131. The rewards of science communication

Posted on May 9, 2017

Long-time readers of these annals may recall that, when I first used the physics of biscuit dunking as a way to show how scientists think about problems. I received the following letter from a 12-year-old schoolboy:

The boy’s name was Chao Quan. I wrote back to him, answering his questions, and apologizing that I couldn’t send any biscuits because I had eaten them all.

Now comes the punchline. which still brings a lump to my throat. Twelve years later, I received this email, which speaks for itself:

From: Chao Quan

Dear Dr Len Fisher,
I’m not sure if you recall my letter back in 1998 as a 12-year old correcting an equation in an article on biscuit dunking published in The Guardian. Anyway, you included the letter in your book ‘How to dunk a doughnut: the science of everyday life’ (page 21) and also in an article in Nature as I found out yesterday on Google.

Back then as a naive 12-year old, I had no concepts of these journals – I thought they were just coffee-table ‘magazines’. It’s taken many years and having submitted publications to a scientific journal, I’ve come to appreciate the significance of Nature (as well as the notorious typos in the Guardian.)

I passed my final exams at Oxford Medical School last week after 6 years and I would like to thank you for taking the time to write a reply all those years ago. Coming from a inner-London comprehensive, it was more a source of inspiration than you could possibly imagine to receive a letter of encouragement from someone terribly smart and important. Even at that age, I knew PhD meant someone very clever! So if you ever need to counter the unsupportive letter here (which I’m sure you don’t) http://www.lenfisherscience.com/media_stories/correspondence_and_comments.html , at least you know it inspired my future. I’m truly grateful for you sparing that time and would like to take this opportunity to thank you for touching on my life and future.

Best Wishes,

Chao Quan
Oriel College University of Oxford

Just one reward like that is surely worth a lifetime of effort.


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