NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA—Dianna Cowern—a.k.a. Physics Girl—has one of those invent-it-yourself jobs that exist only in the age of the internet. In 2011, she graduated with an undergraduate degree in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. That year she also began a YouTube channel, posting videos explaining various physical effects—such as how surface tension can keep a small object afloat. In 2014, Cowern won the Flame Challenge, the annual competition in which actor Alan Alda invites scientists to try to answer a basic question to the satisfaction of school children across the nation, answering the question "What is color?" Shortly thereafter, PBS Digital Studios offered to sponsor her YouTube channel. Now, Cowern, 27, has 598,000 subscribers and produces 32 quirky, irreverent videos a year, as she explained yesterday here at the annual March meeting of the American Physical Society.
Q: How did you get started on this?
A: It really started in high school. I watched a series by Neil deGrasse Tyson about space, and I thought, “Wow, that’s so cool! He does science communication on top of the science.” That’s when I made my first science video. Terrible execution, but the passion was there. I went through school, and I felt this pressure to be a scientist or to get a real job, as my parents would put it. But I always had this underlying passion to do science communication. When I graduated, I started this for fun.
Q: Can you actually make a living as a YouTuber?
A: Yes. My production budget comes from PBS. I also do other things—talks and appearances. But if it were just the YouTube money, I would be fine. When I started my channel my parents were like, “We helped pay for your degree and you’re doing what on the internet?” But as soon I as I started talking to PBS, they were like, “Oh, we know PBS. Keep doing what you’re doing!” Now I think they’re very proud.
Q: Aside from winning the Flame Challenge, was there a big break or a key moment along the way?
A: Surprisingly, there was a moment and that came from a YouTube comment. People tell you ignore the trolls, ignore the comments. But I made a couple of videos that were skits, and then I made a couple of science videos. And when I went back to the skits somebody had written a comment like—it was probably ruder than this—“You had a good thing going there, you should have stuck with the science videos.” I hadn’t thought of YouTube as the medium in which I do my science communication.
Q: Do you come up with the ideas yourself?
A: Not completely. Sometimes people will tell me ideas or tell me riddles. A lot of times we’ll be discussing the way the world works, and I’ll say, “That could make an interesting video.” For example, I was talking with a friend and wondering if microwave ovens leak radiation. To find out, we put a cellphone in the microwave and called it to see if the oven worked like a Faraday cage to block the radiation going to the phone.
Q: Did it work?
A: It depends on your microwave! Some are built better than others. But then I had to go through this research because your cellphone might be operating on a very different frequency of radiation than your microwave. It turns out that WiFi is a very similar frequency to the frequency you cook your food with. That’s one of the best things about this process: I get to learn all these random facts—like WiFi and microwave ovens use the same frequency of radiation. Making a video ends up being a teaching tool for me as well.
Q: When you put together an episode, do you think of the story visually or in terms of words?
A: I write the script first, but I spend much more time thinking about the visuals. I’m a much more visual person. I could never be a writer because I would always be thinking, “But I need to show this in a video!” I spend most of my time doing the research and if there’s an experiment, making it work. It usually doesn’t on the first try.
Q: Do you work alone?
A: I have five people working with me—none of them full-time—a writer, an intern, an editor, an animator, and a fact checker.
Q: Only 17% of your viewers are female. Any thoughts on why?
A: I think a lot of it is cultural. The numbers are better for the younger demographic, where they’re something like 38%–62%. Also, I think some of it might have to do with the way you find content online. If you’ve Googled microwaves or explosions, then you’re going to end up showing the topics that my videos talk about. They’re more technical. I’m not doing gaming or makeup tutorials, which might have a higher percentage of female viewers.
Q: Do you foresee yourself going more toward science outreach or more toward being a personality in the public eye?
A: I don’t ever see myself doing only one thing. I do have plans for the future. I would love to start a girls’ science camp or to get involved with an organization that gets girls doing hands-on science. What I do, you can watch the video. But it’s a whole different experience to be able to play with science. I do want to reach young women. I would say that my channel is moderately successful based on the emails that young girls send me. This was more like my learning experience, me getting into science education. And at some point, I want to take it in a different direction, maybe starting a show that’s aimed more at girls.
Q: Is there a downside to this job?
A: Creepy people online? Personal attacks and negative feedback happen to any woman on the internet. It’s really sad. I hope that as there are more and more women visible in science and technology on the internet it’s not going to be a thing to point at and comment on. Also, I’m much busier than I thought I’d be. Surprisingly, making videos for YouTube takes a lot of time!