After over four years at ETH Zurich, Alessandro Sfondrini (Gaberdiel Group) has taken up a position as “Rita Levi Montalcini Fellow” at the Department of Physics and Astronomy of the University of Padova.
This position, equivalent to Assistant Professor with tenure-track in the Swiss system, allows him to carry out independent research on the interplay between string theory, conformal field theory, and integrable systems.
Until summer 2020 he will still be at the ETH Zurich as a long-term visitor to manage a related SNF “Spark” grant which he recently obtained.
Following the success of his two videos on string theory, we conducted an interview with Alessandro to talk about how these videos came to be. The first video, “Why Black Holes Could Delete The Universe – The Information Paradox”, has reached over 18 million views. The second video, “String Theory Explained – What is The True Nature of Reality?” has reached over 13 million views.
- What gave you the idea to create these videos?
There are a lot of excellent videos on YouTube about science, such as physics and mathematics. But not many of them are done in collaboration with scientists. And not many of them are about string theory, or are on the frontier of theoretical physics and mathematical physics. So I always wanted to bring a little bit of what I know to this sort of medium, in order to reach more people, and specifically students. This is something that I already had in mind, even before coming to Switzerland. Then after coming here, I found that the Swiss government, through the Swiss National Science Foundation, and SwissMAP could be great partners in supporting what is actually a very complicated endeavour: to create these videos, find the right partners, find the right funds, and eventually publish the completed videos.
- To make such a video, you need a scientific background, but you also need to develop skills as a filmmaker. So how do you navigate these various roles to create the final product?
I could not have done it on my own. I had great help from the very talented people of the YouTube channel Kurzgesagt, which is German for “in a nutshell”. They have a lot of experience in making videos on biology, engineering, energy, and so on. And in this case, it was really a matter of putting together my expertise and knowledge, with their experience on engaging people and having the best form of visual communication, the best choice of words, the best timing of our spoken sentences and so on. So it was really crucial to work together with them and there was a lot of learning opportunities on both sides.
- What was the role of Kurzgesagt?
Their role was to help me put my idea, which was rather abstract, into the correct format. They helped choose the right length, the right topic and the right way of phrasing the questions and sentences. So in practice, that meant that I told them about physics. I gave them material to read and we had numerous discussions. Then we started writing a script. They prepared a draft and I gave them my comments. And we went back and forth using this process, resulting in around 15 drafts for each video. Eventually, when we were both happy, they started preparing the art and the storyboard. Even then, it was very important that we were both engaged, because there are different ways to illustrate a physical concept and it’s very easy to make very small mistakes that can be misleading, but only a scientist would recognise it as something misleading.
- What is the timescale for producing a video like this, from conception to completion?
It takes several months. First there is the research period. Of course as a scientist, I’m already familiar with the topic of the videos, but the people working at Kurzgesagt, are not. So they need time to read and understand the material in their own way. And also, I need time to rethink the material. I need to find the best way to present my knowledge, which is mostly technical, in a way that can be absorbed by somebody who isn’t a specialist. All this takes about 1-2 months. After that, the scriptwriting starts, and that takes a few weeks. There is the process of back and forth between drafts. Afterwards, the actual illustration and animation starts, and that also takes a few weeks. This is actually a job for several people,because computer animated videos require of course a lot of expertise and a lot of hours. Then to top it all off, there is the recording of the voice actor, the creation of the music and other final touches. So all in all, you’re looking at maybe 3-4 months from the moment when you really start working on it.
- Did you consult with teachers or students?
Yes, that was a very important part of the process. At several stages of the project, I got in touch with high school students in Zurich and their teachers. The idea was first to understand what could be interesting for them. And then, as the writing of the script progressed, to get some feedback on the text. Because for somebody who was in high school perhaps 10-20 years ago, it is very difficult to remember exactly what a high school student knows. And some metaphors that are common language for people from a certain generation are no longer relevant for people who are younger. You have to adapt your language in certain subtle ways. So this sort of feedback was crucial and even to this day, we try to be as engaged as possible with students and teachers for all parts of the project, such as finding the best way to distribute these videos to the schools.
- The videos have had great success. Did you expect this?
It was a bit of a surprise. I knew that by working with Kurzgesagt, who are a very talented group of people and are very well known on YouTube, I would have some amount of success. In my original proposal I wrote that I would expect at least two million people to view the videos. And now, although we are only at the beginning of the project, already millions of people have seen the videos. So this is testimony to the quality of the videos, and the need for good outreach in theoretical physics and mathematics. There is still of course an important step to make, which is to go to the schools and make sure that not only the students see the videos, but they also get a chance to talk about them. With scientists, with their teachers and people who can tell them more about what doing science is actually like.
- What channels where used to promote the videos?
Well the main channel was the Kurzgesagt YouTube channel and their social media. This is of course for the English version of the videos. Now we also have French, Italian and German versions as well. They have been promoted through the SwissMAP YouTube channel and through the social media of SwissMAP, ETH Zurich and of course Kurzgesagt. This is a direct way to make the videos immediately available on the internet. Apart from that, we will also contact the schools to make the teachers aware of the existence of these videos. This is very useful so that people consider this project as not only something that exists on the internet, but a real world activity that is tangible and that they can work with on a person to person basis. Another important resource is our website: http://physdocu.ethz.ch/ This collects all the material that we have. Not only the videos in several languages, but also materials for the teachers, and for the students. There are additional explanations and very nice posters that you can put up in your high school or university, to popularise this event or events that you can create related to this project. And it’s also the best way to contact us. There is a form for teachers or other interested people to get in touch with us.
- Are the videos part of a larger activity?
Yes, indeed. The videos are just the tip of the iceberg. The important thing here for us, and for the Swiss National Science Foundation, is really to have a dialog between scientists and the public, in this case high school students. So just showing them a video would not be enough. What is important here is to give students a chance to think about what is in the video and to start a conversation with scientists. This could be a PhD student, a postdoc, or a professor. People who have their own view of science; their own personal experience. And they can not only talk about the topic of the videos, but about the whole experience of being a scientist.
- What is your long term vision for how the videos should be used?
We want to get these videos out to as many people as possible. The videos will always be there. And the materials we produce and the explanations that have to do with the videos will always be there. We would like them to have a life of their own. For instance, high school teachers can continue to work with these videos, show them in their classes, and invite researchers from universities to their schools.
- Do you have any plans for future videos?
Not right now. The important thing is to get the word out on the videos that are already there. Of course, it is very tempting, given the success of these videos, to consider doing more. But this is something that is very expensive. Not only in terms of money, but also in terms of commitment. Because if you want to do something like this, you should do it well, and that takes time and energy. So before thinking about that, I would like to see this activity to the end. And maybe convince some colleague that this is something that could be interesting for them. For instance in the realm of mathematics, which we don’t really touch upon, but which suffers to some extent, from the same problems that theoretical physics suffer from. Some students find it unengaging. They find it too difficult, without ever being exposed to real world mathematics. And I’m sure that there are numerous problems in mathematics that would be perfect for these types of videos.
- Do you have any suggestions for fellow scientists who want to do outreach?
What I would say to other scientists who are thinking about doing outreach, is not to be afraid to give it a try. At least start by dipping your feet in the water with some small activity. And then maybe look at the more complicated and more rewarding activities that you can do thanks to the funding instruments of the Swiss National Science Foundation or in collaboration with entities like SwissMAP or your own university. You should also be aware, that there is a lot of attention in Switzerland towards outreach, from the government, funding agencies and universities. And you will find great support. You will find dedicated staff in the universities that can explain to you how to reach out to schools or people you don’t normally talk to. And there are a lot of funding instruments to discover that can also support you. Not only financially, but also in better developing the concept of outreach. So my advice to everybody would be to give it a try, even if you have just a little bit of time.