Perform or perish? Guilty confessions of a YouTube physicist


First published at physicsfocus

This week is YouTube’s Geek Week so it seems a particularly (in)opportune moment to come clean about some niggling doubts I’ve been having of late about physics education/edutainment on the web. Before I get started – and just to reassure you that these are not the bitter ramblings of a dusty old academic who, like our current education secretary, is keen to hasten the return of Victorian education values – let me stress that I am extremely enthusiastic about many aspects of online science communication. Indeed, not only have I been almost evangelical at times about the value of web-based learning, I’ve invested quite a bit of effort in helping to make YouTube videos of the type I’m about to criticise (just a little).

Along with a number of my colleagues at the University of Nottingham, since early 2009 I’ve been contributing to videos for Brady Haran’s popular Sixty Symbols and Numberphile channels. I’ve even crossed over to the dark (and smelly) side and made a couple of videos with Brady for Periodic Videos, the chemistry-focussed forerunner of Sixty Symbols. These channels, along with Brady’s many other YouTube projects — Haran has the work ethic of an intensely driven academic — have been extremely successful and have garnered many accolades and awards.

Brady is of course not alone in his efforts to communicate science and maths via YouTube. There is now a small, but intensely dedicated, clique of talented YouTubers, as described in this article in The Independent, whose videos regularly top one million views. (Conspicuous by its absence from that list in The Independent, however, is minutephysics, a staggeringly popular channel with, at the time of writing, 1.6 million subscribers.)

Working with Brady is a fascinating – and frankly quite exhausting – experience: challenging (because there’s no script – and even if there were, Brady would rip it up); unnerving (because the first time we academics see the video is when it’s uploaded to YouTube and it may well have picked up 10,000 views or more before we get round to watching it); and always intensely collaborative (because Brady not only films and edits – his ideas and questions are absolutely central to the direction of each video). Most of all, it’s fun. It is also immensely gratifying for all of us involved with Sixty Symbols to receive e-mails from YouTube viewers across the world who say that Sixty Symbols has (re)ignited their love of physics, and, for example, inspired them to pursue a degree in the subject.

You might quite reasonably say at this point that it sounds like ‘all win’ for everyone involved. What the heck is my problem? What’s the downside? (…and where are those guilty confessions I promised?)

I’m such a scientist. Get over it.

It took me a while to work out just where my nagging uneasiness with the YouTube edutainment business sprang from. It wasn’t until I borrowed a copy of Randy Olson’s book Don’t Be Such a Scientist from a colleague’s bookshelf a few months ago that things began slowly to crystallise. (Coincidentally, Don’t Be Such a Scientist was published back in 2009 – the year my colleagues and I started to work with Brady on Sixty Symbols – and I was somewhat surprised that I hadn’t encountered the book before, given that it’s about outreach and public engagement via film-making). My eyes were drawn immediately to the quote from Jennifer Ouellette on the back cover:

“This book is likely to draw a firestorm of controversy because scientists may not want to hear what Olson has to say. But someone needs to say it; and maybe Olson’s take-no-prisoners approach will get the message through.”

Jennifer Ouellette is an exceptionally talented science writer and blogger, so I was really looking forward to reading Olson’s book; praise from Ouellette is high praise indeed, as far as I’m concerned. She has an unerring knack for explaining complicated concepts in a lucid, engaging, and effortlessly witty way, without resorting to stereotypes or patronising the reader.

I really wish that I could say the same of Olson’s book. But I hated it. Not all of it, grant you, but enough that I often had to leave it to one side and count to ten (or go make yet another coffee) to stem my flow of expletives. In that sense, Ouellette was dead right – I didn’t want to hear what Olson had to say. Here are just a few reasons why:

The relentless stereotyping of scientists as unfathomable, passionless, literal-minded automatons.

To be fair, Olson highlights one or two exceptions to this general type, including the inspirational Carl Sagan. But that’s the point – he discusses Sagan as an exception.

The “us and them” mentality.

Olson argues that scientists are not well-equipped to communicate with the ‘general public’, i.e. the great unwashed who are too intellectually challenged to “get” science without it being brought down to their level (which is apparently generally below the waistline.). I was put in mind of the late Bill Hicks’ intense frustration with TV executives who told him time and time again that although his stand-up comedy routines were creative and funny, they were concerned that his material wouldn’t “play in the midwest”. As Hicks put it, “If the people in the midwest knew the contempt that television holds for them…”.

Reducing science to easy-to-digest content requiring little intellectual effort from the viewer.

In essence, Olson argues that scientists should adopt an approach to science communication which is informed by the strategies used by Hollywood, and the marketing and advertising industries: “Style is the substance”. Although my views on marketing may not be quite as extreme as those of Hicks, the very last thing that science needs to do is to move any closer to the advertising industry.  (A word of warning: Do not click on the preceding link if you are easily offended. Or work in marketing.)

One of the things I love about Sixty Symbols, and Brady Haran’s work in general is that, contrary to Olson’s view that ‘talking heads’ are boring, Haran’s videos humanise scientists by forgoing the bleeding edge graphics, the Ride of the Valkyries-esque backing tracks, and the breathless faux-urgency that have come to characterise so much of science communication in the mass media.  My colleagues who contribute to Sixty Symbols (and Numberphile, Periodic Videos etc.) have the remarkable ability to combine enthusiasm with clear and coherent explanations, each time breaking Olson’s cardinal rule that – and I hope they’ll forgive me for saying this – substance must be translated to style.  (In my case, although enthusiasm is generally not lacking in the videos I make with Brady, clarity and coherence can often take a back seat. Style is also not something that unduly concerns me.)

Although each of those points above certainly irritated me, it was Olson’s closing line, and over-arching theme, that made me realise just where my misgivings about science-by-YouTube came from:

“…you’ll find that making an effective film, in the end, is really not different from conducting an effective scientific study”.

Hmmm, really? The last thing you need for an effective science study is to elevate style over substance. Good science necessitates careful, systematic, and tedious measurements. It couldn’t – or shouldn’t – care less about the need to “arouse and fulfil” an audience. It certainly doesn’t follow a neat story arc.

And if doing science shares little with film-making, what about science education…?

I’m with stupid

I read most of Don’t Be Such a Scientist in one sitting. Shortly after putting it down an e-mail from physicsfocus arrived in my email inbox pointing to this excellent post by Alom Shaha: Explanations are not enough, we need questions.

And there, in a nutshell, were my niggling doubts about YouTube edutainment laid bare.

Education is about so much more than an engaging video and a simple, compelling explanation. Indeed, and rather counter-intuitively, an enthusiastic lecturer apparently plays very little role in students’ ability to grasp the material covered in a lecture.  I have always seen university lectures simply as a way of enthusing students about the material – the real learning takes place outside the lecture theatre. Or after the video has been played.

If YouTube science edutainment is seen in this light – with the focus firmly on entertainment and engagement, rather than education – then my concerns are allayed. But it’s when comments like the following are posted under the videos, or at the Sixty Symbols Facebook page, that I start to get a little ‘twitchy’.


Watching a five minute (or one minute) video is only the first step in the education process. As Shaha points out, what’s then required are the questions, debate, experiments, problems, and discussion that underpin deep learning.   This may well bring on the yawns, but we need to expose students, at whatever level – and, more broadly, any fan of science – to the hard graft required to grasp difficult concepts.

Moreover, some concepts simply do not lend themselves well to a short, snappy explanation. (Negative temperature is another example.)

I know full well that there’s a famous Einstein quote: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”. But he’s also credited with this: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, and no simpler”, and, perhaps more importantly, this: “I do not teach anyone, I only provide the environment in which they can learn.”

I used to be very proud when Sixty Symbols viewers would leave a “Great – I feel smart now!” comment under one of the videos to which I contributed. But then I realised that any substantial leap in my understanding of physics had come not when I felt smart, but when I felt stupid. Really stupid.

Yet again, I discovered that another physicsfocus blogger had been through the same thought process long before me. Suzie Sheey made this wonderful point at her High Heels In The Lab blog: “…there are many arguments to be made that if you’ve stopped feeling stupid then you’ve stopped really doing science”. (I urge you to read the entire post).

Even Feynman, arguably the most gifted physics communicator there has been, clearly felt that the complexity and elegance of some concepts deserved more than just a shallow description and required considerable intellectual effort from the audience.

Sometimes we need to admit that the fabric of the cosmos takes a little more than five minutes to comprehend.

Update: The thoughts above became the theme of a TEDxDerby talk I gave in 2014:

Image: xkcd on teaching physics, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License