Grapes + Microwave Oven + YouTube = Plasma + Scientific Progress

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Living in the world of science for some time has raised my awareness of what it means to live in the scientific method. Patterns emerge that I cannot easily ignore. In recent years, I have found myself captivated by the quantity (and quality) of scientific communications emerging from within YouTube. If you have not had a chance to experience this, please read on and check out some of the videos I reference.

The following article is much more “journalistic” than I usually post, but it is the culmination of my curiosity around an area of science communication that I believe may have much more in store for the future of our field(s). I would love to hear what you think. Do you know of any similar translations of YouTube curiosity to scientific advancement?

Now, if we can only start to see these types of things emerge more in the social sciences...

A growing pillow of fire erupts from between two globes. The flaming ball rose above its point of origin, expanded into a glowing cloud, and traveled skyward.

“Wow! Who needs drugs?!” declares an unseen voice while small sparks separate from the glowing orb and fall gently as a glowing ball of fire expands and rises on an invisible platform. The light would be immediately recognizable by a physicist as plasma, a form of ionized gas that is usually the result of extreme conditions. The source of this plasma? An edible juicy green grape inside a kitchen microwave. 

The scene played out in a YouTube video nearly seven years ago. A pair of young men sliced a grape in half, leaving a thin piece of skin connecting the two hemispheres. They rested the nearly detached grape on a plate in the middle of a microwave oven. They closed the door and turned it on. Then they applied the age-old scientist’s tool – they waited, and they watched.

Science Online

YouTube science communicators are engaging in a widely distributed form of science. Their online videos generally include demonstrations of scientific phenomena – sometimes explained, often not. The transparency of their process is on display for others to critique. Their videos are themselves points of experimental data. Comments serve as an informal peer review, often incorrect, sometimes valid and occasionally amusing.  

Traditional methods of science communication – journals, conferences, and other scientist friendly venues – suddenly feel slow and part of a closed system. Today YouTube science practitioners break barriers of access giving non-scientists and scientists alike an opportunity to contribute. And while top science journals generally accumulate well under one million subscribers today – but it is not uncommon to find YouTube science communicators who have had their videos viewed hundreds of millions of times and support several million active subscribers.

YouTube science communicators are now spawning scientific inquiry by scientists. And scientists are looking to YouTube for a mysterious phenomenon to explore, discuss, and explain. In the flash of a viral video, if you look closely, you can sometimes glimpse real discovery.  

A New Form of Science Communication

Those who study science communication are beginning to notice. Last year an international research team led by Bienvenido León and Michael Bourk published the first book on the topic - Communicating Science and Technology Through Online Video: Researching a New Media Phenomenon.  

About 20 years ago, Dr. León first studied science communication in the form of David Attenborough television documentaries for his Ph.D. dissertation. Today he advises theses on the topic of what makes science videos go viral. "This is a very interesting area of research, there is not much done yet," he suggests. The research opportunities are keeping his team of 15 researchers from 9 different universities busy.

Derek Muller, one of the voices in the grape video, created the YouTube channel Veritasium in 2011 to share science with the world. Muller’s education in science (B.Sc. in Engineering Physics from Queen’s University) was often in conflict with his personal interest in film production. He moved from Canada to Australia to go to film school but instead enrolled in a Ph.D. program in physics education research at the University of Sydney.

“Some people think it’s strange to have an interest in both science and film,” Muller reported in an autobiographical video from mid-2018. “But to me, they are both incredible ways of getting at the truth.” After his Ph.D. and a few years in the workforce, he quit his paid job to start a YouTube channel. Veritasium quickly grew to support him financially.

Scientists Inspiring Scientists

In 2011 Muller recorded and shared “Making Plasma With Grapes In The Microwave!” as a scientific wonder that he didn’t fully understand. The world shared in the spectacle; it has been viewed nearly 2.3 million times. In the tail of the video, Muller promised that a future episode would have an explanation. 

Eight years later, he made right. This past February, he released “How Microwaving Grapes Makes Plasma." In this sequel, he interviews two Canadian researchers, Hamza Khattak of Trent University and Pablo Bianucci of Concordia University, about a paper they had just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that addressed the grape plasma question. 

Khattak told Muller about his motivation to conduct this research, “I actually saw your video before joining the grape project. So, I was already interested.” 

The team demonstrated how the juicy body of grapes trapped microwaves in the grape material. Microwaves reflected internally and concentrated their energy at the precise point where two grape halves (or even two whole grapes) touch. The focused power was sufficient to ionize the air between the grapes. Ions in the air were then fed by further microwaves flying about in the oven, and they grew the ions into a field of plasma.

An engaging science video was posted. A future researcher was inspired. The researcher studied. Underlying scientific processes were discovered. Findings were published. A new engaging video was shared. The scientific method cycled.

While operating a reptile center in Australia in 2010, Dustin Welbourne was fascinated with how videos he produced to promote the zoo were seen. He recalled, “Some of the videos, which I thought, ‘This is stupid, why am I posting this?’ went really well. And other videos which I thought were polished wouldn’t go anywhere.” 

So it was an exciting moment for Welbourne when he crossed paths with Derek Muller at a conference in Sydney. They chatted about what drives YouTube video success, and this question inspired Welbourne to add a Masters in Science Communication to his role as a Ph.D. student in Quantitative Geography. 

Did you catch that loop? YouTube science communicator (Muller) inspires a student (Welbourne). Student (Welbourne) then eventually conducts a quantitative evaluation of YouTube science video contents and in 2016 publishes the first article on the topic in Public Understanding of Science. The science of YouTube science communication is born.

Among the key findings Welbourne and his co-author detailed in this first paper - the importance of a consistent face for the YouTube channel, and the existence of a participatory community. “That engagement with the community creates this relationship that the people haven’t had prior,” Welbourne suggests, “With YouTube, people can just sit there and type into the comments. They can feel as though they can talk to the creator. They can also talk with other viewers about the content.” This communication connects YouTube content creators with the general population, with scientists, and often with one another.

Growing the Youtube Science Community

James Orgill obtained his B.S. and Ph.D. in chemical engineering before putting his degree to work at Intel as a Dry Etch Process Engineer in 2014. In early 2016 he created The Action Lab, his own YouTube channel, as an experiment to see how it would grow. With over 2.1 million viewers, he could quit his day job, but he enjoys his work and admits to being a bit risk-averse. His channel is a spare-time effort, consuming about 4 hours per video, with a pace of 2-3 videos per week. His videos have been viewed over 430 million times.

Orgill monitors what is trending, especially with other science channels. "I saw Derek (Muller) 's video (about grape plasma),” he recalled, “That inspired me.” Orgill followed Muller’s post with his own version of a plasma video –where he demonstrated how starting a small fire inside a microwave could also spark a plasma build. 

With the most recognizable and unique voices in YouTube science, Orgill described how he often pursues opportunities to grow scientific concepts through building on what he sees others present in their videos. “I did one on black fire,” said Orgill, “which I think is my favorite experiment.” He had seen a demonstration online for how to make fire look like it has a shadow. “It looked really cool,” Orgill recalled, and he set out to make it better. “You could make it a lot easier if you just burn a fire in a room with salt and with a sodium vapor lamp," he declared as if that sentence made distinct sense. I was still digesting what “black fire” would even be. 

Turns out he was right, his innovation worked. In watching his video, I no longer felt left behind. The low-pressure sodium vapor lamp produces a yellowish light in a very narrow wavelength where nearby objects either absorb the light (causing them to look black) or reflect the light (causing them to look yellow). He used an alcohol fire to burn a napkin soaked in saltwater. The vaporized sodium atoms rose in the flame and absorbed the yellow light. The flame appeared velvety black. “This is so cool to see,” exclaimed Orgill. Viewers agreed – his video has been viewed over 3.2 million times with over 11,000 peer reviews. 

The Scientific Method on YouTube

Across the Atlantic, Steve Mould, of the Steve Mould YouTube channel (active since 2006) pioneered giving the scientific method a nudge through YouTube. With a degree in Physics from Oxford, Mould decided that academia was not him. “What I really love is talking about science, and my interest is very general,” Mould told me, “I'm interested in biology, chemistry, maths, physics, engineering, all of this stuff.” Mould combines this passion with his enjoyment of stand-up comedy and acting on YouTube. Mould’s videos have now been viewed over 21 million times.

His 2013 video “Self siphoning beads” feels more like the start of a joke. He demonstrates, mostly in silence, how a 50-meter chain of beads will self-siphon from a jar onto the floor. Oddly, as the beads pour out, they first jump up several inches before diving down off-camera. The entire video, including face contortions, spans only 35 seconds. No explanation. No questions. Just beads flying upwards, then falling to the floor. 

Mould recalls that his video was shared in the AskScience sub-Reddit, an online space for science-related questions. The BBC noticed and interviewed Mould for their YouTube channel Earth Unplugged where Mould hypothesized about why the beads leap. He suggested that the chain striking the lip of the container was pushing it up first before falling victim to gravity. He acknowledged gaps in his theory, but jokingly announces upon seeing the slow-motion video captured by the BBC, “I think its proof beyond all doubt that I got it all right.” Of course, he was mostly wrong. 

Encouraging Investigation

John S. Biggins and Mark Warner, researchers at Cambridge University, saw this video and opened their own investigation. And once again, a YouTube science communicator had planted a seed that resulted in the advancement of science. The result of their work was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society and was also demonstrated in an accompanying YouTube video. They confirmed that gravity does indeed cause the self-siphoning of the beads (the more substantial chain flowing from the container down to the ground keeps the chain flowing). The flying leap, amazingly, is caused by the bead chain being pushed upwards by the container they are exiting. The paper and video detail the precise steps that lead to the pushing action – and they demonstrate the effect with several different types of chains. 

Biggins believes there is now a much more complete theory of chain mechanics as a result of this interaction, which could someday drive efficiencies wherever chains are used. Biggins enjoyed the process, he confessed to me, “Truthfully, I have started looking at lots more videos. But I haven’t yet felt the lightning strike again.” 

Mould’s favorite moment from the exchange – Warner casually referred to the effect as “the Mould Effect” when they published their video, and it has stuck. His name had been memorialized in chain behavior theory forever.