Making Physics Approachable

By Julia Munemo

“It would freak me out if a big pile of dog treats materialized in the middle of my kitchen out of nowhere,” says Chad Orzel ’93, who teaches physics at Union College. “But my dog has been waiting for that to happen for 10 years.” That premise serves as the foundation of Orzel’s first book, published in 2009, How to Teach Physics to Your Dog.

“I was in a weird mood one day,” he says of the inspiration that led to the book. “I imagined talking to my dog about physics.” The dog thought the “many worlds” theory of quantum physics meant dog treats could actually materialize, and Orzel’s job was to explain how the physics really works. The imaginary conversation turned into a blog post, and, 50,000 hits later, he was on his way to his first book deal. His latest book, published in 2014, is Eureka: Discovering Your Inner Scientist. “No dog in this one,” he says with a laugh. “I didn’t want to get too typecast.”author_photo_1

Orzel came to Williams from a small town in upstate New York, the son of an elementary school teacher and a librarian. He knew he wanted to study physics but chose Williams because he also loved English and history and philosophy. “Many of my favorite classroom experiences took place in the humanities,” he says. “And they gave me the opportunity to write a lot, which I loved.”

But it was in a physics classroom that he realized he wanted to teach. “I looked at Professor Kevin Jones and thought, ‘I want that job,’” he says of the William Edward McElfresh Professor of Physics. “When I asked him what my next steps should be, he said I’d need a Ph.D. He didn’t mention that I would also need to be extraordinarily lucky, but I think I would have gone that route anyway.”

Orzel wrote a thesis in physics his senior year and went on to complete a Ph.D. at the University of Maryland. After a post-doc at Yale, he landed the job he holds to this day: professor of physics at Union. “I learned very quickly that teaching is a lot more work than it looks like from a seat in the classroom,” he says. “But it’s a huge kick when students ‘get’ something for the first time.”

Orzel still maintains his science blog, which he started in 2002. In addition to writing and teaching, he also does research with undergraduates and is looking forward to getting back in the lab after completing a term as department chair. “My main research focus is trying to laser cool and trap single atoms of krypton, so we can measure radioactive contamination of some exotic particle detectors by counting single atoms,” he says.

Looking back on his time in college, Orzel says he’s glad he chose Williams. “That’s where I honed my writing skills to the point where I can now write in many different forms—for a wider audience in my books and blog, for academic journals, and for the classroom. But I also learned a lot of physics, and that set the foundation for everything I do today.”

Visit Orzel’s blog, Uncertain Principles.