Element of Truth
Scientist and Canadian Expat Derek Muller Offers Entertainment and Education via Youtube
Did you know that if the earth and the moon were the size of a basketball and a tennis ball, they would be about 8 metres apart? Or that the earth is roughly 4.54 billion years old, not millions of years as many people believe?
There are a lot of common misconceptions about science out there, and Canadian Expat Derek Muller is clearing them up one by one with his channel Veritasium. Derek was born in Australia and came to Vancouver when he was 18 months old (but he considers himself Canadian). He then returned to Australia and spent nearly all of his 20s living there. He is currently living the Canadian expat life in sunny Los Angeles.
Veritasium is a YouTube channel that features everything from experiments, expert interviews, cool demos and discussions about everything science related. The videos have received critical acclaim and have been featured on Scientific American. The name Veritasium comes from Veritas, the Latin word for truth. Therefore, Veritasium is an element of truth.
Busting Science Myths
On Derek’s channel he has an entire section that is devoted to Misconceptions. He interviews the public to uncover false beliefs about science and then explains the truth behind the myths. Often, these alternative ideas make a lot of sense which is why it is so difficult to change our ideas about the natural world. Science can actually be quite counter-intuitive at times.
Derek has received some criticism for his channel, by people insisting that he makes people “look stupid” when he interviews them about common science misconceptions. However, he doesn’t see it that way.
He knows that the majority of the population are misinformed about scientific concepts and he doesn’t seek to laugh at those people, he wants to teach them something and help them understand.
For example, one of the misconceptions that Derek clears up is about how a slinky falls. When a slinky being held dangling vertically is filmed in slow motion, it can be observed that the bottom end doesn’t begin to move until the entire slinky has collapsed - which makes it appear that the slinky is defying gravity and floating in the air for a few seconds.
This goes against what most people would assume and when the phenomenon was filmed, it brought a lot of media coverage from many sources including NPR, the Toronto Star and the BBC show QI. Derek was able to demonstrate that prior misconceptions actually got in the way when people were asked to observe the way a slinky falls - and that it is hard to perceive the truth until you know what you are looking for.
A Canadian Abroad
Although Derek is technically Australian, he still considers himself a “core Canadian.” He says that he identifies as a Canadian in terms of the way he approaches the world and interacts with other people. He describes this Canadian nature as an “openness, an ability to be humble and respectful of everyone you meet.”
Was it difficult to adjust to leaving Canada and living abroad? Derek experienced a little bit of culture shock when he left at the age of 21 to live in Australia. He explains that Australians are “very friendly, but they are also not as polite as Canadians. They can be obnoxious and a little rough around the ages, although typically they are well-meaning.”
Even though he was on the other side of the world, he maintained strong ties to Canada. “In Sydney there is a bar down by Bondi Beach called the Beaver. When Vancouver was in the Stanley Cup finals in 2012 I was there at the bar in the morning, as the game would be on at around 9am Sydney time, watching the Canucks and drinking a Caesar. That was one of the ways I tried to stay connected to Canada while I was abroad.”
Growing Up in Vancouver
As a small child growing up in Vancouver, Derek was a curious and inquisitive kid.
“I had a general fascination with the world.” says Derek.“I was into gardening at a young age and I had my own little patch of the garden where I would grow things I could eat.” He stuck to practical plants that grew foods he could eat, such as grapevines and strawberries. He also tried to raise silkworms when he was in Grade 3.
Derek credits his teachers throughout elementary, middle and high school in West Vancouver with instilling him with a love of learning. “All of my teachers were extraordinary” he says. “It is hard to single out one because they were all fantastic.”
“I enjoyed school and I did well at school,” he says. “By the time I was finishing (high school) I was doing all three sciences.” He explains that Vancouver was a great environment to grow up in, allowing his naturally curious mind to be fed and nurtured.
“The teachers in Canada are extraordinary, the health care is top notch, I had a great start in life because I was Canadian. I attended Queens for my undergrad in Engineering Physics and that gave me a really solid foundation.”
He also describes a very well rounded upbringing that included both arts and sciences; mentioning playing in youth orchestras and performing in theatre on Granville Island during his youth. Derek has combined aspects of these creative theatre experiences and his love of science in his career and all of this has brought him to where he is today. “Being Canadian was essential to where I have ended up,” he says.
Combining Science and Theatre into One Passion
The development of the Veritasium Youtube channel was an attempt to merge Derek’s passions for performing and science. “I was always interested in science, but I also wanted to be a creative person. I had this experience doing theatre and I started doing films during my undergrad at Queens.”
He came to a point after completing his PhD when he was trying to get into film schools in Australia without much success. He came to the realisation that “if this is something I want to make my life about, I have to actually do it. I can’t just keep waiting.” That’s when he had the initiative to merge the two passions and start the Youtube channel.
“The hardest part of making a Youtube Channel is getting anyone to watch. I was doing the math to figure out how many views I needed to live off this and it seemed impossible... however at a certain point the internet helps the thing grow... It is like a snowball and it is hardest when the snowball is small and isn’t picking up much momentum.”
In his 3rd month of running the channel, Derek’s video about the common misconception distance between the earth and the moon was shared on Reddit and went viral. The snowball started to pick up speed and has been growing ever since.
Another major role model in Derek’s life was Bill Nye the Science Guy. “In my grade 8 science class my teacher used to show us clips from Bill Nye in class. We would take notes and then he would ask us questions after the video and throw us Jolly Ranchers if we got the right answer.”
Derek did five episodes last season on the Netflix show Bill Nye Saves the World. “I would do a field piece and then come into the studio and we would have a chat about it. It is a great experience to get to work with your hero.”
The Power of Knowledge
Why does he think that it is important for everyone (not just scientists) to comprehend scientific concepts? Derek explains that a lot of our main issues of debate at the moment, from climate change to vaccines, are scientific in nature.
“I think it is very important for everyone to recognize how science works, what evidence means, what the practice of science looks like... so that when scientists publish findings or make claims the public can understand where they are coming from and how seriously they should be taken.”
“I think if we are going to solve a lot of the problems that are happening, we are all going to have to be knowledgeable, because we all vote and we all make the decisions that elect our leaders. If we made a bad choice and they don’t make decisions based on evidence, that will eventually catch up with us.”
“In the US there are a lot of identity politics going on and I would love to bridge the gap between the tribes and say, ‘this doesn’t have to be about your side vs the other side...’ Sometimes the voice of logic can be drowned out by the emotional appeals from either side. We need less emotion and more reason in our decision-making”
With his channel and all of the other work he does, he aims to bridge the gap, be the voice of logic and encourage the general public to think more about science and the world around them.
You can check out Derek’s work at the following links:
Writer Bio- Kelly Dunning
Kelly Dunning is a Canadian freelance travel writer. She lives a nomadic lifestyle with no fixed address – working from the road since 2011 with her partner Lee, a web-designer from England. They have traveled to over 50 countries and they offer travel tips, stories and inspiration on Global-Goose.com.