How to explain absolutely anything: Academics pick apart mysteries of the cosmos on YouTube

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Exploding elements, tax returns and cat physics are among the mysteries being explained. Simon Usborne celebrates this quirky online academy.

Little over a week ago, a man called Colin posted a video to YouTube he had created at home, without much money or expertise, in which he attempted to explain the American debt limit. The four-minute clip uses crude animation and commentary to outline the odd economic relationship between the President and Congress. It could have been dull, amateurish – a waste of bandwidth. Yet it has been praised by economists and viewed well over a million times.

Such success has become routine for Colin, known online as C.G.P Grey, as well as a rapidly growing league of educators using a new kind of classroom to explain complicated things. A site still dominated by music videos and the exploits of cats is getting smart as would-be teachers and leading academics pick apart the mysteries of the cosmos, summarise revolutions and explain what would happen if everyone in the world jumped at the same time.

Their grand project has taken off in the past year, making us smarter and delivering a new legitimacy to YouTube, where users now upload 72 hours of not always edifying video every minute. Thus the site, which is owned by Google, has embraced the growth, heavily promoting educational content, which has scored a doubling in views in the past year.

Grey's project started in 2010 and took off with his third video, a wry explanation of the difference between the UK, Great Britain and England. The five-minute geography lesson went viral and has now been viewed more than 3.5 million times. Since then, 50 or so videos recording more than 40 million hits have tackled topics as varied as US politics and the correct pronunciation of Uranus (the "anus" way).

Grey declined requests to talk about himself or his work but set out his broader goals in startlingly ambitious terms during a conference YouTube hosted in California last October. He calls his vision "digital Aristotle" after the philosopher and private tutor to Alexander the Great. "I see every human using a digital Aristotle for their whole life," he said, "a tutor personalised to them, teaching them exactly what they need to learn when they're best ready for it and when that comes we'll have both a better educational system and a better society".

This sounds like bad news for teachers, Grey said, but, whether or not his bold utopia is ever realised, the most enlightened academics, and the teachers they appear to be undermining, are discovering that online videos are a tool rather than a threat.

Professor Martyn Poliakoff is a world-leading chemist whose passion for teaching predates the internet. His research and lectures at the University of Nottingham, which he joined in 1979, have won him academic renown, but the 65-year-old is now achieving global celebrity and audience figures that would be the envy of his little brother, Stephen, the screenwriter and director.

Poliakoff is the star of The Periodic Table of Videos, which started in 2008 as a modest project to make a short film about each of the elements in the periodic table. His unscripted and engaging delivery, mad-professor hair and fondness for pyrotechnics gave the videos instant appeal, helping to elevate a subject that struggled to seem sexy.

With filmmaker Brady Haran, Poliakoff and his team have now made more than 450 films that cover topics beyond the elements. Their YouTube channel boasts more than 35 million views. The most popular film, shot inside the Bank of England's gold vaults, has had more than two million hits alone.

"It's grown enormously," Poliakoff says from his office in Nottingham (half of the channel's 200,000 subscribers have arrived in the past six months). "YouTube enables us to reach people all over the world who are interested in chemistry and engage young people in a way that would be difficult by any other route."

Fans of various ages and nationalities include teachers, many of whom play the Professor's films in the classroom, as well as Nobel Prize winners. Edoardo Bandieri, a boy from Modena in Italy, was so fond of the videos that his mother, Paola, arranged for him to visit to Nottingham as a surprise 10th-birthday present. An elated Edoardo later scrawled a note that said: "To my friend Martyn, thank you for teaching me everything I know about chemistry."

YouTube has unsurprisingly welcomed the popularity (and ad revenue) of videos like Poliakoff's, as well as the gravity they add to the site. YouTube Edu, the site's "global video classroom", has more than 1,000 channels. Many of the biggest channels are run by established institutions such as the American PBS network and Sesame Street, but amateurs such as Grey still flourish.

Sal Khan was a MIT graduate based in Boston when his attempts to remotely tutor his cousin inspired him to post videos to her via YouTube. Nine years later, he has built a school without bricks that has a register of seven million students a month.

The Khan Academy features almost 4,000 videos created for school children about topics as diverse as algebra and the fiscal cliff. Pupils follow videos in order, earning points as they go and seeking guidance from their teachers, some of whom are trialling the system in their classrooms. Khan, who has described online video as a way of liberating traditional teaching, has quit his job as a hedge-fund analyst to lecture, securing funding from investors including Bill Gates.

For Poliakoff, videos remain "an amusing sideline" but, after a career spanning more than 40 years, his new online exposure means he is suddenly being recognised in the street.

Like Khan and Grey, he has a knack for presenting complicated stuff in fun ways, filming videos about the chemistry of cocktails and Kate Middleton's engagement ring. His team made headlines during the last World Cup when Poliakoff challenged Fifa's claim that the winner's trophy is made of solid gold. At 40kg, it would be too heavy for players to lift above their heads, he calculated.

His audience can't get enough. "We get huge numbers of messages and comments from around the world," he says.

Tube school:

Khan Academy

580k subscribers; 230m views. The "one world schoolhouse" launched by ex-hedge fund analyst Sal Khan boasts more than 4,000 videos about topics as varied as algebra and economics.

Periodic Videos

196k subscribers; 35m views.

Einstein-haired professor Martyn Poliakoff explains the wonders of each element in the periodic table and plenty more besides.

Vsauce

2m subscribers; 289m views.

Why don't we taxidermy humans? Will we ever run out of music? What can you do without a brain? This wildly popular science channel has the answers.

Vihart

374k subscribers; 33m views.

Victoria Hart has turned mathematical doodling into an art, inspiring millions.

Smarter every day

450k subscribers; 33m views.

Destin, an engineer from Alabama, shares his passion for science with explanations of helicopter physics, explosions, and cats who land on their feet.

 

C.G.P.Grey

475k subscribers; 41m views

An American in London called Colin explains complicated ideas such as the difference between the UK and England (there’s more to it than you might think).

Numberphile

320k subscribers; 22m views.

Maths experts bring numbers to lifes, explaining why, among other things, Usain Bolt's watch recorded his Olympic winning time faster than that shown on the stadium clock.

Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites those Star Wars rumours
News
Russell Brand has written a book of political analysis called Revolution
peopleFilm star says he is 'not interested in making money anymore'
News
newsMcKamey Manor says 'there is no escape until the tour is completed'
News
people

Britain First criticised for using actress's memory to draw attention to their 'hate-filled home page'

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge
booksChristmas comes early for wizard fans
News
news

Emergency call 'started off dumb, but got pretty serious'

News
news
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch
tv

Greatest mystery about the hit BBC1 show is how it continues to be made at all, writes Grace Dent

Voices
Hunted: A stag lies dead on Jura, where David Cameron holidays and has himself stalked deer
voicesThe Scotland I know is becoming a playground for the rich
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
filmsOculus Rift offers breathtakingly realistic simulation of zero gravity
Sport
footballAccording to revelations from Sergio Aguero's new biography
Life and Style
tech

News
people'When I see people who look totally different, it brings me back to that time in my life'
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'
film

"History is violent," says the US Army tank commander Don "Wardaddy" Collier

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

    £40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

    ***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

    £30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

    ***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

    £35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

    Senior Software Engineer - C#, VB.Net, ASP.Net - Kingston, Sur

    £50000 - £60000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Senior Software Engineer - C#, VB.N...

    Day In a Page

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker