Heather Wolpert-Gawron

The Full Interview with Dr. Spiros Michalakis

By on October 30, 2014

As part of my recent superhero PBL unit, I brought in Dr. Spiros Michalakis to talk to my students about research for their science-fiction based narratives.  Spiros is a Quantum Physicist who consulted on the new Marvel movie, Ant-man.  Sure, he didn’t invent Ant-man, but he used his knowledge of science to figure out how Ant-man could really exist.  According to my students, that may as well make him a superhero himself.  Anyway, we got to talking about the need for science and communication skills, in particular writing, to co-exist.  I posted an abridged version of this interview with Spiros on Edutopia, but the full interview can be read here.  Enjoy! – Heather

Tweenteacher: How do you, as a professional scientist, consultant, and researcher, use writing everyday? Any particular genres you use over others?

Spiros: As a quantum physicist, maintaining the public’s interest while discussing quantum mechanics in some depth requires the use of every genre of writing I can think of. To be honest, writing is only part of the equation. Our blog, Quantum Frontiers. has over 670K views since its inception a little over two years ago, which may seem impressive for a blog focusing on quantum physics. On the other hand, our collaboration with PhD Comics on animations centered around Quantum Mechanics has yielded over 750K views on YouTube in the last year alone. Three animations versus 130 blog posts.

Still, on Quantum Frontiers, I can be funny one week (academia can be hilariously absurd at times), and share a painful journey towards a solution to a hard problem the next. I may include diagrams and equations for those that wish to delve deeper into the concepts I am describing and even wax philosophical about the nature of space and time, using thought experiments to illustrate subtleties at the intersection of mathematics, physics and computer science. Writing affords me an exquisite freedom in both style and subject matter. After all, even a well-crafted sentence of 140 characters can be effective in capturing the imagination of millions of people a la Neil deGrasse Tyson @neiltyson.

Tweenteacher: Looking down the rabbit hole, what happens if we only focus on STEM-related subjects?  What happens to our students, all grown up, who don’t have communication as one of their skills?

Spiros: How can you tell an introvert from an extrovert at a scientific conference? The introvert looks at their shoes for the duration of their talk. The extrovert looks at yours.

I realized long ago that I am not a typical scientist. I have never worked in a lab. I don’t even remember the last time I performed an experiment and collected data. I am a mathematical physicist, a mythical creature which both mathematicians and physicists consider an abomination. It is the job of my scientific tribe to prove theorems about physical reality. Consider how hard that is for a second. Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein are hailed as geniuses for coming up with theories about the universe. Mathematical physicists have to come up with theorems. The difference is that theories have an expiration date. Theorems do not. Still, something has to give – after all, how many of you have heard of Michael Aizenman, or Elliot Lieb, both giants of mathematical physics? Theories capture the public’s imagination through tales of wormholes and time travel, while theorems and proofs generate allergic reactions even to the most seasoned theoretical physicists. Which is why I decided to stop looking at other people’s shoes during my presentations and start sharing my enthusiasm for my work with anyone who would listen.

The world is an amazing place, full of powerful ideas waiting to be discovered, analyzed, synthesized, made into movies, video games, gadgets, or life-saving, world-changing technology. The people that are changing the world and having fun while doing it are the ones that recognize what an incredible asset the creative arts are to humanizing and disseminating science. The joy of finding things out, which some of us know as ‘doing
science’, is ultimately a human endeavor. It is fueled by what we consider important, what we hold sacred, what we view as sublimely beautiful. If one day we figure out how to time-travel, the question will still remain: Who would you like to visit and why? STEM cannot answer that question.

Tweenteacher: How would you encourage a student who claims they aren’t interested in science to rethink their opinion?  Why is studying science so important and why do kids need knowledge of it?

Spiros: People think that scientists are professionals who wear labcoats and work with beakers. If that is 641px-Mad_scientist.svgtrue, then I am not a scientist. Scientists must then be nerdy thinkers with wild hair, like Einstein. That is not true either. Still, we stereotype in order to make sense of the world. There is the world of science and then, there is everything else: arts, business, etc. Straddling both worlds successfully, requires dedication and empathy. It also requires a certain level of vulnerability and willingness to take yourself lightly at times. The public cannot relate eagerly to the Nietzschean super-scientist whose only goal in life is to roam the dessert of the unknown in search of Truth. Science is not the pursuit of Truth. It is the pursuit of the unknown, an incredible adventure that challenges you to your core, like when Frodo had to take the Ring to Mordor.


Dr. Spiros Michalakis courtesy of CalTech TEDxYouth

I am not a scientist, yet I don’t know how else to live my life. I am curious and I never thought of apologizing for wanting to figure things out. So many of us feel like we are not cut out to be scientists, because we don’t like math, or we are not good at solving problems. We are all born with curiosity and tenacity, which are the only requirements for falling in love with mathematical reasoning and problem solving. Some of us love crossword puzzles, others like to solve Sudoku.

We are all born scientists. There is no other way to put it. Go out there and explore and have fun figuring things out!

Tweenteacher: What are 3 skills that you think all students should learn if they wanted to interact in the scientific community or play a role in it later on?

The three skills you need if you wish to be part of the scientific world are Empathy, Curiosity and Integrity. Empathy allows you to see the scientist as a human being. Curiosity invites you to see their science as an exciting adventure upon which you wish to embark. Integrity helps you experience that journey fully, with eyes that see clearly the value of things and a heart that has the patience to savor deeply what the journey has to offer.

The creative arts have much to gain from science, both in content and in form. The complexities we explore daily contain elegant mechanisms of expression that have evolved over millennia of evolutionary pressures. Nature can be funny, dramatic, ruthless, sublime and everything in-between. But most importantly, it exists without the need for external validation.

Tweenteacher: If you could have any superpower or be any superhero, what would you have/who would you be?

photo 2 Spiros: When I was a kid, I wanted to be like Superman. That sense of limitless possibilities, effortless strength and perfectly combed hair captured my young imagination. As I went through college and graduate school, I felt the need for a very different kind of superhero, the anti-Superman. That anti-hero was more like Humphrey Bogart from Casablanca, a man with no sense of self-righteousness, or self-promotion – an everyday man, who struggled to be brave and do the right thing despite his all-too-human urges and lack of special abilities. To someone like me, that kind of man was a frustrating reminder that great value lies in the effort to transcend your limitations, even if you don’t win first place. It was frustrating to me because I was that one kid in class who always raised his hand, thought math was easy and sports competitions were a place to show off. It took many years to realize that winning the genetic lottery doesn’t make you better than anyone else. With great power comes great responsibility. So, if I could have any superpower I wanted, it would be this: To see the multitudes contained in others.


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