Perform or perish? Guilty confessions of a YouTube physicist

On August 9, 2013

xkcd knows all

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’.

Sixty Symbols facebook comment

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.

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

About Philip Moriarty

Philip Moriarty is a Professor of Physics at the University of Nottingham, where his research focuses on nanoscale science. He is a member of the Science Board of the Institute of Physics and coordinates the multi-partner ACRITAS European network. He has participated in a number of research council-funded public engagement projects, including Giants of the Infinitesimal, and was a member of the Programme Committee for the controversial “Circling the Square: Research, Politics, Media, and Impact” conference held in Nottingham in May 2014. He is also a regular contributor to the Sixty Symbols video series.

42 Responses to Perform or perish? Guilty confessions of a YouTube physicist

  1. Very nice viewpoint – although I’m just a pedestrian passerby and not even a student. However, I thought I was alone in the universe until I saw the great cartoon! It’s such a travesty that the early nineteenth century public could not comprehend curved spacetime, or as I understand, the (radial) contraction (dilation) of spacetime. Now it’s so difficult to object to the rubber sheet!
    Thanks!

  2. I am a high school student, and in my opinion, you can’t substitute a real education by watching YouTube videos. I treat these videos as snacks for my curiosity. I am very curious about these things, but in my school, teachers (math teachers and physics teachers alike) tend to leave my questions unanswered, as they can’t explain it. For example, I asked this question in physics class about speed of light not being constant when it travels through matter, and my teacher said she didn’t know.

    Sixty Symbols and Numberphile channels give me these answers, and a little more. They raise my interest back to the levels they were before I entered high school and got squashed by teachers. I don’t take it as a formal education. I take it as keeping my interest up until I reach university and start to study the really interesting stuff.

    I still have tons of questions, but by watching these videos, the questions stay in my mind, and I don’t give up on them. I either wait till a video comes up, or until I reach the appropriate level of education to really study these things.

    Teemu Arponen aka SalaHyena
    Final year high school student from Finland

  3. @Teemu Arponen

    Great to hear from you and thanks for posting this comment here after our exchange via, of all things, YouTube! I was particularly taken by this sentence: “I still have tons of questions, but by watching these videos, the questions stay in my mind, and I don’t give up on them”

    This is exactly what I mean in the post about distinguishing between engagement/entertainment, enthusing viewers, and education. It is fantastic that Sixty Symbols, Numberphile etc… get you interested in a subject but the important point is that you don’t assume that those videos are “the last word”. You look for deeper answers.

  4. I was going to right a lengthy counter-argument, but I think Teemu Arponen did a far better job than I could. Videos will be used by different people in different ways. Some, like Teemu, will use them as a springboard to learn more, which is brilliant. Others may be satisfied by the limited glimpse into the wider subject that the videos offer, which may be less inspiring from a contributor’s point of view, but is probably more understanding than they would have got without the video. Hopefully most people get something out of such videos, which is surely as much as anyone can ask.

  5. As someone who also makes science YouTube videos (albeit on a smaller scale), this was a very thought provoking article.

    I think it is very hard for highly complex topics to be covered in a thorough yet still accessible way, but this won’t stop me from trying. We can’t expect a 5 minute video to give the same depth of understanding as a lecture/tutorial, but I personally find it much easier to learn about a topic if I already have some prior knowledge of it; a bigger picture map onto which the finer detail can be added. The value of YouTube is you can get multiple viewpoints on the same topic, so the chance of one ‘sticking’ is higher.

    Finally, you mentioned the role in inspiring and enthusing, but seem to play it down (unfortunately I can’t view the Facebook comment picture). Despite a slight revival over the past few years, science is portrayed by our culture as not cool. Science is hard, only for nerds, complicated, of little relevance to real life, and only the preserve of (male) scientists. I get so many comments on my videos saying that I’ve made Biology fun, or that they think Biology is boring but somehow I’ve made an interesting video out of it. I’ve been lucky enough to have an education that means I genuinely see Biology as fun and don’t have to try very hard to put it across. Science needs a PR face-lift, and YouTube is a great way to do this.

    You worry that YouTube can’t really educate people properly about science. But until people WANT to be educated about science, you’re thinking a step ahead of yourself. Plus annotations and descriptions make it much easier to set people on a path of self-teaching.

    Sally

  6. @Mike, @Sally.

    I of course agree entirely with you both about the value of YouTube videos (and online outreach in general) in enthusing people about science, otherwise I wouldn’t have spent quite as much time as I have over the last four years working on videos with Brady!

    As I also stress in the post, Sixty Symbols and similar YouTube channels play an essential “PR” role for science. I really don’t think that I play down this aspect, Sally. ( “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….” etc…). Indeed, I state specifically that, in my particular case, enthusiasm can generally outweigh clarity and coherence.

    My key bugbear, however, is that the YouTube science edutainment community – and I count myself as a member of that community – increasingly attempts to present exceptionally challenging concepts in as short a time, and on as basic a level, as feasibly possible. There is a direct correlation between the viewing time for a video and the duration of that video and the idea seems to be that the shorter an edutainment clip, the better. (The Institute of Physics has also apparently adopted this approach recently with its 100 Second Science series of video clips).

    I used to buy into this and took it as a challenge to attempt to reduce complex physics to short video clips. For example, at the start of the Sixty Symbols video on “Why is glass transparent?” , Brady tells me that “You’re not having ten minutes”. But for exactly the reasons Feynman outlines in the clip embedded at the end of my post above, I am increasingly uncomfortable about the perception we create by doing this.

    Let’s not beat around the bush – physics is both conceptually hard and the underpinning ideas are intrinsically interconnected. Creating the perception that we can answer something like “Why is glass transparent?” in less than ten minutes – and without any connection to the fundamental solid state physics concepts underpinning the question – is feeding into a culture of shallow and disconnected ‘learning’ that academics regularly decry.

  7. I think you have set up something of a straw man here, Philip. Notwithstanding the occasional “now I don’t have to read the textbook” comment, which is surely largely complimentary hyperbole, I don’t believe many people think that a short YouTube video can ever give them the definitive understanding of a complex piece of physics. Equally, I think that the vast majority of viewers recognize that we are often simplifying explanations (not least because we say so fairly regularly!).

    Such bitesized videos are akin to describing a Shakespeare play with a plot synopsis, and clearly do not capture the full breadth and grandeur of a complex piece of physics. But just knowing the plot of Romeo and Juliet widens cultural horizons, provides a context for understanding other references, and may even motivate some people to go and watch the play.

  8. The correlation article you put up about number of people viewing the whole video could, from the obvious perspective, lead one to believe that “shorter is better”… but you need to look at the bigger picture! How many *total minutes* of that physics video was watched? Also, how much did one absorb from the presentation? How much will it affect your overall grasp and enthasiasm for the topic? Can these things even be measured?!

    I remember the “you don’t have 10 minutes” thing- as I use this video as revision for my students after teaching about basics of electron energy levels (basics of emission, absorption spectra, lasers…) and to be honest, I don’t agree with the basic premise of only having short videos. Short videos are great and have their place. I use them as a refresher and also to give me some new perspectives on material I feel somewhat familiar with. Also, for fields in which I have little or no knowledge, stuff like Crash Course World History has been fantastic! However, I definitely get more in the long-term from longer videos, such as this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vbI6TDHCfe4 Another approach would be to make a series of shorter videos- break it up.

    Prof. Moriarty, I think you should take a break from making short videos, and allow yourself to get a bit of perspective. Sometimes we just need time away to let things rest for a while. You can come back to it any time you like.

    Also, if you or any of your excellent colleagues want to make a longer video about physics, I’d definitely watch. General relativity. Someone should give that a proper go (with proper maths of course). Fluid mechanics too- how can so many people go through a masters physics degree and NOT know anything about such an everyday state of matter? There wasn’t a required module in our MPhys programme anyhow! Too many good choices for detailed physics videos. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll make some myself?

    Ish
    (AKA Sarciness on YouTube)

    • Hi there, Ish (aka sarciness).

      It’s great to be able to chat with you in a forum that isn’t limited to 500 character exchanges.

      I already make ‘long(er)-form’ videos (see http://www.youtube.com/Moriarty2112 ) but Brady (quite rightly) wouldn’t go near this format with a barge-pole for Sixty Symbols because it’s entirely counter to his vision for the channel.

      The long-form videos I make are effectively tutorials for a first year undergraduate module (“Frontiers in Physics”) which two colleagues and myself teach at Nottingham.

      For the reasons described in the post, and others I won’t bore you with here, I’ll certainly be taking a (long and most likely interminable) break from helping to make Sixty Symbols/Numberphile etc.. videos. As I highlight above, what I love most about Sixty Symbols (and Brady’s other channels) is the authenticity (the ‘rawness’) of the format. If I’m no longer comfortable about contributing to the videos then the authenticity ‘angle’ doesn’t really hold up for me…

      In addition, the sheer viciousness of some YouTube ‘commentators’ has finally broken me down. Many of the students and postdocs I work with have long thought me rather unhinged for contributing to YouTube comments threads – their argument is that those comments threads represent nothing more less than the condensed stupidity of mankind. I’ve steadfastly argued (for over four years!) that, no, it’s different for Sixty Symbols and Brady’s other channels. And it very often is.

      But the bigger the subscriber base gets, the more likely it seemingly is for vitriolic and hateful junk to appear in the comments. And I’m not talking about stuff directed at me – I’m long enough in the tooth to let that wash over me. It’s the general viciousness, misogyny, and lack of humanity that I find so soul-destroying.

      All the best,

      Philip

  9. Hi, Mike.

    “I don’t believe many people think that a short YouTube video can ever give them the definitive understanding of a complex piece of physics”

    …and yet, I have received a not-insignificant number of e-mails from Sixty Symbols viewers, including – and this is important – physics undergrads, bemoaning the fact that their tutor/module convenor has told them that it’s not appropriate to cite a Sixty Symbols video in their lab. report (or project thesis or presentation) and that there are rather more suitable primary references to use!

    Similarly, I have seen many comments posted under videos proclaiming that a perfectly valid explanation of a piece of science is incorrect because, for example, Michio Kaku has said something to the contrary in another YouTube video. (From a sociological perspective, there’s a very interesting “cult of personality” aspect to this – another facet of the ‘style before substance’ argument I refer to in the post).

    But let’s be honest with each other – neither of us has any definitive solid evidence to support our claims. Your gut feeling is that I’m ‘over-egging the pudding’ and that there isn’t an issue here; the nagging feeling in my gut is that, instead of being concerned with YouTube statistics and increasing subscriber bases, we in the YouTube communication business need to be a little bit more up-front about just how much conceptual effort is required to grasp even apparently simple physics.

    I’ll cite Carl Sagan again: “…and then I’m asked, “Yeah, but what do you really think?” I say, “I just told you what I really think.” “Yeah, but what’s your gut feeling?” I try not to think with my gut.”

    There’s a science education/sociology of science study begging to be carried out here…

    Philip

  10. (A fore word: I wrote a lot…. sorry about that. Feel free to skim, I guess?)

    Hello Professor Moriarty,

    We had a brief chat via YouTube comments where I (under the unimaginative guise of ‘jrpatton’) praised your work, and was at least partially guilty of the behavior you have commented on in your post.

    I appreciated your post here, and understand where you are coming from. There’s nothing like learning that your work may be entirely backfiring, and producing the exact opposite effect that you desired. It can be crushing. But, even if this is true, I am saddened by your decision to take an indefinite break from Sixty Symbols/Numberphile/etc.

    Don’t get me wrong. My post here is not a plea for you to already return. It is certainly and entirely your prerogative to decide how to spend your time. Far be it from me (or anyone) to tell you otherwise.

    (Quick aside: I will need to use a couple of acronyms to avoid listing all of those YouTube channel names. Lets say UoN for Brady’s channels since, hey, they’re shot at the University of Nottingham, and SEW for Science Edutainment Web which includes UoN videos as well as VSauce, Minutephysics, etc. Anyway, back to your regularly scheduled rant.)

    Instead, I do want to try to alleviate some of your fears that your time spent on UoN videos has been a waste or, worse, counter-productive. So, here I go…

    You posit that brief, witty, funny, and succinct videos on science topics have the effect of sating a person’s appetite for scientific knowledge without stimulating intellectual curiosity. There is, for good reason, an idea that someone will watch a 5-10 minute video on a single topic and feel that they are now, if not experts, well versed enough to not need any more information. This is certainly something to be concerned about. Plenty of comments (my own included) seem to suggest this, and I’m here to confirm that it’s true to a certain extent. But, I think it’s a shallow observation.

    This is largely my own hypothesis, and it is backed up by neither statistics nor any real evidence, instead I have the ever-reliable anecdotal evidence!… so… I’m not sure where I was going with this, besides completely discrediting myself. Let me start over. — All YouTube viewers of SEW channels must fall into one of three categories: Primary Education Students, Higher Education Students, and Grown Ups.

    Lets start with the least important group, the grown-ups. Now, it is not often that I consider myself the least important demographic, but, alas, I must fall into this category. I feel that you are mostly hung up on this group, so I’ll spend a good deal of time here. So, I have already completed my education, and largely chosen my path. I find it financially and psychologically impossible at this point to change my profession. I’m happy where I am, programming away, solving interesting problems, and earning a living. What I look for, and what many look for, in SEW videos are bite sized pieces of knowledge that we would not have otherwise discovered. There is no way that these videos will encourage me to drop what I’m doing and pursue a PhD in physics. What they will do is teach me a small bit of scientific truth, get my brain chugging, and spread these small bits of knowledge to my friends and family where appropriate. There’s nothing profound about this, but nothing harmful either since, as previously stated, I never intended to delve into the deeper truths of the topics covered in the videos. What you will likely never see or hear about is the father that told his 13 year old about negative temperature, and started a dialog of wonder, science, and probably a little magic as a guilty pleasure of imagination.

    The person you quoted on Facebook who said, “I wish school would have been…” also falls into this category of grown-ups. I think you misunderstand what he was saying, though. In your post you say, “… lectures simply as a way of enthusing students about the material …”. I believe Daniel legitimately regrets not having a lecture as enthusiastic and entertaining as the videos from SEW. Imagine if a course or lecture used these videos, or these styles as introductions to material. Personally, I had a grand total of one high school teacher that was enthusiastic about teaching, and he used many of the methods you and the rest of SEW use. However, he had the added benefit of dialog and interaction. Something videos clearly lack. At any rate, don’t underestimate your videos’ abilities to kick off the teaching process, rather than being the alpha and omega. We’ll revisit this, though. The point to leave you with is that the grown-ups will largely not be inspired to research the sciences you teach in these short videos. It can, however, make us regret we did not have you as a resource while growing up. So… damn you for that!

    The general science awareness that is raised with these videos is also quite valuable. In an age where technology and research advances into greater unknowns, an alarming gap is created between law-makers and science. It is made quite apparent that politicians know fairly little of science, and communication technologies. Voter scientific awareness and intellectualism is in dire need these days.

    Time for a quick break. I’m writing a lot, and have more to write. I hope you have the patience/time to at least skim through this. I would also like to point out how incredibly difficult it is to refrain from making a Holmes/Moriarty joke at this time. The only reason I am not doing so is that I am quite sure you have become increasingly sick of this literature link. I digress.

    The second group, working in reverse chronological order, would be the Higher Education Students. My fiancee falls into this category. She is starting her graduate work in chemistry at Boston University at the end of this month. She has also been having severe doubts about her abilities and desires to hunt for the elusive PhD. I am pleased to say that SEW (in particular, UoN) videos have been helping renew her passion for the sciences, as well as giving her confidence. I am always happy to show her a video that involves physical chemistry (her field). The videos following Dr. Clewett’s journey towards his PhD has given her a lot of hope, and the negative temperature video has given her some more scientific inspirations. The idea of going below 0K seemed impossible to her, but she had an ‘ah-hah’ moment when you changed from the traditional analogy to the energy levels analogy, and she began to consider how negative temperature works in physical chemistry. Overall, her currently brief exposure to SEW has been positive.

    The great thing about this group is that they are college/university students with the means, time, and drive to explore SEW topics in greater detail.

    Now, I must also admit, unfortunately, that a lot of these videos are somewhat either elementary or irrelevant for an (under)grad student. Giving an introductory lesson on relativity to a physics student is not going to incite much passion. Similarly, this lesson on relativity to a computer scientist is interesting, but has a slim chance of redirecting such a student’s educational goals.

    The former is a large reason why I don’t watch computerphile. The videos are fairly basic for me, and don’t give me too much. There are exceptions, however. The Enigma Machine videos on Numberphile reignited some of my passions for cryptography, and, hey what do you know, I work for a security company. I started researching the state of quantum computing, its potential effects on RSA decryption, methods of encryption resistant to both quantum and classical computers, etc etc. Before I knew it, I had wasted hours of my company’s valuable time! … oops. Oh well.

    “… physics undergrads, bemoaning the fact that their tutor/module convenor has told them that it’s not appropriate to cite a Sixty Symbols video” – If you’ll remember, Wikipedia has suffered the same. It took years before people started properly adding citations into Wikipedia, and then longer for students to use those primary sources instead of citing Wikipedia. It is not your fault that they fail to understand what is a proper source, and what is not. They will always exist, and it was not you or people like you that created these students. They’ll learn, though. Personally, I greatly appreciate Hank Green’s reliable citations in his videos.

    Bleh, time for another break. Now, I understand you were disappointed in Portal’s claim that “the player’s momentum is conserved.” I guess it’d be the player’s absolute momentum, if there is such a thing? I also got the impression that you enjoyed the game and its attempts at physics puzzles. At any rate, I’m sure you don’t have much spare time for video games, but, if I may, I recommend playing Braid. It’s a 2D platformer, similar in core mechanics to Super Mario. However, it has puzzles to be solved with time manipulation. It’s not as science-y as Portal tried to be, but the use of time dilation and reversal gets your brain chugging, to be sure. It’s cheap, and sure to run on any computer built this side of the millennium.

    The final, and most important group, are the Elementary Students. These young, and developing minds seek purpose and guidance even if they are not aware. They vary in age, but are generally just beginning to grasp the concepts discussed in SEW videos. To this group, I say, your videos are serving the same purpose that Bill Nye did in the 90′s. Small, entertaining clips that tease these young minds often encourages deeper exploration into the mysteries of science. It was literally Bill Nye’s show that set my aforementioned fiancee on the path to chemistry. For this group of viewers, it is important to appreciate that they recognize these videos are not the end-all be-all of science. They can tell that these videos hold nuggets of truth, and an easy way for them to become interested in science.

    Shows like Bill Nye, SEW’s, and Mythbusters (even though it’s not really scientific) will continue to be and important force in driving scientific interest in the young crowd. If anything, SEW is on the cutting edge as more and more kids grow up in TV-less houses.

    You’ll note that in none of these demographics was inciting a phase of questions and intellectual discovery on a video’s discussed topic quintessential to receiving a positive effect. It happens, but less often than either of us would like. To this, I say, YouTube-based educational videos are still in their infancy. There are a few shows that provoke these desired outcomes, but they are rare. At home, we just watched VSauce’s video on “Will we ever run out of music?”. I consistently refer to Michael Stevens as the King of Segues, and in this video he effortlessly and seamlessly showed multiple takes on the question, and left by essentially answering “yes and no” and subtly left it up for the viewers (myself, girlfriend, and roommate in this case) to decide our own viewpoints.

    There is a way to get the best of both worlds in Edutainment, and it’s something that the educational system as a whole sorely lacks. Time and again students run through a gauntlet of jaded, washed out, and ultimately outdated teachers, all the while perceiving fields of study as obstacles rather than fonts of knowledge. That needs to stop.

    You repeatedly say that shortening these complex topics to minute-length videos is a bad thing. That may be true, but for some reason these short informative videos are highly enjoyable if not down-right addicting. There’s got to be something there education can use moving forward. Something to think about.

    Misc. points:

    “I have seen many comments posted under videos proclaiming that a perfectly valid explanation of a piece of science is incorrect because, for example, Michio Kaku has said something to the contrary in another YouTube video.” – I see this as an opportunity to explore science. Two scientists disagree. How could that be? Where do they differ? Why do they differ? Sure, you’ll get the fans with blind allegiance to one YouTube personality, but that is not your fault, nor your responsibility.

    “In addition, the sheer viciousness of some YouTube ‘commentators’ has finally broken me down.” – This is reason enough for anyone to take an indefinite vacation from popular YouTube channels. The internet is a nasty place, and it will wear on anyone after a while. What these commentators say is not your fault, but you know that. Nothing much more to say here.

    Ironic TL;DR version: You did good. A lot of good. Now take a break and relax.

    In the end, I would never want you to think that your work has had a negative impact on your viewers. Instead, lets say, it was not as much as a positive impact as you had hoped. And, no matter what you chose to spend your time on in the future, it has been a pleasure.

    Cheers,
    Jeremy Patton

  11. Hi, Jeremy.

    Thanks for taking the time to post such a thoughtful comment on the post – I appreciate that.

    I’ll try to address each of the points you raise as your comment deserves a considered response.

    …your work may be entirely backfiring, and producing the exact opposite effect that you desired…

    … your fears that your time spent on UoN videos has been a waste or, worse, counter-productive

    This is really not the impression I was trying to create! As a means of enthusing and engaging the audience, Sixty Symbols, minutephysics, VSauce etc… are exceptionally important and I certainly do not feel that they are at all counterproductive or a waste of time. I stressed in the post, and in the comments above, just how important it is to enthuse the audience. And I would argue that sacrificing some clarity/rigour for the sake of enthusing an audience is not a bad thing at all.

    Those are all the good aspects of YouTube edutainment. I agree entirely with you on these!

    But my central point is that videos alone do not represent education. I would love to carry out the following experiment. Take 100 YouTube viewers and play them a short video, let’s call it Video A, describing some concept in physics at a very basic level. Then let them watch five other videos in a row. Then ask them to explain the physics in Video A (without watching it again).

    Perhaps all 100 would do a sterling job. Perhaps not. As it stands, we don’t really know for sure and that’s why I suggested at the end of my response to Mike M above that a carefully controlled science education study would be immensely valuable.

    I stress again that I am not suggesting that enthusing/engaging the audience is a waste of time. That would be a rather dumb position to adopt! My entire lecturing career to date – and that of my colleagues – is driven by a commitment to enthusing students about physics.

    The video of which I am most proud is the ‘math metal’ song we did with the exceptionally talented Dave Brown . Why? Because this engages and enthuses those who may never have thought about the golden ratio. And for those who are interested, they can do their own research to see how the lyrics/riffs are related to phi. Indeed, I thought that this comment posted under that video last week was particularly insightful:

    The magic the song could have was destroyed from overexplaining it. Without much idea about how it was done and what it means, people would join efforts to decipher it.

    Enthusing/engaging the audience is only the first part of the education process. The learner then has to do the “heavy lifting” of getting to grips with the concepts. This is where I think we’re getting a little carried away with ourselves in terms of online education. (Although I don’t mention it in the post, my concerns are not only related to YouTube but the ‘brave new world’ of MOOCs, which the UK’s Universities and Science Minister, David Willetts, promotes at any available opportunity).

    What they will do is teach me a small bit of scientific truth, get my brain chugging, and spread these small bits of knowledge to my friends and family where appropriate.

    Yes, and I think this is a fantastic aspect of Brady’s channels. He is exceptionally good at knowing what will work in terms of his audience and an important part of “pitching” a video to Brady was to convince him that the physics would connect with those, like yourself, who are not physics students, or ever plan to be physics students.

    Yet again, I agree entirely with you!

    But…

    Now, I must also admit, unfortunately, that a lot of these videos are somewhat either elementary or irrelevant for an (under)grad student

    …here’s one point where I fundamentally disagree. I could show you very many messages in my Sixty Symbols e-mail archive from undergrads studying a variety of courses, including physics. Add to those the significant number of e-mails (and YouTube personal messages) I’ve received from secondary/high school students.

    …. However, he had the added benefit of dialog and interaction. Something videos clearly lack.

    This is the key point! And, yet again, we fundamentally agree with each other, except that I would suggest that “dialog and interaction” isn’t an “added benefit”. It’s absolutely central to the entire education process. That’s why I have spent more hours than I care to remember exchanging YouTube comments and e-mails with Sixty Symbols viewers. (Brady has pointed out in some of the public lectures he’s given on his channel that if he does a word cloud of all of the Sixty Symbols comments, my YouTube username, Moriarty2112, is not exactly the smallest text on there!)

    You repeatedly say that shortening these complex topics to minute-length videos is a bad thing

    Is it a bad thing in terms of engaging and enthusing an audience? No, of course not it (see above, ad nauseum!)

    Is it a bad thing in terms of fostering the perception that grasping a complex topic requires nothing more than to watch the ‘right’ video? Yes, it is. Education is a two-way process. It requires, if anything, more effort from the learner than the teacher.

    I see this as an opportunity to explore science. Two scientists disagree. How could that be? Where do they differ? Why do they differ?

    Yet again, I am in complete agreement. (Our exchange is doing nothing for my reputation as a contrarian!). But YouTube does not facilitate this type of discussion. Perhaps Google+ hangouts or their equivalent could be exploited to enable debate/discussion of this type?

    Finally, thanks for the kind words. As I said back at YouTube, I really appreciate this. There are many reasons I am taking a break from working on Sixty Symbols/Numberphile/Computerphile videos – only a few of these are outlined in the post. It’d probably take me another few thousand words to explain the rest, and you’ve heard more than enough from me for now!

    All the very best,

    Philip

  12. Hi Professor Moriarty, as an avid fan of SixtySymbols and all of Brady’s channels. I must admit I am a little disappointed to hear that you are taking a break from making videos with him. I really enjoy all the work you and your colleagues do with him.

    As a person who squandered his oppertunity at university, and then got older and aquired all the responsibilities that an adult has. I find that these ‘Edutainment’ videos on YouTube keep my scientific juices flowing.

    You should be very proud of your work. Even if it only inspires a few people into the sciences, that otherwise would not have an interest, then your time has in no way been wasted or harmful to any viewers.

    • Hi, Paul.

      Thank you for the very kind words. As I say in my lengthy response to Jeremy Patton’s similarly lengthy comment, the issue here is not about the question of inspiring/engaging/enthusing people about science. I am indeed very proud of Nottingham’s collaborations with Brady on Sixty Symbols, Periodic Videos, Numberphile etc… and how these have brought science to a wider audience.

      I make this point very clearly in the post: as a means of engaging and enthusing a wide audience YouTube videos have an extremely important role to play. My ‘plea’ is that we do not foster the perception that education requires nothing more than video watching (and that everything in physics can be explained by a simple ‘real world’ analogy that anyone can understand in two or three minutes).

      All the best,

      Philip

  13. @Jeremy (again).

    One very important point I forgot to address in your post – there was a lot in there! – was the question of the science-politics ‘nexus’. I am delighted that you raised this because science funding policy and the politics of science are two areas in which I have a very keen interest. This video was rather cathartic for me (if you’ll excuse the shameless self-promotion), and stemmed from many e-mail exchanges and debates with Brady and others on the subject of how scientific research – and, indeed, research in general – should be funded by government. More ranting from me on the subject of the socioeconomic, societal, and cultural value of fundamental research can be found in the links in an earlier physicsfocus post: Selling Science By The Pound .

    I’ll leave until another time the broad question of how the “humanising” (for want of a better term) of scientists via channels like Sixty Symbols and Periodic Videos could potentially influence the political process. I have applied to the Royal Society Scientist-MP/civil servant pairing scheme and very much hope that the application is successful. If it is (or even if it isn’t!) I’ll blog about this excellent scheme at physicsfocus in due course.

    All the best,

    Philip

  14. Yes, I agree about some of the shocking comments people make on Youtube and the net in general. I don’t understand what it is about internet comments where (normal?) people end up spewing hatred in all directions. It seems as if longer videos seem to get fewer morons- would this tie up with your experience too? Maybe morons have a lesser ability to listen to others for long periods which is why they’re quite so fond of their own hatred and/or b*****ks? I sense a paper in the offing…

    I’ve started watching your videos- great stuff. You should do a long one on metal (music)- you’d love that!

    • Hi, Ish.

      It’s the anonymity – not one of those posting their bile has the courage to put their name to it. Peter Coles (whose In The Dark blog I thoroughly recommend) has recently posted about this on the subject: Against Anonymity

      It seems as if longer videos seem to get fewer morons- would this tie up with your experience too?

      Yep, that certainly chimes with my experience but, again, I don’t really have the hard evidence to hand.

      Glad you like the videos. I indeed have some more ideas about combining metal with physics – as I say in a previous physicsfocus post , there’s substantial scope to use rock and metal guitar in physics teaching…

      All the very best,

      Philip

  15. very interesting, i hadn’t given edutainment much thought before, but i completely agree, there is too much “reliance” on edutainment which gives the illusion of full understanding when in reality it only wet ones appetite.

  16. Hi Philip, it’s sad to hear you won’t do more videos with Brady, you’re my favorite person of those who appear in his shows. Anyways I thought I’d give you some response.

    I think you’re very right in that these videos are just the first step in education, but I also want to let you know that they do work as intended for many people, including me. I didn’t use to be that interested in physics, until I slowly started watching all these different science channels on YouTube. At first I was really just watching them, and afterwards just thought like “Hmh, that’s cool”, and went on with whatever else I was doing.
    Later however, when I got more interested in all this stuff, the videos started to raise more questions which I wanted answers for. With the little information the video had given me on the subject, I was able to find more material on it. I’m sure you understand that this can really set off an endless chain of questions, and many hours spent at the computer.
    And even after watching and reading so much material on a subject that you think you could explain it to someone else right after, you forget it in a couple of weeks. Not everything of course, but it gets quite vague. So I have also started to refresh my memory by reading and watching the same material again, which gives me an even better grasp of how it works.
    This interest in physics has helped me greatly in my current studies, electrical engineering, year three of four at a university of applied sciences here in Finland. I’m absolutely positive on that without all these science channels on YouTube, that sparked my interest for physics in general, I wouldn’t have such good grades as I have today.

    So again, it’s sad that you won’t do more videos with Brady, but thank you so much for the work you did with him.

  17. Professor Moriarty,

    I want to start by saying thank you. Your opinions/teachings have always been entertaining, insightful, and impressively well thought-out. Your childhood story about using a microscope on the communion bread to see if it physically changes into the body of Christ gave me a good laugh! It has always stuck with me, as I have many similar examples in my own life (though, sadly less comical than yours, and not worth getting into here)!

    I’m a 4th year chemistry student, taking lots of physical chemistry and nuclear science courses. I’ve been watching science videos on youtube since my 2nd year, and they’ve always helped spark my interest again and again, especially when my job + full-time course load starts to feel like it isn’t worth the stress. Making analogies for difficult concepts has become a bit of a hobby of mine, and the videos help me to continue to think along those lines.

    I think analogies are incredibly useful. They spark interest, and they provide what I call a “safe zone” that you can fall back on when the real science starts to scare you a bit. I have always started from a simple state, often an analogy, before setting foot into the actual topic. This means that whenever I get confused, I drop back to the analogy, the safe zone, until I’m more comfortable with the idea. Then I charge back into battle!

    I understand your concern about people who may watch a video and think they just “learned” what it was about. However, I disagree with you that it’s a bad thing to be satisfied with the analogy, and to cease curiosity. The reason I disagree is not something I can empirically prove, but something I’ve just noticed, being the only science enthusiast in my family/friend group. I’ll try to explain it as well as I can…

    The people who would stop after a youtube video, thinking they have now learned all they need to learn, are the same people who would “zone out” if the scientific information was laid out for them. This is the case with my family and many of my friends. However, almost everyone I know can have their interest perked up with a good analogy, or simple breakdown of the key concepts. I had a (drunken) conversation with a friend of a friend about Schrodinger’s cat once, assumed I had come across as super nerdy (as typical when under the influence for me), and thought no more of it. I bumped into that person again, several weeks later (neither of us intoxicated this time), and he said he still thought about that example, and had to go look up why it worked, because he couldn’t figure it out. He spent weeks thinking about it, and ended up watching lots of videos on physics. As it turns out, we had a brilliant conversation about the videos on youtube, and I was able to help explain a few ideas he had been concerned with recently in a bit more detail. While he still isn’t “doing” science, he’s definitely thinking critically, trying to approach ideas logically, and building confidence in understanding new ideas… All of which are the forerunners of good scientific practice, as well as being fantastic employability skills for any job in any field.

    What I’m getting at here is that these videos take someone who would normally just give up before any scientific journey could start and teach them to love thinking critically.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems your concern is that the videos might take someone who WOULD HAVE looked for the deeper scientific answer, but found a simple video and decided to look no further. I think this is wrong. That type of person has a natural tendency to want to learn more, and all the video does is spark the interest. I know that for a fact because I AM that person. Knowing that the video isn’t the whole story drives me to learn more, and gives me plenty to think about while in the shower (where the deepest of thinking doth occur). And when it comes time to study actual science, I feel fired up and confident.

    My simple conclusion:

    Non-science people get an outlet for critical thinking and are encouraged to ponder about the natural world, while science people are inspired to continue on their scientific adventures.

    Thanks for reading this far. I hope I did not misrepresent your concern, and I hope that I got my point across properly. Thanks again for sharing your brain with me, I appreciate it more than the internet will allow me to express! =)

    • Hi, Cameron.

      Thanks for the very kind words and comments about Sixty Symbols – I really appreciate that.

      What I’m getting at here is that these videos take someone who would normally just give up before any scientific journey could start and teach them to love thinking critically.

      I agree. But there’s a very important aspect of your story which you shouldn’t downplay. The videos got him thinking…and then he discussed the concepts with you. You suggested other concepts/topics and other videos. He went back to think about and watch those. Then he came and had a chat with you.

      This is the type of interaction/discussion/feedback I refer to in the blog post which is at the core of the education process. So, we’re in total agreement — Sixty Symbols, minutephysics, veritasium etc… are great in terms of enthusing people about physics and science. Let’s just not call them education!

      All the best,

      Philip

  18. Hi, Professor Moriarty.

    I am one of the people who have contacted you in the past praising your efforts and contributions to the YouTube community. Quite coincidentally I was thinking about contacting you again today when I decided to read some comments you made and found a link to this article.

    To be brutally honest, I think I agree with you on the bulk of your opinion about YouTube edutainment. The online community (and I myself have done this) loves to talk about how online videos can change the nature of education for the better, but in reality these videos may not actually provide the educational value often attributed to them.

    While reading this I thought I might simply include much of what I wanted to say in a message to you, however I think I might be better off posting it here for whatever value it has.

    A few years ago, I found Sixty Symbols on YouTube through a complete accident and immediately subscribed after viewing the video on titled “Why is glass transparent?” It was interesting, entertaining, and it was a step up from most of the stuff you find on YouTube. I often credit that video with getting me into physics more than I was, and in a way this is true; it gave me a taste of what “normal stuff” is like in physics. It made me realize that things other than the more “exotic” phenomena like black holes were really interesting too.

    I consider Sixty Symbols to be a reason I’m now a freshman (or first year) undergrad two weeks in on the physics track very seriously considering a double-major in mathematics. I wrote about my inspiration to work in physics when applying to schools, and I got into all of them. I felt proud for expressing what had driven me to my passion for science and physical understanding, and I looked forward eagerly to one day becoming a real physicist.

    However, I don’t think I really understood what part Sixty Symbols played in my decision. I thought that the content and physics played a big part. I thought that somehow the elegant explanations were important in pushing me towards science, but really, I think the physics you guys presented had almost nothing to do with it. Don’t misunderstand, I found the physics immensely enjoyable and interesting to watch, however I think that in the end it was something else entirely.

    A little over a year ago I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I was a year out from college, or university, and I didn’t have an inkling as to what I should do. I flip-flopped from classical history and language to medical school in my considerations, but neither of these things were “it”. Somewhere in my mind I had considered physics before, but my lack of confidence in mathematics held me away from ever seriously considering it.

    I often muddle the timeline of what happened last year in my head, as I gained an enormous amount of confidence in math, but this happened after I chose to pursue physics. It happened *because* I chose to pursue physics.

    Why did I choose physics? I think that the truth is that during that summer I saw something in the Sixty Symbols videos that I finally appreciated in earnest: you were all just normal people like me who loved physics. Watching you talk about physics as something you actually loved and wanted to do rather than as just a job. Watching how much physics mattered to the people in these videos gave me enough courage to want to do physics even though I wasn’t sure about how good I’d be or whether I’d get a job or if I’d make a lot of money. That’s what my real fear was; that I couldn’t or shouldn’t do physics and pick a “safer” option, but I realized that I loved physics and perhaps that was enough to take a risk.

    To me, that is the real value of those videos. Educationally I don’t think videos of this sort will ever be capable of “teaching” people physics, to some extent I don’t think any resource can really “teach” physics. The most physics I can remember learning in a short span of time has been when I felt the most “stretched”, where I could barely grasp the math and concepts involved, and through a lot of re-watching videos and re-reading I managed to gleam something I would have easily overlooked in a simple five-minute video.

    Learning math has been a similar experience. I have learned a lot more trying to solve problems than by absorbing lectures. I’m not saying that Sixty Symbols or Numberphile haven’t helped, but they usually represent the tip of the iceberg when it comes to learning.

    Perhaps the thing I was most unprepared for in college life is how terrifyingly inadequate you can feel. I find myself sometimes thinking ahead to graduate school wondering if I will make it through that, at other times I just feel like a complete idiot because I think of a nice difficult problem and I can’t solve it no matter what I try. There’s a lot of stress that, while I suppose I did expect to some degree, caught me off guard. Reading that blog post you linked to makes me feel a little bit better about my lows over the last couple of weeks.

    I’m saddened that you’re probably not coming back to Brady’s channels, as you were always one of my favorites I will say that in some way the videos lately haven’t had as much of the more personal aspect that I found most valuable and impacted my life, though that may simply be because my situation is different now.

    I’m really glad you were a part of Sixty Symbols, and while I can’t say that without these influences I never would have gone down this path, as I have no real way of knowing what would have happened, you played a huge part in making me fall in love with physics.

  19. Also, I just realized I didn’t really properly go over that comment to make sure everything made sense, so some sentences may not be as elegant or well-expressed as I would like them to be.

  20. Hi, Dylan.

    Thanks for posting your comment. It is humbling to think that Sixty Symbols played a significant role in your deciding to do physics.

    “Why did I choose physics? I think that the truth is that during that summer I saw something in the Sixty Symbols videos that I finally appreciated in earnest: you were all just normal people like me who loved physics. Watching you talk about physics as something you actually loved and wanted to do rather than as just a job. Watching how much physics mattered to the people in these videos gave me enough courage to want to do physics even though I wasn’t sure about how good I’d be or whether I’d get a job or if I’d make a lot of money. “

    This is exactly what we hoped for with the Sixty Symbols videos. It’s why I say in the blog post that Brady’s videos “humanise” scientists. I am entirely comfortable with this aspect of YouTube popularisation of physics (either via Sixty Symbols or other channels).

    It means a huge amount to me – and I’m sure that this is true for all of my colleagues at Nottingham who have contributed to Sixty Symbols – to read that we gave you the confidence and courage to pursue an education, and ultimately a career, in the best subject there is!

    Perhaps the thing I was most unprepared for in college life is how terrifyingly inadequate you can feel

    Don’t worry – lots of people feel like that, even though they may not admit it. After more than twenty years as a (semi-)professional physicist (post-PhD), I still spend the majority of my working life feeling as if I know nothing. (The students, postdocs, and collaborators with whom I work would argue that there’s a very good reason for that…!) Physics doesn’t come easy to a lot of us – it can be exceptionally conceptually challenging. But that’s a large part of the attraction.

    I will say that in some way the videos lately haven’t had as much of the more personal aspect that I found most valuable and impacted my life …

    I think that’s a really very perceptive comment (at least with regard to the videos to which I’ve contributed). There used to be a statement on the Sixty Symbols website (I can’t find it now) which was something along the lines of “These videos are not meant to be tutorials – they’re just chats with scientists who love their subject” . It’s when the videos are taken to be tutorials – and you only have to read the comments threads under some of the videos to see that they are indeed taken as tutorials – that I, as I say above, get a little “twitchy”!

    All the very best with your future studies and career and thanks again for leaving such a thought-provoking and affecting comment.

    Philip

  21. Thanks for the blog post. Be assured that 60 symbols et. al. are keeping me curious, making me want to go back and understand things more. I know they can’t explain everything, but I am grateful for their existence. The Feynman video at the end, while perhaps explaining that you can’t always explain things in a pithy way, also reminds me why I studied Physics back in my student days – I was always asking why things happened! Let’s all stay curious.

    Good luck with your future, non-youtube endeavours.

  22. First of all, I just wanted to get off my chest that I think MOOCs are a disaster. Now onto the rest of my post.

    I agree with you, I think the book is wrong.

    However, I think the root of the problem lies in human nature. Not every viewer is a potential genius who’se fate rests in our hands. Some people would need to have their basic nature completely changed for them to start educating themselves after watching a video. This however does not mean that the video was a failure, changing the nature of a person is nigh impossible, indeed it is at the root of many of the problems in our soceity, so you should try not to feel too bad about this.

    I thought of a little analogy for this point, I’m not sure if it will work but here it goes;

    Imagine if you will, that you were a shopkeeper, and while looking out of your shop window you saw ten cars coming down the road. Nine out of ten cars go straight by and one car stops at your store. The nine cars who passed you by shouldn’t necessarely be thought of as missed opportunities. In fact you have no reason to expect that you are to blame for them not staying. There are infinite good reasons why they might have passed you by and the majority of them are not under your control. And the longer you think about the nine that passed you by the longer you are neglecting the one customer who stopped at your store!

    In other words, think of the nine out of ten cars as nine out of ten youtube viewers that don’t respond to the videos the way you intented and think of the one car who stopped by as a viewer that did respond the way you intented (in other words got stimulated into putting in the effort and learning independantly).

    So then you have to consider if the nine out of ten that get it wrong outweighs the positive effect of the one out of ten that did get it right.

    On a related topic, I disagree with the fact that anonymity is what causes youtube commenters to say nasty things. Maybe they would not be saying it if they were forced to give their names but the part of them that makes them want to say these things is a part of human nature. To these people the youtube comments section is like a mosh pit. They have energy, they have excitement and they want to express themselves even if what they have to say is not nice or pleasant and in their frame of mind they aren’t really thinking wether or not they might hurt someone or hurt themselves, and personally I think it’s better to ignore them than to censor them. Specialy in this day and age when you have governments and corporations data mining the web for whatever nefarious goals they might have in mind, I think it’s incredibly important to be able to be anonymous on the web.

    Just keep in mind, there are many powerful interests that would like to get rid if anonymity on the web and not for any noble reasons.

    And sorry if my English is a bit strange, it is not my first language.

  23. It’s slightly upsetting that you’ve chosen to stop being a part of the videos, however were you to continue to do something you didn’t feel passionate about it would be apparent in the videos and they would most likely lose the charm that made me enjoy watching them so much.

    Educating is a tricky business. People aren’t all products of the same mold and so people will understand things in different ways. Some people, like myself, have a natural curiosity about things that drives me to want to understand everything — even things that I really don’t enjoy being a part of. (For example — I loathe religion, yet I am quite versed in the bible and greatly enjoy studying the history of the Abrahamic religions and others.) Anyways, the thing with any sort of content-source with links on it is that it is very easy to wind up looking at something so very distant from what you were originally interested in. (Ever spent an hour or more hopping links on Wikipedia?) This leads to people who are not that interested in physics finding the videos you’re in, but they’re on the internet and have an opinion on everything, and will leave comments like “lol whats the point” or “this is so confusing.”

    And then there are people that have watched a handful of MinutePhysics or SciShow episodes and think they have a deep enough understanding of science that they are now on equal footing with every other science-related show on the internet and can argue with them. YOU know how brief your explanations have been, the depth of their understanding is just as shallow. Yet, it’s the internet, so people will argue things with an intensity that very few would in an actual classroom setting. (Out of curiousity, how many times during lecture do you get a student saying, “But this youtube video I watched said something different!” ?)

    Teachers in a proper classroom are teaching to a narrow range of intellectual abilities, at least compared to what the internet allows. As a professor at a university you have a batch of students that have been on a certain path for a while now. It is not your job, at this point, to put that initial spark of an interest of physics into them — that would start far earlier in the person’s life, with a far different way of teaching. YouTube does not have such a focused group of individuals — it’s more like standing on a podium in the middle of Grand Central Terminal (sorry if I do not know the proper equivalent for your side of the pond) and trying to teach a physics lesson.

    People are going to understand what they want to understand, to the level of their interest. If a person isn’t satisfied with a 5 minute explanation, they will ask for more information, or they will seek it on their own. If they say something along the lines of, “This video was rubbish,” then they don’t really want to understand. That doesn’t mean you’ve done something wrong, it’s just that a person wandered into the wrong classroom and they really meant to be in a Humanities classroom.

    One problem I’ve had with my own children is trying to limit how much I tell them, because it’s hard for me to remember that they may not be QUITE as interested in things as I am. A simple question — Why do leaves turn colors in the fall? — could be answered as simply as, “Because the leaves have something in them called chlorophyll in them, which is green. And in fall, leaves lose their chlorophyll so you see their other colors.” But that’s not what I do. If left unchecked by their mother, by the end of THAT answer, I would have gone through biology, chemistry, and physics, likely ending with a drawing of an electron shell. Likewise, many of the topics you’ve covered, to TRULY understand, require a lot of backstory. There’s another Feynman video where he talks about this –

    http://youtu.be/lmTmGLzPVyM

    The relevant parts start at 1:23. (Fantastic series, btw, if you’ve not yet seen these.) Anyways, Brady’s approach seems to be, give the viewers a simple snipped of information. To me, offering a brief summary of something with such depth is no more satisfying than saying “Because I said so.” or, “Because God made it that way.” So I can see some frustrations arising from the level of explanation you want to give vs the kind of video Brady is trying to make. Perhaps a better approach would have been for Brady to allow for a much longer recording, editing it down to the time he wanted, but then always linking to the “extra bits” that he does in some of his other videos.

    I hope that at some point you decide to get back into making videos, either with Brady or on your own. Any avenue of learning, no matter how many there already are, is beneficial to society. And the comments left can provide valuable input about your teaching, although I have no advice how to differentiate between “good” advice and troll.

    Good luck in the rest of your endeavors. I will raise a Guinness in honor of the first video I saw you in, and then raise a second for the one you wouldn’t have drank anyways.

  24. Dear Philip,

    Thank you for the clarification in the difference of context between information and thermal entropy. And most of all thanks for taking the time to read and respond to a YouTube comment. Reading through your post above, I understand the frustration in necessarily simplifying a complex concept into a “neat” example for the purpose of a short video. However, I think the assumption in the last panel of the cartoon above where the student/audience member yells out “boring” is simply not valid. A large number, albeit a minority, of the audience would LOVE to hear that professor go on to try to explain the concept and to actually show the equations. In school, many of our teachers made the assumption that math and rigor would scare us off and this assumption is made and reinforced over and over again throughout media and in most lectures designed for anyone (even other scientists) outside the field itself.

    The videos are made short because they are designed to only pique the interest of the audience and to demonstrate the enthusiasm of the speakers. But having successfully been piqued, the audience is left high and dry about where to proceed. Usually no clear roadmap is ever laid out in terms of “watch these lectures (however many it takes), or read these books until you grasp these concepts and then what I just explained will make sense.” Yes, many in the audience have only a level of interest up to the “popular science” level and will do well to get a cursory understanding of the topic to appreciate some beauty or “neatness” in the concept being explained. But a quick look through the YouTube comments shows a large, ardent minority who are truly interested in dedicating serious time to learn more about the science and math that one would need to get a working knowledge of the topics under discussion. Furthermore, other professionals in other fields such as Biology or Medicine may be interested in learning some of these concepts to add rigor to their understanding of topics but it seems our culture tells them to “stick to your dayjob” or simply to “read a textbook” or “get a degree in physics.” Why? Why does one have to pay to get a degree in physics in this age of free information sharing simply in order to grasp something as fundamental as entropy?

    Youtube videos are a service you provide out of your own time and your real job involves actual research and advancement of the science. My comments apply to the current state of affairs and I am in no way implying that you or other physicists somehow have the responsibility of freely educating the masses and holding our hands while leading us through years of physics curricula. Indeed the problem easily generalizes outside of physics to other fields such as neuroscience but there the bridge may be a little more easily tractable as underlying concepts can be described rather than requiring cumulative derivations. Even the existence of these short videos to pique the audience’s interest are a relatively new phenomenon and we should be happy they exist and are doing well. The “generating interest among the public” battle is far from won.

    The free distribution of information sharing and open courseware and the associated philosophies are all in their nascent stages. We complain about an undereducated public because our schools fail them but when those people grow up and are inspired to learn on their own, we currently don’t facilitate them in bridging gaps or plugging holes in their understanding. Already there are some glimmers of hope. Sites like Khanacademy are a godsend but because of the sheer breadth of topics covered, often stop short of delving into complicated territory. Other resources such as open courses from MIT, Stanford (Leonard Suskind has an excellent series of free courses) are also available but currently it is difficult to navigate to appropriate lectures as no clear roadmap to understanding topics exists. Solutions such as “read a text book” demand followup explanation such as what books, what chapters, and are there any freely available resource in case one cannot afford the $130 hardcover? Even in graduate courses, reading the textbook alone is rarely successful and usually requires accompanying lectures. I wish there were clear playlist-style series of lectures (Similar to khanacademy style) that take you from a highschool level understanding of a topic to a basic grasp of current complex topic in the field or the understanding of a newly published journal article. The existence of these would facilitate a knowledge hungry segment of the public and facilitate bridges and connections across fields in science. The making/organizing/funding of such an endeavor currenlty relegate it to a dream.

    But maybe we can start by letting you speak for more than 10min when you have more to say?

    I truly thank you and the team working on sixtysymbols and numberphile etc. You have helped make the internet a better place.

    Sincerely,
    Rahul

  25. Phillip,

    Thanks for referring me to this blog from your “Negative Temperatures are HOT!” video, you certainly revealed a new depth of what goes into making entertaining science videos.

    “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

    My thoughts:

    You are doing an incredible job of getting viewers to feel smart, and holding subscribers with your entertaining videos. However, I’m not sure if you know whether you (and your team) are truly trying to teach physics at an elementary level, or put on a vivid show to illustrate and demonstrate how fascinating physics are/is.

    Physical or illustrated explanations are fun and captivating, and it really shows how passionate you can get with your knowledge. To address the quote above, however, I think you may be confusing simplicity in explanation for entertainment and brevity. In other words, making something simple doesn’t have to mean making it super short and super sweet.

    My suggestions:

    (to teach and entertain more effectively)

    This coming from a person who is extremely interested in physics, astronomy,math and science in general, but has never taken a formal post-high-school course in it, you are doing an incredible job at generating interest and providing bite-sized entertainment for the layman.

    Interactivity
    Have your viewers get out a pen and paper to work out an equation with you. Explicitly state your variables and how they apply to each other instead of leaving vague concepts floating around in their head. Don’t be afraid to simplify an equation however, to leave out mostly insignificant variables or variables that don’t have anything to do with the subject.

    Studies have shown time and time again that writing something down helps us remember it, and you give your ‘students’ a little souvenir that can further encourage them by leaving them with something tangible.

    Build more visually descriptive props for the show
    Spend some time on creating/building a prop that will illustrate all of the variables of the situation you’re trying to explain.

    Think <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ITur2ZoBMg&quot; title=" “Consider the Following” segments with Bill Nye.” I know that the abstract concepts that seem to go hand-in-hand with physics and mathematics can be hard to quantify/illustrate, but I have confidence in you guys.

    Thanks for spending so much of your time educating, and making YouTube a better place.

    Addison Yarborough

  26. It’s a relief to finally see scientists admit that 1-5 minute videos have nothing to do with education or learning. YouTube comments of the kind above has been depressing me for quite a while. Education is a long and tiresome process, where you have and to assess and evaluate your understanding constantly, sometimes with brute force. Especially math and physics require tirelessly solving problems, and applying your knowledge to more and more varying situations to develop an intuition and feel for what it really entails.

  27. Professor Moriarty,

    I hope you keep providing a window and insight into the physical world for us laymen’s as long as possible. You can never truly hope to educated the masses in five minutes. Be that a five minute lecture or a five minute video, but That exposure may bring a handful more into the scientific fold. Advertising would be a poor word to use for exposing people to the sciences. From what I am seeing, it appears the “meat and potato’s” of science is being trimmed out of our schooling here in the states as well. This is a pity since literally everything can be explained with math/s and some things only with math/s. I may not understand all 100% of it, but I will read “Negative Absolute Temperature for Motional Degrees of Freedom” to better understand “Negative Temperatures are HOT”. I wish more people would strive to have a better working concept of the sciences. Professor Moriarty keep up the great work.

    Thanks,

    Scott

  28. Prof. Moriarty,

    We corresponded briefly many months ago (over a comment I made on one of your videos!) I think the UoN/Brady Haran channels do more than their equivalents due to the interaction between Brady and the faculty members. I think even the most entertainment-minded viewer will understand from them that scientific progress comes slowly, controversies are normal, and that the road from A to B is seldom straight. Brady has an eerie ability to get to the heart of issues. That’s on top of the insights specific to the subject of the video. James Burke set the standard with the original Connections program and the UoN videos are a noble heir to that tradition. I use them as quick summary articles about all sorts of areas in and then look deeper into the ones that catch my fancy. They are like the perspective articles in Science and Nature that explain the impact of certain papers published in that issue.

    We will miss your contributions but they’ve done an immense amount of good. I think over time they will pull people peripherally interested in science much deeper into it. Although they may not go into it professionally, they will be the informed laypersons that we need today and will desperately need more of in the future.

    — Ravi Narasimhan

  29. This is the reason I have unsubscribed from a few edutainment channels on youtube, not naming names but they aren’t any of Brady’s channels. The great thing about SixtySymbols is the videos are like appetisers, they are an introduction to an interesting topic, but importantly they don’t attempt to fully encompass the entire subject in a five minute video. Many times after watching an SS video I have immediately searched the web for articles and lectures on the same subjects. I don’t have that response to the more stylised presentations of science on youtube. The issue is that they are too much of a “product”, they offer the viewer a few minutes of shallow interpretation, witicisms and animation, but at the end of it all the subject feels done and dusted, there is nothing to look into because the information was kept so vague and simplified that the road ahead becomes foggy. These shows (and they definitely are shows) focus too much on the character of the host and not enough on the science itself. It is wonderful to see real scientistists, real people talking about a subject they love, but whenever one of the Nottingham clan speaks on camera it is clear that science is the star of the show.

    I agree that Feynman was a tremendous communicator, along with Sagan, and the reason is that they did not dictate science to the audience, they engaged the audience in the subject. Watching Feynman’s Messenger lectures feels more like Dick is calling us over to look at something interesting and get our opinion on it. I have recently finished watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and in it he is constantly asking questions directly to camera, that is how to engage an audience, once you get them thinking it’s plain sailing from there on.

  30. Dear Dr. Moriarty,

    This is an incredibly honest and well argued post. I share many of your ideas and frustrations. I’ve never taught a university course, but I was a physics and mathematics tutor through most of my undergraduate and graduate studies. I would like to, if you care to review my admittedly narrowly informed opinion, highlight some of the points you’ve made here, that I find particularly important and often unrecognized.

    1. Education is hierarchical and should be approached as such. If a viewer does not have the grasp of concepts necessary learn to the topic in question, it perhaps would do it better justice to educate the viewer in the basics first. Knowledge builds on top of other knowledge. Whenever we discover something today, we do so by standing on the proverbial shoulders of those who made prior scientific breakthroughs. Even if a series of very short videos is selected as the format to bring joys of science to the masses, there is no reason not to make some of these shorts prerequisite to others. If you can build on previously delivered information, the experience, and with it the educational value, can be enhanced immensely.

    2. Appreciation versus learning. Telling someone about entropy is very different from teaching someone entropy. This may be perfectly obvious to you or me, but clearly, not everyone can effectively discern between the two. The Great – I feel smart now! comment you included is a prime example of that, and “edutaiment”, as you call it, is very much guilty of omitting this clarification. Learning – and even more so learning science – always requires effort. Yes, science is about knowing how the Universe works, but it’s just as much about knowing how to think about how the Universe works. It’s the thinking that makes a scientific mind, not the trivia.

    3. Analogies break. Learning science by analogies is a bit like learning to ride a bicycle (see what I’ve done there, see?). You can put someone on a a bike with training wheels attached and proclaim them an expert at the sport as soon as they cover their first few yards. Unless you take the training wheels off the back, they may never find out what this whole experience is, and why so many people love it. If you use the rubber band analogy from Feynman’s excellent rant to teach someone about magnetism, you may still, in my opinion, teach someone effectively about magnets, but only if you quickly come clean and very clearly hammer home why and where the analogy breaks. Analogies can be useful so long as the educator does not deem their job complete by merely providing one.

    4. Trying to sexy up the format. This single idea that you can make science accessible by simplifying it to a criminally incomplete summary of “fun facts” about a topic, is nuts. You make this point very clear, and I think you’re one of very few people who do so unapologetically, and for that, I applaud you! Unfortunately, this is not a new trend. And even going back to such giants of “popular science” as Neil deGrasse Tyson or Richard Dawkins, we find that they’ve done much more polemics than scientific work, even though we sometimes call them “celebrity scientists”. They are as guilty of making science look like a nerdy play time activity as Sixty Symbols or Veritassium are.

    5. People who do it aren’t evil. What caught my attention more than once when I was reading your post is that you’re very fond and respectful of Brady Haran’s work. He’s talented, assertive, he doesn’t buy woo and he’s certainly really good at what he does. I recognize his work as important and significant. What I think is lacking is the counterpart to what he does, namely the real get-your-hands-dirty in-depth coverage of the topic… or is there?

    YouTube is full of recorded full-semester science courses from great universities. I personally watched watched Dr. Joel Feinstein’s (your colleague) mathematical analysis lectures. I never studied analysis at the university, and now I read Rudin and Courant like I read Dickens! The same university that sponsors Brady produced this fantastic two-class series on analysis, and practically no one watching Numberphile today knows about it. This is insane!

    If anything, the Internet allows us the luxury of creating three-semester courses on linear algebra, or four-semester courses in which introductory physics and calculus can be treated as a single subject. We can spare the time to give historical perspective, talk about Newton as a political figure, talk about Napoleon talking maths with Laplace, talk about Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s adventures in wonderland as a response to the insane things Cantor and others were doing with mathematics in the late nineteenth’s century, the same time period that gave birth to impressionism, global urbanization and mass consumption of absinthe. We can finally put all these things into perspective! We’re not confined to a classroom and 40 hours of lecture in a semester. We’re reasonably unconstrained. If someone came along and offered you to participate in this kind of education, would you do it then, at least hypothetically?

    • Andrei,

      I very much enjoyed reading your comment – lots of food for thought! I’ve forwarded your message to Joel – I’m sure that he, and many other lecturers here, will be interested in what you’ve said.

      All the very best,

      Philip

  31. I mean this in the nicest possible way Professor Moriarty; but you need to credit your you tube viewers with more sense. I can certainly see where your doubts came from; and appreciate them as a sign of integrity.
    But you can trust us. Most people watching lots of these videos are fairly good thinkers. We understand the limitations. I know that if I could quote every one of the films verbatim that I would still be utterly unable to think of myself as a physicist.
    Just like Andrei Krishkevich before me in the comments I’ve gone on to watch longer lectures on you tube, and been equipped to understand them thanks to Brady’s ‘minions’. That’s great. I got what I came for, and enjoyed it as well.
    I don’t think of you in the context of these videos as an entertainer or a teacher, and certainly not at all as an edutainer. But when I continually find reference to a concept (string theory might be a good example) one of Brady et al’s videos will be a great starting point; after which it’s up to me how far I take the learning.
    At the other end my physics O level didn’t tell me why glass was transparent. Your video can’t give me the maths, but I CAN now tell people when they believe wubbish (or woo); and that’s a good thing.
    The last bit is that your (too brief) videos remind me that there are plenty of people out there who love learning and science; and provide an (albeit curtailed) forum for me to interact with them. Some days I need that.

    So thank you, and rest easy ….. and by the way: it’s neither through nor true – it’s actually ‘tshroo’

    • Thanks for the very kind words. And, yes, you’re right.

      I spent a lot of time thinking this over during the Christmas/new year break and, while I still think we have to temper our enthusiasm for online learning with some healthy cynicism about when actual learning is taking place, I reconsidered my stance re. not contributing to Sixty Symbols videos.

      Indeed, before Christmas I was invited to write an article for Physics World on Sixty Symbols (and YouTube-based physics education in general) which I finished at the end of last week (only a week past the deadline*). It’ll appear in the March issue and I’ll post a link here to the final version (or perhaps I’ll blog about it). You’ll see in that article that I am entirely in agreement with what you say.

      All the best,

      Philip

      *Douglas Adams: “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they go flying by…”

  32. Mr. Moriarty, I happened to stumble upon you through YouTube and I must say that I really enjoy the videos you are involved in. I’m the type of person who loves to learn as if I live forever. I openly admit that I don’t understand the science in physics like you do but it encourages me and other people to look into it further. I assure you sir that people are learning from you and get a lot of enjoyment out of it. Even if a lot of people don’t fully understand, if they have the will to learn, they will find the answers.

    Any idiot can make a YouTube video ,or blog about a subject and misinform people but there’s people like you who people can count on to get some legit information from. The internet needs more people like you and I hope that you never stop!

    I have to tell you that I share the same passion and enthusiasm as you do with toggling bistable atoms by way of mechanical switching of bond angle. your ultra high vacuum system and the mechanics within is a beaut! I would LOVE to have the privilege of learning more about it. Unfortunately I never had the money to go to college and never will, so I have to rely on the internet and the library to educate myself. You HAVE to understand that people like me REALLY appreciate the information that you share!

    If it’s not too much to ask of you, I would like any links, lectures, videos, and information you can spare about manipulating atoms. I would greatly appreciate if you would suggest any books for me to read. I’m willing to give you my email and personal address.

    As I said before, I love to learn as if I live forever. Maybe I can live forever in the thoughts of humanity one day like you.

    • Hi, Tim T.

      Thanks for the very kind words.

      I have a playlist called “Nanoscience” at my YouTube channel, http://www.youtube.com/Moriarty2112 which has a number of atomic/molecular manipulation videos from some of the pioneers in the field including Don Eigler (IBM Almaden), Leo Gross and the IBM Zurich group, and Hari Manoharan (see this post for more on Manoharan’s elegant work.)

      All the best,

      Philip

      • Thank you very much! I just subbed to your channel and the first thing I seen was you playing Slayer. Awesome! We have more things in common than I expected, which is cool. Now I’m going to watch your videos obsessively until I understand your research better lolololol.

        I’m in a situation where I believe that I have this wonderful idea, but I wasn’t sure if it’s possible. When I seen a video with you manipulating atoms/molecules mechanically, it showed me that my idea just might be possible. I would love to tell you about it but I don’t want to waste any of your time because it might be something laughable and impossible. I just don’t have the knowledge that you have, I especially don’t have the knowledge to make it. I will tell you a little bit without writing a book here hehe. : )

        With out going into detail about my idea, I can tell you it’s purpose. The main thing I want to do is give the world a endless supply of resources by using the atoms from plants and changing the atoms to something else. The only way I know how new atoms are made is from the big bang, or creating new life (I could be wrong). Anyways, using atoms from plants and changing them to form elements etc. could possibly help world peace. We could also recreate certain resources that we find on other planets via robots with out sending them back to earth. That is the main goal of my idea.

        Do you think that my Idea is possible Mr. Moriarty? If it’s scientifically possible to use atoms from plants to make new elements and resources, then I would like to tell you more about how I think it should be done mechanically. I hope I’m not just having a “stupid moment”. I hope I didn’t waste a minute of your time from reading this either. Thanks again for giving me the link to your YouTube channel and the post of Manoharan’s work.

        • Delighted to hear that we share a love of metal music!

          What you’re suggesting is very much in line with the ideas of a guy called Eric Drexler. Drexler is seen by many as one of the “forefathers” of nanotechnology, but his work has been rather controversial.

          His website is well worth browsing, however: http://e-drexler.com/

          I’ve debated at length in the past with Drexler and co-workers, but he deserves kudos for putting forward an idea at the core of his molecular manufacturing concept: computer-controlled chemistry at the single atom/single molecule level. This is certainly something that underpins the work of the nanoscience group here in Nottingham, and that of many other nanoscience research teams across the world. See http://nextbigfuture.com/2011/03/philip-moriarty-discusses.html for more information.

          All the best,

          Philip

          • I appreciate you taking the time to show me new things and writing me back. I totally thought that I was the only one thinking about this. I first had this thought when 3D printers came out. I was thinking it would be cool if there’s a way to use atoms as the “ink”.

            It appears that a lot of the technology is already here to make it possible. It’s just going to take some great team work to improve what we already have. It would be wonderful if the world would come together and work on this. (I would love to be included)

            Thanks for giving me Eric’s website. I’m going to see if my idea is any different. I’m far from being a scientist but I have one hell of an imagination. : P

            I might write you back, I hope it’s not a bother.