We’re all scientists, according to Rhett Allain.
The Southeastern Louisiana University associate professor of physics has made a career out of revealing the scientific principles behind the games we play, the movies we watch and the products we use.
And he believes we are all testing theories every day to learn about life — just like professional scientists.
“I think part of being human is to be a scientist,” Allain said. “It’s part of what makes us human, the idea of building models to explain how different things in the universe work.”
In addition to teaching at SLU, Allain, 46, has published two books aimed at non scientists — including one on the “Angry Birds” game — and writes a regular blog for Wired magazine’s website. He just finished serving as a scientific consultant on the “MythBusters” television show, which recently wrapped up production.
His most popular writings examine the physics behind everyday questions. Allain pulls back the curtain on action movies — how a character in the newest Captain America flick could not actually survive a huge jump, for example — or Internet videos that appear to show amazing accomplishments.
“I’m an ambassador for physics,” Allain said. “I’m trying to show the cool aspects of physics people can relate to in some way.”
Growing up in Naperville, Illinois, Allain was raised by pro-science parents — his father a chemist, his mother a biologist. He loved building model rockets and remote control cars, and he spent a lot of time in the basement taking things apart.
In college, Allain became interested in experimental high energy physics and worked with particle colliders, which “try to find the fundamental building blocks of nature,” he said.
But he found that he loved watching students discover the principles of physics in class and changed his career path to study how the science is taught.
After finishing his doctoral work at North Carolina State University, he began teaching at SLU. In 2008, he encouraged students to use physics to examine problems outside of textbooks.
As an example, he wrote a blog post disproving the premise of a popular truck commercial. In the ad, which was created to resemble a cellphone video, a passenger airplane’s landing gear fails and a Nissan pick-up zooms in to support the front of the plane as it meets the runway.
“At that point I got kind of addicted,” he said. “I wanted to do more.”
He has used his blog to rail against sketchy scientific work on television — his name and the ESPN show “Sports Science” are forever linked on Google because of his criticism — but also to solve children’s riddles like why the moon appears to follow you when traveling by car.
Blogging led to two of his four books. One, “Angry Birds: Furious Forces,” published by National Geographic, delves into the physics of the popular video game. Another, “Geek Physics,” expands on his blog posts with questions like “Can you cook a frozen turkey by dropping it through the Earth’s atmosphere?” or “How many zombies can you drive through?”
Before Super Bowl 50, he helped Sports Illustrated imagine how the game of football could change in the next half-century if small changes were made to the ball.
Allain’s connection to the Discovery Channel’s “MythBusters” show began in 2011. On the show, two special effects experts test claims and myths, designing experiments to see how probable they are. Allain examined some of their scientific claims on his blog. The show’s production staff began asking him for help explaining the science of the show, and for the last season, he was hired as a consultant.
In his view, television creators have a duty to explain scientific principles accurately.
“You really have to make sure that’s good,” he said. “You can’t just make up stuff.”
On his blog, Allain has described himself as a “slacker by night,” a label that is a little tough to believe. In addition to teaching school and constantly writing about physics, he helps raise his four children — two boys and two girls between the ages of 10 and 16. And he commutes to work by bicycle.
Some academics may consider his writing on pop culture and physics a waste of time, he said. “I probably spend too much time on blogging because I enjoy it so much,” he said.
But who else will explain the science behind the next blockbuster movie or Internet hoax?
Amateur scientists all over the world await his explanations.