In a quest to buff my sci-fi novels with more (ahem) science, I’ve been watching science-related channels on YouTube. The quality has been exceptional. I’ve given ample space on this site to Netflix, so hopefully they’ll forgive me when I say, in the documentary space, YouTube is light seconds ahead.
Documentaries on Netflix have high production values. They can afford drones, time-lapse photography and animation studios. While this all looks great, what you mainly learn is that the world is a beautiful and often savage place: tropical rainforests and lofty mountains are home to bird-eating spiders and life-threatening avalanches. So too the universe, with its fantastic nebulae born from violent supernovas. This is fine for the armchair tourist.
But sometimes you want to dig deeper. YouTube presenters don’t have the budget of professional documentary makers, at least when they start out, so they must be able to present specialised concepts simply and provoke your thoughts. Judging by subscriber numbers and views, many others around the world are embracing this golden age of online learning. So here, in no particular order, are five that really engaged me.
Arvin presents an array of physics problems with a focus on astrophysics and quantum mechanics. Philosophical implications of scientific theories and findings are tied into an accessible exploration of the maths and history underpinning them. He doesn’t shy from attempting rational explanations to pseudo-scientific phenomena such as the Mandela Effect (strange memories), and the unfalsifiable simulation theory (The Matrix). So if you have questions about relativity, quantum mechanics and even consciousness itself … as Arvin says at the beginning of his videos, “The answer is coming up … right now!”
Check out this video on Nikola Tesla and why he won the AC v DC current wars. I inadvertently offended some Tesla fans in the comments section when one said Tesla would use this photo on his Tinder profile.
I pointed out that Tesla wasn’t interested in women (so he wouldn’t be on Tinder). My intention was not to belittle Tesla but to point out he was more interested in science than procreation! In this respect he was not dissimilar to Isaac Newton and Immanuel Kant. Needless to say, he was one of the greatest engineer-scientists to walk this planet. Who knows how much our technological development would have been held back if not for his application of Maxwell’s equations and their implications for alternating current?
Although all the presenters here have backgrounds in physics or engineering, David Kipping is a Professor of Astrophysics at Columbia University. His presentations are aimed at answering the big questions. He’ll often release a video after publishing a research paper so you can dig deeper if your mind can handle it (and if you have Time, that great enemy of adult learning).
Kipping was straight behind the camera as soon as we detected phosphine in the Venusian atmosphere – a possible sign of life. Kipping has the dream job yet his presentations are filled with wonder and humility as he ponders our place in the universe. Don’t hesitate to pause and check out the diagrams and summaries of research papers.
Before many of his videos Isaac Arthur urges you to grab a drink and a snack. Good advice, because having your mind blown uses energy which leads to a rumbling in the stomach. Isaac has been releasing futurism documentaries on an almost weekly basis since 2012. In his early videos he states he has a speech impediment and that you might want to use the captions. This was never an issue for me – he just sounds like a geek from Ohio.
Isaac was a high school dropout who went on to top his class in physics at Kent State University. Enjoy the detailed speculations on the future of our species and how we might survive in the vastness of space. Topics range from lunar settlements, megastructures such as Dyson Spheres and O’Neill Cylinders, asteroid mining and the perennial favourite – the Fermi Paradox…if the universe is 13.8 billion years old, where is all the alien life?
A Masters graduate in physics from the University of Cambridge with ever changing hair, Parth G now has the time to reflect on what he really learnt. So he’s gone back through his notes to help himself, and us, understand what all the symbols actually mean. Many commenters say they learn more in ten minutes than in a semester at uni from these explanations of some of physic’s more curly equations. With a bit of maths knowledge you’ll get more out of this. But you don’t need it: Parth explains the math too. Don’t be afraid to pause and give your mind time to ponder these insightful sketches of deep concepts.
I felt I understood a substantial amount of Maxwell’s second equation in all its mathematical glory after Parth takes us through it term by term. In the intro he looks at the integral sign and is rightly acclaimed in the comments for this tight eight minute overview of integral calculus. One of the commenters was so excited at understanding the essence of Maxwell that he said if Parth G was next to him he would have lifted him on his shoulders. (Kind of an inversion of Einstein standing on the shoulders of Maxwell, right?)
A channel devoted to the big issues ranging from why we might be alone in the universe: climate change, drug reform, psychological health, aesthetics, vaccines … all these issues and more are broken down and both sides of an argument explored.
What makes Kurzgesagt unique in a sea of YouTubers: brilliant animations with intelligent birds. Those born in the 80s will be nostalgic for the era of 8 bit gaming. The retro animations are super cute and cool. A single video can take the team a hundred hours to make. I frequently rewind – not because I didn’t understand what was said but because I don’t want to miss a single bird.
Here’s a video looking at how advances in genetics give birth to new ethical dilemmas: designer babies. Down the rabbit hole you go! Kurzgesagt is very clever, and it’s often what’s not said that makes you question your assumptions.
I’ve only melted the tip of the iceberg. Surely I’ll upload a list of five more great science channels relatively soon…Check out my related Five great YouTube math channels.