Extracurricular Activities · Teaching / Learning

Science YouTube, Vol. 1

I admit that I have arrived somewhat late to the YouTube party. Of course, over the years I’ve dipped in and out of this online behemoth to watch the occasional amusing cat, rock band or viral craze. It’s also undoubtedly the best platform to keep up with the latest late show monologues (if you’re into that), to learn how to put up a shelf, or determine whether this or that object will blend (that is the question). Yet it was only in late 2016 that I really started to get hooked on specific YouTube channels and their ‘content creators’. I now semi-regularly check out lifestyle advice from alpha m., enjoy incredible filmography, tech reviews and storytelling from Casey Neistat, quirky content and positive vibes from Lilly Singh (aka IISuperwomanII), and marvel at incredible trick shots from Dude Perfect. These and other creators on YouTube regularly put out short (3-15 minute) films that provide a compact and free source of laughter, advice, inspiration, and motivation.

There are also a bunch of amazing YouTube channels that make videos about science. Those in the chemistry community are probably already aware of Periodic Videos, a pioneering public engagement project from the University of Nottingham, UK. After uploading at least one video about each chemical element, they have moved on to making other chemistry-related films. These cover many topics, from interesting molecules and Nobel prize announcements to why the public funding of science is important. At time of writing, their top three most popular videos feature a visit to the gold bullion vault at the Bank of England (5.5 million views), plutonium (6.6 million), and what happens when you put a cheeseburger into concentrated hydrochloric acid (a staggering 19 million views). Periodic Videos are filmed and edited by Brady Haran, and typically comprise commentary from Prof Martyn Poliakoff (‘The Prof’) and his colleagues at UoN. I would encourage interested readers to check out their papers in Science (free) and Nature Chemistry ($) for a ‘behind-the-scenes’ of the project and the challenges of measuring its impact. Related projects by Brady focusing on physics, mathematics, psychology, etc can be found at his personal webpage.

Both of those papers about Periodic Videos end with a call to action for other scientists to consider engaging with the public on YouTube (or through other under-utilized technologies). I would wholeheartedly agree, particularly when you consider that YouTube may now be the second largest internet search tool after Google. In an ideal world, searches about scientific topics should result in high quality results on both platforms (i.e. with information that is discoverable, accessible and correct). It is suggested that eight out of ten 18-49 year-olds watch YouTube every month. Though this audience are not necessarily there to learn about science, they may be open to it. Haran and Poliakoff propose, and I would agree, that there is a surprisingly high demand for science-based content when it is presented in the right way. In support of this view, below I highlight some science-themed videos on YouTube from Periodic Videos as well as other creators that are producing incredible work. If you enjoy what they are doing, why not leave them a like, hit that subscribe button…and consider making a similar YouTube video yourself.

Periodic Videos (1.1 M subscribers)

0.49 – “Neil with his magic, experimental fingers has managed to liquefy it [argon] really quite simply.”

Physics Girl (1.1 M subscribers)

1.49 – “We’re creating a half-vortex ring…so cool!”

SciShow (5.2 M subscribers)

4.50 – “They had it [azidoazide azide] in a shock-proof, explosive case, in a dark, climate-controlled room…and it blew up.”

Backyard Scientist (3.4 M subscribers)

5.57 – “I think this is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.”

Mark Rober (3.6 M subscribers)

0.00 – “I suck at darts but I’m good at engineering…which means, I’m actually really good at darts.”

Extracurricular Activities

Science Cafes in New York City

One of the benefits of living in a big city is that for every and any niche subject, hobby or interest you might be keen on, you can find others to enjoy it with. Often there are enough similarly-minded people to form a critical mass that can sustain relevant themed bars, restaurants or regular events. A restaurant that serves only garlic-flavoured food and drinks? No problem.  Halloween costume parade for your dog? Come on down!

With such a ‘niche’ general interest in science, during my time in New York City I naturally sought out as many so-called ‘Science Cafes’ as I could find. For the uninitiated, these events are typically hosted in bars or restaurants and cater for the scientifically-curious lay public. A professional scientist gives a general, lively talk on their work, and you get to geek out with others over a glass of your favourite tipple. Here I wanted to highlight a few I enjoyed in 2015-2017. As far as I know, these are all still currently active, so go check them out if you get chance!

 Secret Science Club
Bell House, Gowanus, Brooklyn / Symphony Space, Manhattan

One of the best curators in town, the Secret Science Club hosts regular (~monthly) free events at the Bell House and low-cost ticketed events at Symphony Space – each with a themed cocktail to boot! I learnt about the intelligence of dolphins from Diana Reiss, and enjoyed thought-provoking talks on the “Anatomy of Love” by Helen Fisher and the “Selfish Gene & Beyond” by Richard Dawkins. The Bell House has a smaller bar up front and a much bigger space at the back where the talks are given. Seating is available but limited, and the house fills up quickly, so get there early! If possible, try to predict the how much draw the speaker will have. Although there is usually plenty of standing room, some events are so popular you can’t make it into the main room to see the stage (though they do put the audio on speakers throughout). For the ticketed events at Symphony Space this is not an issue, but these can sell out quickly. Follow their blog at the link above to get the information at the earliest possibility!

Entertaining Science
Cornelia Street Cafe, Greenwich Village, Manhattan

A must-attend for anyone with an interest in Chemistry (and cabaret), this monthly event is curated by 1981 Nobel prize winner Roald Hoffmann. Attended by the man himself, the evening follows a unique, science-talk and matched arts-performance format. It was great to see my post-doctoral advisor take the floor, and the tribute event for Oliver Sacks was particularly moving. The seating-only space is cosy and intimate, with excellent food and drink options. Advance booking is recommended.

Roald Hoffmann talking about Oliver Sacks

American Museum of Natural History SciCafe (AMNH SciCafe)
American Museum of Natural History, Upper West Side

This monthly offering by the AMNH takes place in a large and unusual space within the museum itself. For some reason, I found this event fun just because you are in a public space after hours – helped of course by the fact that alcoholic drinks and snacks are also available. These events are typically standing-only, subscribe to the AMNH Adult Programs Email Newsletter for the best chance to secure tickets.

Star-Gazing Night
Columbia University, Upper West Side, Manhattan

During the academic year, head into the Physics Department at Columbia University for an evening of public lecture and (weather-permitting) actual star-gazing on the rooftop of the Pupin building. Telescopes are of course provided. I’m sad to say that I never got the chance to look out into space, but the lecture focussed on the first experimental reports of gravitational wave detection was superb.

The Explorers Club
Club Headquarters, Upper East Side, Manhattan

A fantastic venue with some fantastic speakers, focussed predominately on the trials and tribulations of human exploration past and present. Entering on the ground floor you are presented by globes and various impressive articles of expedition. At the first floor you meet taxidermied bears and sit in talks surrounded by Explorer Club flags that have been to the farthest reaches of our world. Worthy of mention is the flag taken by James Cameron to the bottom of the Mariana Trench! I was privileged to hear a talk by Mike Massimino, retired NASO astronaut, on his experiences of space exploration. He also told an inspiring story on the importance of perseverance – unsuccessfully applying several times for the astronaut program at NASA but never giving up on his dream.

This flag went with James Cameron to the bottom of the Mariana Trench!

Did you attend any of these? Did I miss any great New York Science Cafes? Comment below!