The Periodic Table of Videos (PTOV) and Sixty Symbols (SS) are a collaborative effort between video journalist Brady Haran and the School of Chemistry and School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Nottingham. Our two collections of several hundred short videos on scientific topics are hosted on YouTube and are available through our dedicated websites. The two channels have gained an enthusiastic global audience with over 29 million total video views. Though the initial goals of the projects were to produce one video for each element in the Periodic Table (PTOV) and 60 videos about the symbols used in physics and astronomy (SS), both projects have instead responded to a tide of viewer enthusiasm to evolve into ongoing projects far beyond their original scope.
Clarity of Purpose
Our channels aim to share the passion of the University of Nottingham’s professional chemists, physicists, and astronomers for their subjects with the widest possible audience. We cover a broad spectrum of topics ranging from basic concepts (e.g. SS:'Vectors'), lighthearted demonstrations (e.g. PTOV:'World’s Smallest Periodic Table'); cutting-edge research (e.g. SS:'Physics Nobel Prize 2009'); scientific road trips (e.g. PTOV:'The Professor on BBC'); and breaking scientific news stories (e.g. PTOV:'Nuclear Reactors in Japan').
We deliberately adopt an informal style pitched at non-specialists and use interviews and creative demonstrations (such as filming the fate of a cheeseburger immersed in hydrocholoric acid) to illustrate our topics. The videos are entirely unscripted, and in videos with more than one presenter they are filmed separately and without cross-collaboration.
Nevertheless, the spontaneous presentational style is polished by the professional skills of filmmaker Haran. Haran maintains full editorial control: the first time the scientists see the completed videos is when they are live on YouTube. This unusual approach works because there is complete mutual trust between the presenters and the journalist. Though specializing in science communication, Haran is not himself a scientist and so serves as an immediate test of the accessibility of the material. As PTOV star Prof Martyn Poliakoff states: "As a general rule, if Brady couldn’t understand something as he filmed, we explained it again." In essence, the viewer accompanies Haran on his own personal scientific tour guided by a team composed of Nottingham’s academics, students and technical staff.
Producing the videos is only the first step; with thousands of videos uploaded to YouTube every hour we must find and maintain an audience for the project to flourish. Raw statistics from YouTube illustrate our success in attracting a loyal core audience: for each channel, over 65 000 subscribers are automatically notified when a new video is uploaded.
However, the straight viewing figures provide only a simplistic measurement of the projects’ success, as explained in a Nature Chemistry article by Haran and Poliakoff. In order to obtain a more objective measure of its impact, Sixty Symbols is being independently assessed by O'Herlihy and Company Management Consultants. Their study is still at an early stage, but already they have established that Sixty Symbols has a strong, consistent, international baseline audience. Interesting systematic exceptions are emerging, with, for example, technology-based videos garnering larger audiences in India.
The consultants are undertaking the difficult task of analyzing the on-line feedback and comments. In all cases, the thumbs up/down feedback is overwhelmingly positive, all with fewer than 5% negative (for PTOV the statistic is fewer than 1%). Analysis of the textual comments is only just beginning, but has already revealed a wide range of audiences passing on their appreciation. They range from school children to pensioners, with many positive comments on the cultural and even aspiration-changing value of the videos. For example, a viewer writes: “I always have been very interested in science (physics and chemistry especially) but quit high school in my last year for personal reasons. Your videos have inspired me to finish my high school and go to university and study physics. And it's just fantastic!”
In addition to their unique and accessible presentational styles, one of the keys to success for both projects has been direct engagement with the audience. Haran and many of the presenters interact with viewers using social media such as Facebook, Twitter, blog posts, and via the comment forum associated with each YouTube video. The viewers themselves often engage in discussion and debate with one another.
Audience polls occasionally guide the choice of future topics, and both channels have produced extremely popular viewer-led video series addressing questions suggested by the audience. These question-and-answer sessions have been among the most unexpected and popular videos (e.g. SS:'Putting your Hand in the Large Hadron Collider'; PTOV:'Most Dangerous Chemical'). As the presenters are not aware of the questions in advance there is a spontaneity to their answers, providing genuine insight into how scientists approach a new problem. When reaching the limits of their knowledge it is not uncommon for the response to be along the lines of “I don’t know, but let’s see if we can figure it out.”
The first PTOV and SS videos were produced in 2008 and 2009, respectively. Both projects have since grown consistently more popular and have received ongoing support from the University of Nottingham. PTOV is now entirely self-funding from donations and sponsorship (totalling £94 000 in 2011) and has previously earned significant funding from the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). It has been recognized for excellence with the Science Prize for Online Education and highlighted in the EPSRC International Review of Chemistry.
Our videos are freely available online, guaranteeing longevity. Recently both channels have been included in ‘YouTube for Schools’: a portal designed for educators providing safe and appropriate content for schools. Furthermore, many of the videos have been captioned and translated by volunteers into several additional languages. YouTube’s new automatic translation facility for subtitles will make the videos accessible to even wider audiences. With no end in sight for either project we relish the challenge of creatively communicating our great excitement for science with as many people as possible around the world.