A Labor Day Big Announcement

"But I'm also talking about American businessmen doing what they were born to do. Make things. We've stopped making and become a country of consumers. Well, I, for one, am done consuming. And I'm ready to make." -Jack Donaghy, 30 Rock

I don't normally write about what's going on in my personal life, but this is an important development, and it affects what I do here at Starts With A Bang, so here goes.

Most of you know how a career as a physicist is supposed to go, much like any academic/science career. You're supposed to get your degree, go to graduate school and get your Ph.D., work at a post-doc or two (or three) until you've got a solid research program developed, get hired as a professor, work for the next five-to-seven years teaching, publishing and getting grants until you're tenured, and so on. Jorge Cham's PhD Comics nailed the irony of "academic freedom" when they published this one:

Life as a professor can be a great one if you want it, and it's extremely highly sought after; the last few Colleges/Universities I've worked at received more than 100 job applications (from highly qualified applicants) for each tenure-track job opening in physics.

And although I played no small part in making my own luck, I have certainly been incredibly fortunate on the job front. For the past two years, I've been teaching at Lewis & Clark College here in Portland, OR, and it's been a great experience.

The students there, by and large, have been nothing short of wonderful. From the introductory astronomy student who's intimidated by math and science but curious anyway, to the physics major who works hard and discovers a well-deserved confidence in their abilities, to the pre-med student who's been putting off taking physics for years, comes to my office hours every week, and gets an A on every exam, I would daresay that my experience there has been at least as rewarding for me as it has been for any of them. (And based on some of the evaluations I've gotten, that's saying a lot.)

But there are a great many ways I know I can be using my talents for good in this world, and while doing my best as a professor is certainly one way to do that, I've had to ask myself if that's what I want to be doing. It's something that many academics (and I'm sure, non-academics, too) struggle with.

So I asked myself (and my wife, too; that's what being a team is) what I encourage all of my students who find themselves dissatisfied to ask themselves, "What would you rather be doing?"

Image credit: xkcd.

And, as you might expect, the answer was complicated. I love teaching, I like research, and I've never cared about grants. I love to travel and see new places, I like being my own boss, and I hate working in large collaborations. I like helping students, I love helping students learn how to help themselves, and I hate when students need help but don't ask for it.

Being a professor at Lewis & Clark was an opportunity for me to learn a great deal about what students struggle with, what they excel at, what motivates (and demotivates) them, and -- perhaps above all else -- what sort of help I can give them to help them succeed.

And so, here I am, in early September of 2011, just days after my contract with Lewis & Clark has expired. So, what's next?

The answer I've come up with is helping these kids: the students who need to learn introductory college physics. Over the next few months, I'm going to be using all that I've learned teaching, tutoring, and TA-ing introductory physics over the past 14 years (yes, although it's been off-and-on, it really is that long!) to create the best tutorial product for introductory physics students that I possibly can. And based on this product, I'm going to start my own business as soon as its ready.

So if you or someone you know is taking introductory college physics, AP physics in high school, studying physics for the MCAT, or in need of a refresher on how to solve physics problems, stay tuned! I'm now working full-time on making the best teaching tool I possibly can to help. The first part -- a tutorial on mechanics -- will be available later this year, while the second part -- a tutorial on electromagnetism and modern physics -- will be available in the early part of 2012. I will let you know here, first, as soon as I have something available for purchase. It's going to be great, and I can't wait to show you.

I can hear some of you wondering to yourselves, "How will this affect this blog?"

I'm hoping the answer is not at all. I still very much enjoy writing about physics, astronomy, cosmology and the Universe for you, and I plan on doing it with just about the same frequency and intensity I've been doing it for the past three-and-a-half years.

But this is a huge, exciting development for me, as well as a big challenge, but one that I know that I'm up to. When the time comes, I'm going to ask you to help get the word out. You've been a wonderfully supportive community so far, and I can't wait until I have a finished product to show you! In the meantime, keep enjoying the Universe and I'll keep bringing it to you!


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What a wonderful idea! I finished an undergrad in Engineering Physics 2 years ago and this certainly is a gap that is waiting to be filled. Best of luck!

By Scott Shannon (not verified) on 05 Sep 2011 #permalink

Wait, what? Maybe I didn't get it, but giving up teaching?

How do you intend to deliver the tutorials? Pure web? iOS application?

Excellent News! It's nice to hear that you are paving an alternative path toward helping kids, teaching them to be critical thinkers. Education is certainly a system that needs innovative "Baldies" like you. I look forward to the tutorial on mechanics.

"I just want to say one word to you. Just one word."

"Are you listening?"


By Nathan Myers (not verified) on 05 Sep 2011 #permalink

Great idea Ethan. I will purchase this if it's not too expensive. I assume it'll be available to folks down-under? I am not doing a physics course, but I love physics and I think you'd provide a great package to learn it by oneself.

I'll buy it. Whatever it is Ethan, I'll buy it. Cause I know it's gonna be good. Every of your blog entries is always a must read for me. Especially I'm looking forward to your treatment of relativity. Can't wait.

Good luck, and thanks for all the fish!

By Alex Ploner (not verified) on 05 Sep 2011 #permalink

I wish you good fortune in your endeavour: undoubtedly, you are a gifted teacher and deserve to be successful.
Good luck from the other side of the pond!

Congratulations Ethan on that new and exciting career path! I have only been following your blog for a few months and I truly admire your pedagogic abilities. I am convinced you'll manage to make an excellent teaching product, and wish you all the best.

Will you open a new blog related specifically to the progress of that program?

Best of luck! I teach high school physics, so I'm eager to read (and purchase) your tutorials. Thanks for all you do.

By Dominic M (not verified) on 06 Sep 2011 #permalink

I think this is a fantastic idea. I've been an avid reader of this blog for a couple years now and as a high school physics teacher i think i'm very excited about the possibility of seeing what you come up with. I've always been impressed with your enthusiasm about physics and your ability to explain all concepts from simple to complicated. Good luck with the new project and keep up the great work Ethan!

This is a great idea - I have been a long time reader for years - and have taught High School Biology for quite some time. I also do Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Basically, I help companies get their message out to the masses by ensuring that people find them on google.

I'm sorry your contract has expired.

You are an excellent teacher. We know. So we assume your ideas for a tutorial product for introductory physics will be excellent.

Keep us posted, and when it comes to product testing; many of us would qualify and be honored to act as dumb guinea pigs.

Yeah, launch a beta module of this or that chapter on this blog or a gaming site. Yeah educational games. I know a college kid who is majoring in video game design. That's what I'd really like: physics the video game from introductory all the way up to... How far can such things go?

Well you know better than most of. I wish you all the best. Including, if that means dropping this blog; forget about us. I'll appreciate you as long as you are here; but you must focus upon you and your family first. All the best.

Best of luck to you in your new endeavor.

I would also encourage you to write a pop-sci book about the history of astronomical discoveries and "how we know what we know". Your articles on things like using Venus to decide between sun-centered vs. earth-centered orbits are some of the best writing I've seen on the nature of the scientific method. Of course, I have no idea how to make a book-contract happen, but I'd much rather buy my mother a book written by you than the latest bullcrap by Kaku.

By Anonymous Coward (not verified) on 06 Sep 2011 #permalink

Ethan, this is great news! I have enjoyed reading your Blog for the last several months. I would say the best part is having your excitement and enthusiasm come through in your Blog. If you are passionate about something then it certainly keeps the reader interested. Iâm sure if you put as much energy and excitement into your tutoring products they will be great. I have learned a lot from this blog and it is very enjoyable. My Astronomy teacher at college was very energetic and enjoyed teaching. You could have learned from the book, but going to class was too much fun. Every day was crammed with info and students. Best of luck on the new adventure!

I wish you all the best luck with your book, Ethan! Can't help but wonder how your ex-employer could have afforded to ever have let you go!

Good Luck. Maybe you can help bring back games with realistic physics, like Asteroids.

By The Other Doug (not verified) on 06 Sep 2011 #permalink

Awesome. Let us know if we can help in any way.

The previous commentator has it spot on: your explanations of 'how we know what we know' are what makes SB essential reading.


One of the reasons I keep coming back to this blog every day is because of the great explanations you give of seemingly complicated topics in very understandable terms. This is an admirable and rare trait that I have always wished more teachers would have. I wish you the best of luck on this, and echo other commenters above in volunteering as a test reader/sounding board.

I also think that AC@19 nailed it with the idea of a popular book, if that is something you would be interested in. I think you have the makings for lots of success in this new venture.

Kind regards,

Love your blog and recommend it to lots of people, from curious scientists to the merely curious. Your ability to write for many levels of understanding is really rare.

As for your career choice -- I agree that the research university is driven by grant-getting, and that leads to an amazing amount of conformity. I just received a tenure-track job announcement in my field from a big state university. After listing the eligible subject areas, the next line of the position description is:

"Successful candidates are expected to build and maintain a strong, internationally recognized research program supported through external funding"

At least they are honest -- They don't even pretend that money is not the main driver. You might as well be in the private sector!

Good luck with your next adventure.

Congratulations Ethan. Best of luck. I second the opinions about writing a book.

You should definitely write a book. There are many 50+ astro-interested people who won't visit your blog, but who buy every other "Elegant Universe" type book out there. It will be the end of an era when they die, but make money doing what you love. My students adore your blog, and you help me bring my own high school astronomy class to another level. Good luck!

Well, Ethan, I was thinking the same thing this morning as the XKCD cartoon as I was going to the Maine State Library history section to look up some very weird, obscure details regarding alewife fishing in the Kennebec River in the late 1700s, which I absolutely NEED to complete a chapter of a book. And now I got the details and just finished the chapter. So bully for you. You are a really incredible science communicator.

Go ahead, you have all the skills!

But remember your focus. I've been involved in a couple of projects to produce training material, and one of the things I've learned is that you can go astray if you haven't defined your target audience. Are you writing for a student or a teacher? I've seen the focus of a student-centric project creeping towards the teacher as the material increases, and the result can be pretty confusing, at least for a stand-alone student.

By Lassi Hippeläinen (not verified) on 07 Sep 2011 #permalink

That sounds great. I need a little refresher myself and my son will need help soon. Consider me a definite buy and think about putting it in a EPUB format.


The loss is entirely Lewis & Clark's!
I wish you the greatest success with your project and I hope to see this blog thriving too for a long time!

Many thanks for all your wonderful posts.


Cngradulations and I hope it all works for you. Look forward to seeing what you come up with because i could use a refresher: I got a BSEE a bunch of years back and recently decided to look at my old EM books and my brain broke. All i could think was 'I half way knew this once!'

Once again, best wishes for your endeavour.

By Stellar Ash (not verified) on 07 Sep 2011 #permalink

Good luck Ethan! You have a great way of explaining things; I'll be looking forward to seeing your work. Home Schoolers are also desperate for good material (although checking for compliance with state curricula can be a bitch the first time around).

By MadScientist (not verified) on 07 Sep 2011 #permalink

Good luck! I enjoy your writing here & it sounds like you love & are good at teaching. My main suggestion for the company is to try to develop a robust system where others instructors can also add questions & lessons (even if it's curated by you). Best

Best of luck Ethan! You will succeed because you WANT to, and will work hard for it, and really, that's all there is to it. Desire, drive and determination. You possess all those qualities and more!

My jaw just hit the floor.

I went back to college after dropping out with health issues and lack of a goal in my youth. I wanted to be a physics teacher, but I needed to start by taking calculus. I also got internships with classrooms, math tutoring work, and found I loved teaching math. So when my physics course SUCKED -- how does anyone make my favorite science boring and reminiscent of the corporate meetings I wanted to never re-experience?-- I decided, fuck it, I'd just get my math credential.
My friends supported my choice, but also brought up the issue of, could I get my physics credential as well, later. I said, I probably could... but I knew it would be hard to fit classes around working.
I've learned enough astronomy from your blog my Astronomy professor asked if I'd actually learned anything from his class. I think your physics course will get me to where I can pass the CSET. I have that much faith in you (and my ability to learn).
So, you know now you already have someone looking forward your product and I'll let my (former, I just dropped the course) classmates know there will be something to remind them of whatever the forgot out of sheer boredom (seriously, everyone is frustrated at the slow pace)on the market soon. :)

By Samantha Vimes… (not verified) on 11 Sep 2011 #permalink

Was just finished catching up on S.W.A.B. and I finished with this gem of an article.

Having witnessed your passion for physics and curiosity, as well as your enthusiasm for humor and general awesome-dudery, I'm enthralled to hear you're focusing on such a project. If there's ever anything that I could ever do to assist you, I would gladly lend a hand. Goodluck!

By Albert Abbene (not verified) on 14 Sep 2011 #permalink