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Science theories mixed with creativity prove popular on YouTube

Eggheads are setting concepts to music and animation and uploading their videos. They are drawing eager viewers by the hundreds of thousands.

August 04, 2012|By L.J. Williamson
  • A frame grab from the YouTube video from the Flame Challenge contest, "What is A Flame?"
A frame grab from the YouTube video from the Flame Challenge contest, "What… (Youtube.com, Youtube.com )

Eli Cirino's high school science project was quite literally an overnight success.

Students in the 10th-grader's honors chemistry class at Granada Hills Charter High School were asked to make a video illustrating a scientific concept, so Eli chose ionic bonds. After finishing his project — a combination of music, live action romance and animation titled "Good Chemistry" — and uploading it to YouTube, Eli told a few friends and posted the link to Reddit. The video began to rack up a respectable number of hits — when he went to bed that night, it was at 300.

The next morning, Eli received an excited text from his co-star: Their project had shot up to 62,000 hits. The numbers kept climbing, and by week's end reached more than 300,000 views. Not bad for an extra-credit project that took only two days to create.

VIDEOS: Five YouTube videos that mix science with fun

This impressive response to a well-executed but relatively modest project is evidence of how quickly any online video that successfully fuses the scientific with the approachable can win an appreciative audience. Science especially suffers from an unfun reputation: an emotionless discipline practiced by exacting, white-coated brainiacs. Given that recasting the serious with the silly is a classic comedy formula, combined with the number of science teachers eager for ways to reach intimidated students and the general dearth of high-level thinking on YouTube, there's an underserved audience of science-minded viewers.

"The PCR Song" is another case in point. While PCR — or polymerase chain reaction, a technology used to copy DNA sequences — isn't a topic that would seem to draw a huge fan base, the slickly produced YouTube parody, created by instrument company Bio-Rad and featuring faux rock stars singing the technology's praises, racked up well over a million views — many of them biotech students reveling in the joy of a joke made just for them.

Natalia Blank, a chemistry professor at Norwich University in Vermont, uses "PCR Song" in her Introduction to Forensic Science. Blank plays the clip, she says, "to provide a little comic relief and an emotional connection to the otherwise dryish science lecture." If she hears students leave class singing, "PCR, it's the way to detect mutations…," she says they're more likely to remember the overall concepts.

Another instant classic of the genre is "Chemical Party," in which actors portray chemical elements to illustrate, among other concepts, hydrogen's attraction to carbon with two actors who lustfully latch on to each other. As the party continues to a thumping electronica beat, guests flirt (hydrochloride and zinc), fight (water and potassium) and break up (sodium and chlorine, with the help of jumpsuit-wearing electricity). Made by the European Commission to promote a research grant program, the clip also joined the million-plus club and has inspired dozens of low-budget homages.

Being crowd-sourced, YouTube has plenty of poor to middling attempts at scientific humor — awkward "gangsta" raps set in bio labs, tedious baking soda and vinegar skits — but performers who master the art of egghead appeal can rise to the top. The L.A.-based duo of Chris Hardwick and Mike Phirman, who perform under the name Hard 'n' Phirm, made their name by crafting tunes such as "Trace Elements," a salty country twanger that name-drops nearly every scientific concept known to man ("Sub-string theories, hypotheses, argon laser, Occam's Razor") sung in a pickup truck, and "Pi," whose chorus is the recitation of pi to about 50 decimal places, with visuals that riff on the '70s PBS kids' show "Zoom." And of particular appeal to anatomy students, "El Corazon," sung entirely in Spanish, is a passionate ballad crooning about the heart's function in the circulatory system.

Using music videos to make complex topics more inviting to students dates well before the "Schoolhouse Rock" era, but even the noble pursuit of education can take artists on unplanned excursions.

"When I was growing up, science was as American as apple pie," says John Flansburgh of alt-rock band They Might Be Giants, recalling the age when space exploration held a firm grasp on the American imagination and James Bond movies always featured a scientist whose job was to provide 007 with super-cool gizmos. But in a shift that Flansburgh traces to theGeorge W. Bush era, which introduced a climate of skepticism and even hostility toward science, "there really is this culture war in which to talk about science in public as if it holds actual truths is a very risky position to take."

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