Professor Chris Ferrie has straightforward advice when it comes to explaining quantum technologies to audiences of all ages: Keep it simple and keep it fresh. He also has some suggestions about how to finetune your BS detector and sort the hype from the real advancements in the quantum industry. In this episode, Chris describes his writing strategy for his books ranging from “Quantum for Babies” to “Quantum Bullsh*t” and shares some news about his own venture into the world of quantum startups. 


Veronica Combs: Hello, and welcome to The Quantum Spin by HKA. I’m Veronica Combs. I’m a writer and an editor here at the agency. I get to talk every day with really smart people working on really fascinating subjects, everything in the Quantum industry, from hardware to software. On our podcast, we focus on quantum communication, and by that I don’t mean making networks safe from hacking or entangling photons over long distances, but talking about the technology.

How do you explain these complicated concepts to people who don’t have a background in science and engineering but want to understand all the same?

Today, I’m talking with someone who explains complicated topics every day, all the time as his full-time job. Chris Ferrie is an Associate Professor at the Center for Quantum Software Information at the University of Technology Sydney. His specialty is machine learning, but he’s also an author. He’s written several books for grownups and many for children as well.

I know that I would definitely like to get a copy of Good Night Lab, which is a parody of Good Night Moon and his ABCs of Science for Babies and Blockchain for Babies sound really, really fascinating as well. Thank you, Chris, for talking to us today at the Quantum Spin. 

Chris Ferrie: Thanks for having me.

Veronica Combs: As I mentioned, I’m a writer and you always think about your audience, and I’m curious how you approach all these different types of people that you talk to.

Obviously you write for children, but you also write for adults, and you teach at the university. I know that you’ve done some consulting work with quantum startups. How do you think about who you’re talking to and how does that change how you talk? 

Chris Ferrie: I think in some sense, I don’t distinguish between the audiences. I start young, and realize that everyone else loves hearing things they already know, makes themselves feel smart. I always warn students when I give them advice on how to speak to audiences against being overly technical, because usually, you’re the only person in the audience that knows what you’re talking about.

So you want to try to connect with them. And if you don’t know everything about every single one of them, you’re not going to say the optimal thing. It’s best to start as low as you possibly can. And if you have a different vantage point or viewpoint or a new kind of analogy or something, then people will really appreciate that.

And even though they somehow, in some sense, feel like they know the topic, they will feel enlightened by seeing that new angle on it. There’s a low-level sense in which I don’t distinguish between the audiences. Obviously, there’s a performance difference if you’re talking in person to children, but the most difficult audience is likely early undergraduates in physics.

They’re the ones who think they already know everything so they’re the most challenging, but they don’t want to be patronized. You don’t want to come out and start reading children’s books to them. But if you give simple explanations, simple analogies, simple pictures, usually by the time you get to something that could be more complicated, you realize that for children, their attention is not that long anyway, so that’s where it ends usually. And you can just build upon that when you’re talking with older audiences. So yeah, I always kind of start in the same sort of spot. 

Veronica Combs: Mm hmm. And I know that you have four children. Did that spark your interest in writing for children or was that always part of your repertoire?

Chris Ferrie: Yeah, definitely. I have a brother that’s the same age as me. I don’t have any younger siblings. I don’t have any extended family that have young children. I’ve never really been around children for most of my life. The whole world of children’s stuff was completely new to me. I was like, oh half the bookstore is about kids’ stuff.

And then when I had kids, it kind of opened up this whole world of kinds of books and toys and comedy. Half of comedy now makes sense because people love talking about their families, but there wasn’t a lot of science. There’s nonfiction for kids. There’s my first numbers and colors. 

There’s the animals on the farm but there’s nothing about transistors which they’re probably reading the book on, so I thought let’s put some science into these kids’ books and then I just started writing them for my own kids. I started with quantum physics because that’s what I do and that’s what I wanted to explain to them. So it kind of just steamrolled from there. 

Veronica Combs: Here at HKA, we’re always trying to do what you said, start at the simplest level. Don’t use the jargon and start with something people can at least latch onto. And then you can kind of take them along with you. I know that there’s a lot of stereotypes around physics and physics professors, and you break a lot of those.

So in addition to the children’s books that you’ve written, I think, was it just last year? Quantum Bullshit, How to Ruin Your Life with Advice from Quantum Physics. That was just last year that you published that one, I think, right? 

Chris Ferrie: Yep. That’s right. Yep.

Veronica Combs: And it is a very informal writing style. Have you ever gotten any pushback about, well, you can’t talk about it that way, that’s not right? 

Chris Ferrie: Well, there’s a few people that don’t like the swear words, but, not so much from the academic side. I think it’s more inviting and I think more engaging for a broader audience. And another example, an analogous thing is some of my books have “for babies” in the title, so there’s Quantum Physics for Babies. And occasionally I get a message from a parent or maybe a teacher and they’ll say that “for babies” is tough for my five-year-old or my six year old because they are adamant that they’re not a baby anymore, they’re a big kid.

So can you please change the title of the book? No, in some sense, obviously not, right? Because the reason that people post photos and take a double take when it’s on the bookshelf is because of the juxtaposition of quantum physics and babies, right? That kind of shows that you can’t say one thing in one way and hit every audience.

So the conversational tone, I mean, the opposite would just put off a lot of people, right? The vast majority of people. There’s some old guard of physics that say you have to dress a certain way and speak a certain way, but they’re a dying breed. 

Veronica Combs: Yeah, that’s good. Yes, getting people in the door and not using jargon to close the gate is really important. I was reading Quantum Bullshit the other day and I finally understood entanglement the way you described it. You were saying, it’s not this, it’s really that. And your books really do sound like a conversation in a coffee shop as opposed to a lecture in a college. I mean the stereotypical lecture in college.

I’ve enjoyed many lectures in colleges So no shade to that. But one line really jumped out for me from the book in this particular chapter – “new technology attracts grifters like a child to a birthday cake” and I thought that was so true and we always ask our guests on the podcast, do you have a way of spotting bullshit or how do you know when something sounds too good to be true?

There’s been a lot of critiques of superconductivity research lately and I think now some journalists are good at knowing what questions to ask, but with quantum, people don’t know how to detect that hype. So do you have any advice off the top of your head? 

Chris Ferrie: There’s a lot of things I could say here. The first thing would be, you’re doing it right, you picked up my book instead of reading the science section of or wherever the quantum hype headlines get posted.

I think the language should be a red flag sometimes. We were saying before, I use this conversational kind of tone and it’s inviting, it’s asking you to come on this journey with me, right? Whereas when you have all this jargon, it’s a mask for something else, right? So that alone can sometimes be a red flag.

At the other end of the spectrum, I think you have this phenomenon that people who are experts can easily spot bullshit. But why is that? It’s not that they’ve discovered a way to spot bullshit generically. They could be duped by things outside of their field of expertise. It’s that they’ve seen it all.

And when it becomes technical, like you’re mentioning superconductivity, why is it that an expert sees a headline like “we’ve created a room temperature superconductor” they can immediately dismiss that, especially the ones that have been trying it for 50 years, know how hard it is and someone in their garage isn’t going to do it, right?

It’s going to take a bit more effort than that. I think for the average consumer of science and technology news, my recommendation would be to sort of just slow down, right? I don’t read science news headlines because I know that the things that make it to the headlines are the ones that are clickbait.

They’re the ones that are the most sensational. Sometimes there is “real research” that someone posted on the internet that’s yet to be peer reviewed, but it’s speculative. I mean, there’s a lot of research that’s speculative and we encourage it and we allow it and that’s fine.

So do this experiment yourself, read science news that’s a month old, and ask yourself, are people still talking about this? You’ll find out that almost all of it is just kind of vacuous, it just sounds exciting and it makes sense that it appears on your newsfeed because the algorithms that decide what is shown to you are ones that maximize your time spent on the platform and they just monopolize your attention.

So, just slow down. And if you want to find out what is real and possible then you have to go to the most boring places possible. Like peer review journals, but you know, there’s things like this, like podcasts that talk to experts. If you’re really worried about it, go to the source.

Veronica Combs: As I mentioned, I was on your LinkedIn page and I was looking at The O2 Paradox Oxygen’s Vital Role, and you have a little video and first it says all the good things oxygen does, which of course we know. But then you say oxygen’s dark side, and it’s a great little graphic and I thought that was such a good way of catching people’s attention and showing that this thing is good and bad, because that gets flattened out so much. I’m going to use that as an example of a good graphic. 

Chris Ferrie: I’m glad you enjoyed it. That was one of the chapters in 42 Reasons to Hate the Universe. I mean it’s science comedy, sort of dark, cynical humor. But the subtitle is, And One Reason Not to Hate the Universe. So there’s some optimism and positivity in there at the end. 

Veronica Combs: And I did want to ask you what your thoughts are about AI and disinformation.

It just seems like we had enough trouble before we had large language models in terms of politicians and activists just getting misinformation out there. It seems like we’ll all need even better bullshit detectors now that large language models are doing so much writing for the web. Do you have any thoughts on that topic? 

Chris Ferrie: Well, I think we’ve been using AI to detect spam for years. Right? So, my advice is usually to just ignore bullshit. People often think about that as sort of equivalent to apathy, but it’s not, it’s like strategic skepticism.

And in some sense you’ve been doing this, everyone’s been doing this so long as you use email. You’ve been doing this for 20, 30 years. Right? True. Because the vast amount of messages that get sent to your email address, you never even see. They’re not even in your spam folder. The server just doesn’t even allow them to show up. 

So you’ve been doing this. You’ve been ignoring bullshitters the whole time. You just need to upgrade and to realize, this is a necessity, right? We’re in this attention economy and your attention is, for the algorithms, the most valuable resource. And if you let algorithms decide what you see, that’s not being objective. It may seem like by not setting up filters, by not muting certain people or ignoring certain people or blocking certain people or avoiding certain news, that’s not avoiding information, right? 

People often think, well, there’s this marketplace of ideas and I need to receive all of that information. And then I can objectively decide what’s real and what isn’t. But no, there’s just way too much. And by allowing an algorithm to decide what you see may seem like you’re not setting up hard filters, but in a sense, at the end of the day, someone else is deciding how you perceive reality.

Veronica Combs: Right, right. Yes, I think you mentioned before, slow down. 

I’m a reader. I always have a couple of books going. I read all day for work, but I find slowing down, and like you said, deliberately deciding what gets through and muting and blocking.

I think people are getting a little better sense that their attention is a commodity and they have to protect it. Like you said, not just let everything through the filter. In addition to teaching and writing, I know that you’ve done some work with quantum startups. There’s a lot going on in the quantum industry in Australia and I believe you have some startup news of your own. Is that right?

Chris Ferrie: Yeah, my co-founder, Simon Devitt, and I started Eigen Systems and we’re a quantum education company. Our mission is to democratize access to quantum computers in ways that haven’t been tested and tried. We’ll have a big announcement at Quantum Australia.

That’s on February 23rd. Quantum Australia is the 20th-23rd, but the announcement will be on the 23rd and we’ll post some videos and stuff online. So yeah, look out for that. And you mentioned my LinkedIn, and I seem to have a pretty heavy footprint on the search engine. I’m sure if after the 23rd, you Google my name, it’ll pop up somewhere.

Veronica Combs: Yes. Eigen as in Eigen solver, right? Is that where the name came from? 

Chris Ferrie: Yeah, that’s right. So actually, the product is called Quokka Computing. Obviously, if you know what a Quokka is, you can anticipate it’s going to have a cute little Quokka logo, and that has a very heavy appeal for a certain demographic, but not for every demographic.

So we didn’t want to call the company quokka computing. We wanted at least the company to sound a little bit more sort of, suit and tie. Yes. The reference is to this Eigen, kind of a prefix that pops up all the time in, in the math of quantum physics.

Veronica Combs: Yes. Yes. I’ve seen it a lot. 

As I said, I was reading through, you have a Medium blog and it’s really lovely. And your writing is, it’s just really beautiful. But I’m curious how you preserve your own sense of awe and wonder after 20 years teaching the subject. 

Chris Ferrie: I think writing about it certainly helps, definitely trying to convey it to a general audience reminds me of it.

I think if I just did my pen and paper mathematics day in, day out, I might end up with the opposite opinion, as you kind of alluded to, but yeah, writing about it certainly helps. 

Every time I talk about something, I don’t just repeat the thing I said the last time to the last person, because I feel like I would get quite bored with that. If I just had some memorized answer for every question, like, why is the sky blue? You know, I try to approach it in a different way with new analogies.

And then you start to realize, all your knowledge, all your understanding of things. It is somewhat correlated, if not exactly, just the number of analogies and categories that you’ve created for things. When we say people understand quantum physics, because we’ve heard the opposite many times from many famous quantum physicists, nobody understands quantum physics.

It’s too hard to understand yet we have all these people just doing it day in and day out without existential crises. So clearly, they understand it in some way, but what does that mean? Well, what it means is that they just have all of these analogies and examples and things that they can rely on and pull from that grab bag when they need it.

And when you talk, I mean, you’re not going to talk to a child about solving the Schrodinger equation, but when you talk to them about even simple things, like why is the sky blue? And maybe you haven’t thought about that in a while. And going through that motion, you develop a new kind of appreciation and understanding of it.

And you make a connection to things that you know today that never actually existed before because you hadn’t thought about that question in years. 

Veronica Combs: Yes, well, I know your new book is coming out, as I said, just in a few weeks, 42 Reasons to Hate the Universe (And One Reason Not To). And we’ll certainly look for your news about your new company at the end of February.

Thanks so much for spending time with us. I really appreciate your time and all your insights. Thank you, Chris. 

Chris Ferrie: Thanks for having me.

Host Veronica Combs is a quantum tech editor, writer and PR professional. She manages public relations for quantum computing and tech clients as an account manager with HKA Marketing Communications, the #1 agency in quantum tech PR. You can find them on X, formerly known as Twitter, @HKA_PR. Veronica joined HKA from TechRepublic, where she was a senior writer. She has covered technology, healthcare and business strategy for more than 10 years. If you’d like to be on the podcast yourself, you can reach her on LinkedIn, Veronica Combs, or you can go to the HKA website and share your suggestion via the Contact Us page.

February 16, 2024