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Interview with Derek Muller

Updated: Sep 9, 2020

📷 Veritasium

Journalist: Romina Mahinpei

Interviewer: We are here today with Dr. (Derek) Muller, famous for his educational science channel, Veritasium. Thanks for taking the time to meet with us, Dr. Muller.

Dr. Muller: Thanks for having me.

Interviewer: Just to start off, we do have a quick round of rapid-fire questions so that our listeners can get to know new facts about you. First question: what is the best place you have been to for one of your videos?

Dr. Muller: Really tough one. I mean immediately I think of far out places, like the Svalbard Seed Vault which you know, Svalbard is one of the northern-most places on Earth really. So, it’s just a phenomenal place to be. That’s immediately where my head goes, so let’s go with that.

Interviewer: And let’s also say that you’ve just created the world’s first time-machine. What time period would you travel to?

Dr. Muller: I’m tempted to go to the early 1900s and maybe hang out with Einstein. Simultaneously, I’m interested to go back much farther and see what was happening in Egypt when they were building pyramids or go back to observe dinosaurs, but that could be horribly dangerous.

Interviewer: And let’s say you’ve just won the lottery, what would you do with that money?

Dr. Muller: If it was hundreds of millions of dollars, let’s say it’s an extreme amount of money, then I’d try to get involved with Elon Musk’s project in taking humans to Mars, so further accelerate space travel.

Interviewer: And if you could own any object in the universe, what would you own?

Dr. Muller: Any object in the universe? I would like to own a fusion reactor, but humans haven’t made one yet. But if there is one out there, and maybe there is, then I would like to own that.

Interviewer: So maybe you can travel to the future and then own a fusion reactor.

Dr. Muller: Yes, that would work!

Interviewer: And just for the last question: If you could meet any scientist, dead or alive, who would you choose?

Dr. Muller: Well, I picked Einstein. I’d also be curious about Richard Feynman, so I’ll pick Feynman.

Interviewer: For sure, and knowing you, you’d probably make a video out of it for your channel, so we’d all benefit from it. And speaking of your channel, you’ve been running Veritasium now for over 9 years, and obviously to your viewers, you’re very successful. But your journey to where you are today wasn’t exactly linear. So, for those of us who don’t really know, could you give a summary of how you got to where you are today?

Dr. Muller: I always wanted to be a filmmaker, but I thought that was a poor life choice because I graduated in 2000 and there was no YouTube. I was still taking pictures on a camera with film when I graduated from high school, and I know that will make me sound real old. So, I did what I was good at, and I was good at science and I liked science. So, I did a degree in engineering and physics and after that I really wanted to go be a filmmaker, so I moved to Sydney, Australia and I planned to go to the film school there. But I knew it would be hard to get in, so while I was waiting and preparing my application, I did a PhD at the University of Sydney in physics education and research. And I was trying to bring these ideas together and my interest in science but also my interest in teaching and filmmaking all into the one thing. I don’t know if it worked as well as I hoped, but by the end of that, I was working at a tutoring company. I was teaching students a lot about physics, and I was running the science department of this company, and I enjoyed that. I did it for several years. But, at a certain point, I think I was 27 or 28 years old, then I said I always told myself that I wanted to be a filmmaker but I’ve never really tried to make films or videos or anything like that full-time. So, at the end of 2010, I decided that this is it. I’m just going to do this, and I quit working full-time and started making YouTube videos. One of the best decisions I’ve ever made for sure.

Interviewer: And would you say during that time, did you ever feel any pressure or judgement from the people around you when you started your YouTube channel?

Dr. Muller: I think my friends were confused because I had a job that was really great, and I loved it. It was at the tutoring company, so these kids wanted to be there, and I was their guy. I had been teaching the curriculum for seven years, and I knew it in and out, and I was making good money and I felt very autonomous. There were a ton of things to love about it, but it just wasn’t the thing I told myself I wanted to be doing. Going from that to making YouTube videos is kind of like expanding your classroom in a sense.

Interviewer: But I think what a lot of us don’t realize is how much time and effort go into creating these videos. What would you say was the longest that it took you?

Dr. Muller: Well, I made this video, one that immediately comes to mind for taking the longest, was the video about quantum entanglement because I started writing it, in fact, I made a version of it and I showed it to my friends, including Diana who makes Physics Girl. She was like I know what you’re talking about and I can’t follow this. I set it aside for 6 months and I came back to it. I re-filmed some things and re-edited it and nearly crashed my laptop. But yeah, eventually got it to work. I mean, even now, I don’t know how comprehensible it is, but it’s my best effort. Other videos have percolated in the background sometimes for years where I’ve had ideas to make videos and maybe I’d film some stuff and then it’s relinquished for a year and then I’d come back to it. A video at the beginning of this year, even the one about the logistic map equation took me basically the whole month of January working full-time to make that video. The thing is I cared so much about that content and I loved what I was talking about so much that I just didn’t want to make it not great. So, I in fact filmed sections that eventually got cut and re-filmed and I changed a lot of the graphics that I was working on. Initially, I had extra graphs showing iterations and things like that but ultimately it was a matter of trimming down. That’s often the hard part. If you love it all, how do you decide what to cut?

Interviewer: So, by the looks of it, it’s a very hard and challenging process that takes a really long time. So, what activities would you say you have to balance your work life?

Dr. Muller: It’s tough. I’m the kind of person who likes to throw myself into projects, but I do have three kids now. Three kids under 4, 4 and under. So, they need a lot of attention. That I guess that balances me out.

Interviewer: I mean spending time with the family is always great. As students, we always try to have balance in our lives just because it is important. Even in your channel content, you have so much balance. You have videos on more advanced topics, but you also have videos on topics that are more applicable to daily life. And in that way, you are making science more inclusive to people.

Dr. Muller: Well, I hope that’s true. I hope that works out. I’ve never thought that consciously about my strategy of topics I pick. I typically pick things that I find interesting. Sometimes, those are higher-level science topics. Sometimes, they are things that are more applicable.

Interviewer: But you really are making science more accessible, so it does bring me to ask you why you think the general public should engage with science?

Dr. Muller: There are a lot of reasons for this. Many people will make the argument these days that the world is becoming increasingly technical and scientific. We’ve got some technical challenges or technological and scientific challenges facing us like climate change or how we engage with technology. I think that’s a reasonable argument to make. But the argument I more so would make to people to why they should get a sort of understanding of science or get into it is because I think science is our best way of figuring out the truth. It’s a process for uncovering what really is true as opposed to what looks true or what we might want to believe is true. And I’ve been guided by this Richard Feynman quote that is “the first principle is that you must not fool yourself”. I think that’s such an important concept. That’s what I want people to take away, this sense of continuously questioning what you think you believe or what you think you know and try and find the truth at the core of it. This doesn’t justify the science it applies to. It’s sort of a world view. It applies to your life, and I think when people apply that worldview appropriately, it can lead them to get to the truths in their lives, and I think that leads people to live better, happier lives. So, I’d say that’s at the core of my being. That’s the reason I would really argue for.

Interviewer: And just because we are a bit short on time, I do have two final questions for you. The first one being: What advice would you give to undergraduate students listening to the show right now?

Dr. Muller: Advice to undergraduates. I guess I would say to follow your passion, your gut, what your body feels like it’s telling you. Look for the things that you’re good at or that you enjoy and do more of those. One thing that I think is important is to know what the day to day work of a job is like. It can be very different to train for a job than to do a job. For example, would I be a great scientist. I like to think that maybe I would be, but I actually think my personality is better suited to what I do. I love learning science, which you need to do to become a scientist, but the process of learning science is not the process of doing science. I don’t think I’d love the day to day activity of say being a researcher because there are so many blind allies and you have to stay focused. That rigour is not easy. It appeals more to a certain personality type. So, I guess that’s something I learned about myself. When I tried to apply my own skill set, my own passions, this career that I found is a much better fit for me than being a scientist, which I also love the idea of, but I think this is a better fit. So that’s what I would tell undergrads. Try to get a taste of doing the thing that you actually want to do, and see if it feels right because a lot of people get into it and then they realize oh, I liked the learning but I don’t like the doing of this. So that means that you’ve got to change what you’re doing.

Interviewer: And lastly, what is a must-watch video for undergraduate students on your channel?

Dr. Muller: Let’s say the intermediate axis theorem video which is called the “Bizarre Behaviour of Rotating Bodies”. I really liked that one and I hope undergrads would enjoy it as well.

Interviewer: And that does bring us to the end of the interview. Dr. Muller, thank you once again for joining us today and also for investing so much of your time and effort in creating these videos and helping students develop their education and their future.

Dr. Muller: It’s my pleasure, really.

Interviewer: And for everyone listening, make sure to check out SciSection’s podcasts available on global platforms for our latest interviews and also subscribe to Veritasium if you haven't already.


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