Sixty Symbols video project has become more than its creators ever imagined

The numbers alone are certainly impressive: the Sixty Symbols physics-video project has totted up some 57 million views over the 297 videos made in seven years. But the real impact became much more tangible for its creators earlier in 2016.

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Awarded an honorary doctorate for his outreach work, video journalist Brady Haran – one third of the trio named as the winners of this year’s IOP Kelvin Medal – was told by others at the same graduation ceremony that they’d chosen physics at the University of Nottingham specifically because of Sixty Symbols. One of them was a Brazilian graduand who had given up a job in banking to do so.

That detail is perhaps apt, as Haran, too, came to Nottingham from the other side of the world, and gave up another job to make science videos. Hailing from Adelaide, Australia, he worked in newspapers before moving to the UK and to the BBC, where he trained as a video journalist. He’d studied science throughout high school, was good at it, and enjoyed it – helped in that regard by a small class, in which the work on the curriculum was usually completed quickly, leaving plenty of time for philosophical discussions about the more leading-edge stuff. As a way to indulge his passions for science while working for the BBC, he began a sideline with the university, Test Tube, showing what science and life of a scientist is really like. That led to a collaboration with the chemistry department and Professor Sir Martyn Poliakoff – a series of videos based around the periodic table. The university’s physicists wanted to see if they could do something similar. “I always joke that physics got a little bit jealous of all the successes we were having in chemistry,” Haran says.

“It’s not a joke,” adds Professor Michael Merrifield, the head of the School of Physics and Astronomy, who, along with Professor Philip Moriarty, represents Sixty Symbols’ academic contributors in the IOP’s award. Although the awards process limits the number of named winners to three, there are many more people involved than that. “This is a hugely ensemble piece,” says Merrifield. “Hopefully we’ve made clear in the citation and everything else that it’s much bigger.”

Lacking a direct equivalent to the periodic table, the team came up with the idea of using symbols as the premise for a physics-based series, such as c for a video on the speed of light or h for one on Planck’s constant. As 60 seemed like around how many videos they’d ultimately make, and the name alliterates nicely, thus was Sixty Symbols born.

Moriarty wasn’t part of the project at the beginning, but became involved when Merrifield and others had been suggesting new contributors, and his name repeatedly came up. Known for being somewhat outspoken, Moriarty’s colleagues felt that that that quality would lend itself well to Sixty Symbols – despite his own reservations about the medium.

“It’s interesting how the trust has built up,” Moriarty says. “Brady knows. He’s had panicked emails from me at two o’clock in the morning – ‘I should’ve said this’, etc. Which he generally ignores – quite rightly.”

“We’ve learned it’s not worth arguing with Brady,” Merrifield adds.

“Yeah, cos he’s always bloody right,” says Moriarty.

The two physicists credit the success of Sixty Symbols to Haran’s approach to video-making, particularly in that the way he asks questions about the topics under discussion makes him an effective proxy for the viewer. “I agree that the questions help,” says Haran. “But I also think Phil greatly, greatly exaggerates how much I make them look better.”

Haran says that the process has changed a lot since the project first started: whereas once he had to do a lot more in coming up with ideas and encouraging people to do what he thinks would work, now, he says, the academics are leading the way: “A lot of the time I just come along and, say, ask a few questions that might slightly change the direction, but I think they’ve all learned what works, now, and it’s made my job a lot easier as time goes by.”

“There’s nothing I like more than arguing with Brady,” adds Moriarty. “But I do think that it’s [his] role to ask those questions, to be a nonscientist asking those questions. I think it’s integral to the whole thing.”

“You are an exception, Phil,” Haran replies. “You have a different experience of Sixty Symbols to the others. You and I fight.”

Moriarty still disagrees with his collaborator: “But even when you ask Mike questions, the viewers time and time again say ‘Yeah, that’s exactly the question I was thinking of’. If it were just up to us, if we were just posting those videos online, would they be anywhere near as successful? I don’t think so. I really don’t think so.”

Moriarty adds, too, that Haran’s prompting helps to push the academics, and that personally he’s had more challenging questions from him than in many conference presentations he’s given to technical audiences. “He always sees the bigger picture, and pushes me to see the bigger picture,” he says. “I don’t want to blow too much up any of his orifices – what an awful picture – but that really has helped with my teaching a great deal.”

Not that that’s entirely allayed his anxieties about YouTube edutainment, though. “I still very much have those reservations,” he says. “It depends what day of the week you ask him,” adds Haran.

Moriarty’s concern is that people increasingly go to watch a video rather than to consult a textbook – and that it’s too passive a medium for the task. Haran disagrees: he says that the shift just has to be towards making better videos.

I interrupt the ensuing discussion to observe that books – for good or for ill – don’t come with readers’ comments underneath them. Sixty Symbols videos are graced with a far higher class of comment than is typical of the internet, however, and the trio note that there is a definite sense of community there – some people ask questions and others pitch in and answer them. “And they usually get it right, too – that’s the nice thing,” says Merrifield. He notes that while most Sixty Symbols contributors don’t get involved in the comments, he and Moriarty do. Not all social media is equal, however, and Moriarty felt compelled to withdraw from Twitter after having become embroiled in a few too many debates that were going nowhere – often not about physics, but with meninists. “There are certain people that can do it and others that should stay away from it, and I’m far too argumentative,” he says.

Merrifield, on the other hand, has used Twitter from everything from publishing a research paper deemed too trivial by the arXiv, to highlighting the bad science spread by accounts that post space photos lifted from elsewhere, to getting into debates with his MEP, Roger Helmer. “I have had a few exchanges over the years,” he says. “It all sort of kicked off when there was a solar eclipse a few years ago and it got cold, and he says: ‘Clearly this proves that the Sun is driving climate’.”

“In caveman times that would’ve been quite a good observation,” Haran says. “It would’ve been paradigm-breaking. ‘Oh, it’s the Sun doing this’.”

Appropriately, my visit to Moriarty’s Nottingham office to interview the trio is in late September, just days after the MP Douglas Carswell also got into an online argument with scientists, insisting that the Sun, rather than the Moon, is the main driver of tides on the Earth. Haran turns to Moriarty: “You see what you’re missing?” “Yeah, I know…”

Little and large

In their day-to-day work, Merrifield researches galaxy formation, while Moriarty’s area is nanoscale science. Their work may be at opposite length scales, but has a lot of crossover, particularly in image analysis, and Moriarty says he’s had more productive conversations with astronomers than with those in his own field in terms of driving the discipline forward. The overlap was also the basis of a previous outreach effort by Merrifield and chemistry colleagues, aimed at local schools, Seeing the Unseeable, about viewing things that are just on the wrong scale to look at.

Another thing the pair have in common is their somewhat unorthodox routes into academia.

Moriarty grew up in Ireland’s border county of Monaghan, noting that the period – the 1980s and the Troubles in a staunchly republican area – was “a very interesting time”.

He recalls that one of the moments that first interested him in science was working through a Ladybird book on how to make a crystal radio with an uncle who was a ham-radio amateur. As it lacked a battery, he briefly wondered where the power was coming from – before realising it was powered by the radio waves themselves.

He left Monaghan for Dublin and university at the age of 17, and followed it with a PhD – eventually. “The reason I did a PhD, and the reason I’m here, is because I failed my third-year exams,” he says. “If I hadn’t failed my third-year exams, I would’ve drifted through; I wouldn’t have got the 2.1 that I needed to go on to do a PhD. Not that I’m suggesting that failing exams is a good life choice.”

Haran asks what Moriarty might have been doing instead. “Sound engineering,” he offers.

“I think you’d probably be happier.”

“For once I’m not going to disagree, Brady.”

I point out that it would’ve meant he wouldn’t be coming to the IOP’s awards dinner. “Yeah you would,” says Haran. “You’d just be doing the sound.”

It was in 1989 that Moriarty began his PhD, the same year that Don Eigler and colleagues at IBM spelled out their company’s logo in 35 individual xenon atoms on a nickel substrate, and that feat served as a major impetus for Moriarty in choosing scanning tunnelling microscopy for his research project. During that time there was a lot of work going on in atomic manipulation, and, as he came to the end of his PhD, Moriarty spotted a job in that field advertised at Nottingham. “I sort of jumped at the chance,” he says. And he’s been at Nottingham since – something that is unusual in academia.

“That’s something that Mike and I have discussed at length,” he says. “Postdocs tend to move around a lot. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing, we could argue – and I think Mike and I could probably bat that one back and forth for a couple of hours. And we’ve had debates and spats about that in the past. Widening your horizons is never a bad thing – but it doesn’t necessarily mean that your science is going to be better if you go from place to place across the world.”

Merrifield, by contrast, has moved around rather more – but attributes many of his choices to chance and coincidence.

He grew up in south London and says he chose the sciences in large part because he went to a “really rubbish junior school”, and left not knowing his times tables and being unable to do handwriting. Muddling through to the age of 16 and what were then O-levels, he had decent results across all the subjects. The choice to do sciences rather than humanities came down to the fact that the pocket calculator had been invented in the meantime – but the word processor hadn’t. The maths needed by the sciences was no long a handicap, whereas the handwriting required of the humanities still was.

After undergraduate study at Oxford, Merrifield moved to the Center for Astrophysics in Boston, losing his native accent somewhere along the way. “I got very tired of being asked what part of Australia I was from,” he explains.

The institution was a massive place for astronomy, with around 250 potential PhD supervisors. Merrifield was taking a graduate course, and one of the lecturers introduced a particular problem and then casually said that it couldn’t be done. He decided he was going to go away and do it.

“So I stayed up all night doing the calculations and figuring out that the problem he’d set did actually have a solution,” he says. “The following morning I stuffed the solution under his door and collapsed into bed. Then the next day I went and chatted to him and he said: ‘That’s really neat. We should write this up, and by the way why don’t you do a PhD with me?’ And he worked on galaxies, so that’s kind of how I ended up doing it.”

Haran compares the story to the film Good Will Hunting, in which an MIT janitor finds the answer, in under a day, to a challenging problem that had taken some of the best mathematicians in the world two years to first solve: “He left the impossible problem in the corridor, and you were the one who solved it and put it under his door. ‘Who was it? Who did this?’.”

“No, I signed it,” Merrifield says.

“With a photo and CV,” Haran laughs.

After some time as a postdoc in Canada, Merrifield returned to the UK to spend more time with aging family, and was based at Southampton for a number of years. He then learned that Nottingham was setting up an astronomy group, having seen it in the Guardian, which he doesn’t ordinarily read and which is a strange place to advertise that type of opportunity. He felt he was too junior for the role but applied anyway, largely as a display of ambition to his then-employers – but ended up being offered the job and setting up the group alongside Peter Coles.

Arts and crafts

Where Haran has successfully turned his craft of video-making to scientific outreach, the two academics have both applied their physics expertise to the arts – Merrifield has created scientifically accurate crystal sculptures of astronomical phenomena, while Moriarty is currently writing a book on the links between quantum physics and metal music.

“An irritant for me is the idea that you’ve got the somewhat creative stuff over here and that’s all the arts and humanities,” he says, “and then you’ve got the mundane sort of science, very tunnelvision, very routine stuff, and never the twain shall meet – when of course there’s a huge amount of creativity in science.”

Merrifield’s sculptures were inspired by a visit to the glassworks in Caithness, Scotland, where they make blown-glass creations. That technique being impractical for something that needs precision, his galaxies, planets and satellites are made using laser etching instead, with production outsourced first to Israel and now to China. He had to stop selling them for a while after a Christmas-time appearance in Wired magazine led to more orders than he could handle, and the company he set up is now run by his PA, Wendy.

As with Merrifield’s sculptures, so, too, has Sixty Symbols grown far beyond its creators’ expectations – particularly for Haran. “My hobby slash side-business was taking so much of my time that I had to quit the BBC, and it became my whole life,” he says. “In every way the channel has become more than we ever imagined.”

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Christopher White

Christopher White

Chris worked in the IOP Communications team from 9 June 2008 – 3 November 2017.
Christopher White

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