Journalist: Romina Mahinpei
Romina: Welcome to SciSection. I'm Romina, your journalist for this week's episode. We are here today with Henry Rieche who is a science communicator and the creator of the YouTube channels MinutePhysics and MinuteEarth. Thank you for joining us today, Henry.
Henry: Thank you for having me.
Romina: To start off, we do have three rapid fire questions for you. First question: if you win the lottery, what would you do with the money?
Henry: That is a very tough question because there are so many things that need much better funding than they have right now. The answer is I would not be keeping it for myself. I would be giving it away. It also depends on how big the lottery is as to where it would go. But, I feel like in the US right now, we have a lot of support that needs to be done to our non-white communities and the historically oppressed communities, and it would be really good to support that. I also think climate change is very, very important and needs to be dealt with. So, those would probably be top two, but like the list can go on and on.
Romina: Definitely. And I know that the support would really be appreciated by the public as well. And secondly, let's say you've just created the world's first time machine. What time period would you travel to? And you can go into the future or the past!
Henry: I would be very curious to know how this time machine works. But I guess if I created it, I would already know, so I wouldn't need to time travel to do that. I think that it would have to be the future because we at least know something about the past because it has happened already even though there are many lost pieces. But yeah, I think there's so many interesting questions, both scientific and cultural questions, that we don't know the answers to. We don't know what's going to happen. It would be really interesting to see. It could be also really depressing to go further into the future even a hundred years. So, I think I might, I might jump at least farther than that because if it's, you know, a couple hundred years would be long enough to like, if things are good, they're gonna be interesting and things are bad, it's going to be all done anyway for quite awhile. It won't be just like a slow decline.
Romina: For sure. It's a very good way of thinking about it too. And finally, if you could meet any scientist, dead or alive, who would you choose?
Henry: Any scientists and assuming that I can like speak their language id they're from somewhere else or have a translator... You know, this is a funny question and this is going to sound like a humble brag or something, but doing this line of work, you end up getting the opportunity to interact with a lot of people, some really interesting scientists. And you end up realizing that they're just normal people and they have normal lives or slightly not normalized, but they're, they're regular folks. And so I think it makes it feel a little bit less appealing to just like say, oh, I would totally want to, you know, meet this person because they've done this amazing thing. I think it would be really interesting to be able to kind of be a fly on the wall and see the process. I guess this is going back to the time machine thing really, but you know, to see how people thought and see how they came to discoveries and things because that's something that I find really interesting: like the story of how people were able to understand something. Not necessarily the human story, but like the intellectual story, the scientific story.
Romina: For sure. And I mean, just as you said, scientists are just humans. And I think that's something that we sometimes tend to forget about and we tend to idolize or look at them as honestly as another being. So, it's really nice to kind of remind ourselves of that. So thank you for bringing up that point too. And now, before we jump into your career today and all your amazing contributions, could you tell us a little bit about your educational path and how it led you to where you are today?
Henry: Sure. So, I guess my science education began when I was a child because my family has a very scientific background. My father is a professor, an ecologist, and my mother was in biology and was a biology teacher until she started raising children. And my family on that side is a long line of wildlife biologists. So, I guess that was like the start for being aware of science. And then I went to Grinnell college in Iowa in the US, and I started off taking kind of all of the sciences. I did biology, chemistry, physics, eventually did a little bit of math, (and) decided that physics felt the best to me. I enjoyed the kind of thinking that was involved in physics and the very mathematical logic oriented thinking. I did a master's degree at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. And I was going to start a PhD and then I got sidetracked on this YouTube stuff. So, I did not do a physics PhD. I stopped. I didn't start. I was on track to do that and I bailed and started doing YouTube videos, which I've learned so much doing YouTube videos. Obviously not anywhere near the depth you would in a PhD, but I get a huge amount of breadth. I get to learn about way more things, I think, than I would if I were diving deeply in just one subject.
Romina: Definitely. And you've also helped a lot of students in this process as well, so we're all very grateful for that. But just out of curiosity, did you ever feel any pressure or judgment from the people around you when you started your YouTube channels?
Henry: That's a good question. Luckily for me, I didn't start my YouTube channels while doing a PhD or something. I know other people who have done that and or who are doing science communication as part of their job, as (part of their) professor job or something like that, where it is something that they get pressure on them to not do because it's not officially part of the job description. For me, I specifically took a year of gap between doing master's and PhD to figure out if I wanted to do film related stuff in general and ended up going down the YouTube rabbit hole in the science communication direction. You know, the biggest question was not about the science communication part of it. It was about the YouTube part of it. And this is something that's hard to understand now for people who weren't aware of the world before YouTube existed or weren't as acutely aware of it. But like, when I started making videos on YouTube, most people didn't know what YouTube was or thought it was a place where you put home movies and bootleg stuff. And so, this idea that you would make something intentionally for YouTube and then you could make a living on was completely foreign. And people said, oh, like how does this work? I mean, even now I still get people asking me, like, how does this work? Or like, how is this a job? You're just giving away stuff for free. But, you know, that's the way that lots of media has worked for, you know, eternity like radio. You just send out signals into the air and anybody with an antenna can pick them up and still like, how do you make money on the radio station was figured out a hundred years ago. So, it's not a new model, but people forget those things. And anytime you have a new technology or a new medium, unless it's as popular as suddenly as something like TikTok, people in the mainstream are not necessarily aware that it has a big audience potential. Even if there already is a big audience there. There can be millions of people on a platform that no one knows about if you're not one of those millions of people, you know, because the earth has billions of people on it.
Romina: For sure. And I feel like just, as you said, even today, some people are confused by how the (YouTube) algorithm works, but I mean, through your videos, you really have made so many contributions and you've definitely helped so much and made science so accessible and inclusive. But if you had to say, what would you say is the main reason that you think the public should engage with science?
Henry: I think science is the process by which we understand the world around us in a rational way. It's the way that you can ascertain facts. It's a way of thinking. There are many other kinds of ways of obtaining knowledge as well. Like there's the lived experience of knowledge, but science is the way that provides a measurement of truth and accuracy. The goal is ultimately to find the truth and you provide yourself a way of testing whether or not you've gotten there. It gives you a meter stick to measure how well you've done. That's not to say that you can't learn true things in other ways of thinking, but it's easier to learn false things in other ways of thinking. And so, I think that's why it's important to do science, and it's also important to know about science so that it's not a mystery. Like one of the biggest issues, I think for all of the history of the modern history of humanity is that people take too much on faith or hearsay. And there's not as much of a skepticism of what somebody else is saying. You know, we're social creatures. It's built into us to trust the people that are in our groups, right? And that's the way that social humans work and that doesn't work really well. It makes it hard when you're on a scale that's as big as the scope of scientific knowledge, which is like bigger than any one person could possibly ever encompass. But there's this element to that, to that process, into that trust. When you open up a little window into any piece of another scientific field, even if you know nothing about that field, you get the feeling or you can see by the way people are working, that they're using the same kind of rational evaluation of validity that you might do in another field. And that's why, you know, I trust it when somebody tells me how far away the sun is, even though I haven't ever actually measured how far the sun is. It's because if I start to like poke at that and like to open a little window and open the bigger window into that field and look into it, I can see that, oh yeah, they're doing things in the way that it seems to make sense. And so, it gives you some sort of trust that the whole process works. Whereas when you start to get into pseudo-scientific areas or areas that are not based in scientific processing, the scientific way of thinking or learning, you start to pull on that thread and it doesn't reinforce itself, right. It starts to unravel and you start to find holes or problems. If that is that the thing is not true. If it's true and they've just figured it out by non-scientific means then like you won't find holes necessarily.
Romina: And as you said, it is really a way of finding out the truth. And I mean, who doesn't like knowing the truth and who doesn't like knowing more about where they live?
Henry: Well, most humans I think don't like knowing the truth if it disagrees with their core beliefs, right? So this is the problem in science. Science is like, it's a skill set to be learned to fight your instinct. It's the same way that we have to be taught to like share and to be nice to other people. And some of that is instinctual and some of it is like that you have to learn to be nice to other people and to not be totally self-centered. And you also have to learn this way of thinking that is not the intrinsic way that the human, you know, the human-animal that was running around in the plains of Africa or whatever, in the savannas of Africa, didn't necessarily have to think this way.
Romina: Yeah. That's a great way to think about it as well. And I guess we could then say that (science) really does help us grow as humans. It definitely helps us develop skills and become better beings in that way. And just because we are a bit short on time, I do have one final question for you. So, I know that undergraduate students this year will be going through a unique experience with remote learning and everything going on. So, if you had to give one piece of advice to students right now, what would it be?
Henry: I think the thing that I would say is that there's a lot of time in life and we have these structures that say, oh, you should finish your degree in these many years, or you should do a degree and you should go straight into it after high school, all of these sorts of things. And a lot of those structures, as we're seeing right now, lots of structures of the way the world works, don't necessarily have to be that way.
Henry: They're just things that we have done in a certain way, and we could change. And if you have the capacity to be flexible or to imagine something else, or to take more time or to pause, if that's what it takes for you or if that's what you want or that's what you need, then that's totally fine. I think that a lot of people focus so much on what they should in quotes do when that 'should' is just a weight being placed on you by other people or by yourself that you don't necessarily have to. And you can reevaluate that. I know it's a really hard time because it's hard to imagine what other opportunities there are. And perhaps going back to school, even remotely, it just gives you a path forward. I can't imagine what it would be like to be a student right now. I am not one, and like, it's a crazy thing to experience. Like I think the closest thing to it for me was that when I was in grad school, all of our lectures were recorded. And so, a lot of fellow students could decide not to attend the in person lecture, but just to watch it afterwards later because it worked better for them. I personally went to all of the lectures because I found that it was much easier for me to not get distracted and look at something when I was in the room and listening to the professor and I could ask questions and that for me worked better. So, I think it would be hard for me to understand, to deal with this right now as a student.
Henry: The short of it is that you don't have to rush through things and if you have the capacity to pause and think and reflect or decide to do something that's a little bit outside of the norm, that's what this moment is asking of us. It's asking us to think outside the box. It's put us into a box, but we have to think outside of, you know, our normal box in order to figure out how to work inside this one.
Romina: Definitely. Thank you for sending out that great message. And that does bring us to the end of the interview. Henry, thank you once again for joining us today and highlighting the importance of science. And for everyone listening, make sure to check out SciSection's podcasts available on global platforms for our latest interviews and also subscribe to MinutePhysics and MinuteEarth if you haven't already.