short, child-friendly description I gave for this was:
A prime number is only divisible by 1 and itself.
I thought I did a pretty good job of reducing the concept and syllables down to a level palatable by a young reader. Oh, boy, was I wrong. Enter: the angriest group of people I have met on the internet.
You see, by the given definition, I had to include 1 as a prime number since, as we should all agree, it is divisible only by 1 and itself.
Big mistake. Because, apparently, it has been drilled into people’s heads that this is a grave error, a misconception that can eventually lead young impressionable minds to a life of crime and possibly even death! It might even end up on a list of banned books!
By a vast majority, people love the book. I am generally happy with the reponse. The baby books I write are not for everyone—I get that. And I do try to take advice from all the feedback I receive on my books. There is always room for improvement. But the intense emotions some people have with the idea of 1 being a prime number is truly perplexing. Here are some examples:
I actually love the book, but there is a big mistake. The number 1 is not a prime number! The book should not be sold like this and needs to be reprinted.
1 IS NOT PRIME! How could a supposed math book have an error like this in it? I am disgusted!
Yikes. So what gives? Is 1 prime, or not? The answer is: that’s not a valid question.
Let me explain.
First, let’s look at a typical definition. Compare to, for example, Wikipedia’s entry on prime numbers:
A prime number (or a prime) is a natural number greater than 1 that cannot be formed by multiplying two smaller natural numbers.
Much more precise—no denying that. It’s grammatically correct, but probably hard to parse. I wanted to avoid negative definitions as much as I could in my books. But that’s beside the point. The reason 1 is not a prime is that the definition of prime itself is contorted to exclude it!
OK, so why is that? Well, the answer is probably not as satisfying as you might like: convenience. By excluding 1 as prime, one can state other theorems more concisely. Take the Fundamental Theorem of Arithmetic, for example:
Every integer greater than 1 either is a prime number itself or can be represented as the product of prime numbers and that, moreover, this representation is unique, up to (except for) the order of the factors.
Now, this statement would not be true if 1 were a prime since, for example, 6 = 2 × 3 but also 6 = 2 × 3 × 1 and also 6 = 2 × 3 × 1 × 1, etc. That is, if 1 were prime, the representation would not be unique and the theorem would be false.
However, if we do chose to include 1 as a prime number, all is not lost. Then the Fundamental Theorem of Arithmetic would still be true if it were stated as:
Every integer is a prime number itself or can be represented as the product of prime numbers and that, moreover, this representation is unique, up to (except for) the order of the factors and the number of 1’s.
Which version do you prefer? In either case, both the definition and theorem treat 1 as a special number. I’d argue that in this context, the number 1 is more of an annoyance that gets in the way of the deeper concept behind the theorem. But in mathematics you must be precise with your language. And so 1 must be dealt with as an awkward special case no matter which way you slice it.
So, is 1 prime, or not? Well, it depends on how you define it. But in the end it doesn’t really matter, so long as you are consistent. And understanding that is a much bigger lesson than memorizing some fact you were told in grade school.
The definition given in ABCs of Mathematics is not “wrong” any more than all of the other simplifications and analogies I have made are “wrong”. But, in case you were wondering, the second printing will be modified with the hope that everyone can enjoy the book. Even the angry people on the internet deserve to be happy.
Wow. It doesn’t take long for a blog to get neglected, does it? Let’s make an easy transition back in and start with a listicle. Here I am going list 5 books that we like which are suited to the 3–6 age range and encourage abstract thinking. This won’t be your typical reading experience. There will be a lot of interruptions, questions, and dialogue. It’ll be fun.
In My Heart: A Book of Feelings
The kids seem to like the novelty of the heart cut-outs, but they also enjoy the imagery the author instills for each emotion experienced by the sole character. The melodic flow makes it easy and fun to read as well. The books ends with a question, “how does your heart feel?” and I always get an interesting answer.
This is Not a Book
book (bʊk), noun: a written or printed work consisting of pages glued or sewn together along one side and bound in covers.
So this is a book. But your kids might argue with you on that. I often catch them “reading” this one on their own, even the ones who can’t read. It’s hard to describe. Just get it.
This might be for a little bit older audience, but it works for the younger ones in small spurts. It is book full of personal, intriguing questions accompanied by a photography or drawing. For example, one page asks, “Have you ever been really alone?” and there is a picture of a child under a tree staring up at the sky. Sometimes they just describe the picture or say “I don’t know”. Occasionally you get a interesting answer and learn something you maybe didn’t know about your child.
The Curious Guide to Things That Aren’t
For each letter of the alphabet, an idea or non-material thing is first described with clues. The reader must guess before it is revealed and described with a scientifically accurate explanation. For example, D is for Darkness. It is first described cryptically by where you can find it (a cave) and what makes it go away (flashlight).
The Book With No Pictures
I don’t get it. I mean, I can see why the first 10 times are funny. But over and over again, really? And now you are reading these words because that’s how blogs work. BLORK.
The picture of the world presented in children’s books today is a baby boomer’s fairy tale.
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.
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.