Dianna Cowern is the creator and host of the Physics Girl Youtube Channel, a science-themed video series with over 850,000 subscribers. She has a degree in physics from MIT and worked as a post-baccalaureate research fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Dianna celebrates science everywhere, from polarized sunglasses to the Large Hadron Collider.
Jayshree Seth: Only 46% of adults surveyed believe that science is very important to their everyday lives. Over a third said if science didn’t exist, their lives wouldn’t be that different. How can scientists and educators influence the public perception of science? We’ll search for answers on this episode of Science Champions.
Welcome to episode 4 of Science Champions. I’m your host, Jayshree Seth, (chief science advocate at 3M).
On this episode, we’re talking about how to bring science from the laboratory or classroom into the public eye. We’re all constantly surrounded by the fruits of scientific advancement — from Bluetooth to Wikipedia — but few stop to think about how these developments relate to science and research.
To explore how pop culture, society, and science interact with one another, I’m joined today by Dianna Cowern. Dianna studied at MIT and Harvard before creating a science-themed YouTube channel with over 800,000 subscribers.
Hi, Dianna. Can you introduce yourself and tell us a little about what you do?
Dianna Cowern: my name is Dianna Cowern, I host and run the YouTube channel - “Physics Girl”. I work with a lot of other people there, though; I feel like I don't give them enough credit. I've got a great team on that. But I make videos trying to get people excited about physics which I know is not always people's favorite topic from high school.
Jayshree Seth: Since your career revolves around science, you likely have a different take on this question than the average person, but: What kind of presence does science have in your everyday life?
Dianna Cowern: As someone who got a degree in physics it's hard to not see science in hardly anything I mean I see it everywhere. I can't not see things through the lens of physics and science. To some people I think sounds awful they're like oh, why can't you see the beauty in the art and in life? and I do, I mean I think that's a bit of a misconception about science is that once you start thinking analytically about things you no longer see the beauty. But for example, you know when I watch a sunset I see why we're seeing the colors or I ask why are you seeing certain colors off the clouds and different colors in the sky? and I see the wonder of these unusual things that happen in our natural world.
But then, science then takes [stands] that allows me to ask questions and answer them with the tools that I've learned. So, I see a lot of curiosity I see a lot of beauty in science as everywhere in the natural world. And then as far as what kind of presence does it have in my everyday life?
Jayshree Seth: Right, does your scientific mindset change the way you interact with the world?
Dianna Cowern: You know I'd say that it contributes to just how much I think about the world and how it works and questions and things like that, but also, it's practical sometimes. So, for example, I was looking at some sunglasses the other day that were made with a wooden frame and I thought they were beautiful, but I spent a lot of time near the water so I wanted [polarized] sunglasses because polarized sunglasses are made to reflect - there's a black light reflected off of flat surfaces like water.
And so, I happened to have some other polarized sunglasses with me so I tested them against some sunglasses that they had there selling at this farmers market, and sure enough they were not polarized even though they were advertised as such, and they were the priciest ones because they were the polarized sunglasses. And so, my knowledge of how to pair the pairs of sunglasses when you crossed them to turn dark and light and dark and light was able to tell at me to distinguish that these were mismarked; I caught them in their marketing, I did that. That's a silly example I think but it's like when you learn how things work you can learn how to sort of use science to create tools for yourself to ask your own questions and to use it in different ways to your advantage.
Jayshree Seth: That’s a great anecdote, because polarized sunglasses are an example of how scientific research translates into new advances in technology at the consumer level. How do you see science impacting technology, and vice versa, these days?
Dianna Cowern: That's a broad question and it is also a great question; I think throughout history they're incredible examples of big impacts of science and technology and the other way around - technology and science. The biggest example is the huge experiment over in Geneva Switzerland of [CERN] the particle collider. So, we had to build this enormous Collider to learn something about particle physics to learn something about the smallest science in the universe. But we're able to do these enormous experiments and check theories verify theories learn new theories by improving our technology. So, that's one obvious way. As far as how science impacts technology so going the other way around, I think some of them are interesting; examples are newer science - science that we're still learning about always were figuring out how science we kind of understood already or we do understand how we can apply it to technology.
So, for example, quantum mechanics is this mysterious version of physics that studies the smallest things and how tiny tiny things in our universe don't act in a set standard way; they actually act with probabilities of how they're going to do things. So, using quantum mechanics using what we know we can start making things like quantum computers and doing quantum encryption which is supposedly unbreakable type of encryption for security where everything every type of encryption now is breakable with strong enough computers with enough time. But with quantum encryption you could make unbreakable keys. So, that's some cool stuff I think that as we advance in electronics in security in data storage we're going to need science in order to overcome some of the problems.
Jayshree Seth: That sounds amazing, and also very difficult to get one’s head around.
Dianna Cowern: it is a very cool - I don't fully understand how it works; there are different kinds of quantum encryption, but I made a video about it at some point to learn a bit more but it's still, you know just like quantum mechanics, it still a pretty mysterious field.
Jayshree Seth: When you think about the future impact of science on society, how do you feel and why?
Dianna Cowern: That’s a great question; I don't know what the impact of science on society is going to be. I think there's so many different fields of science I should lay that out first; physics is pretty - I don't know, looking back in history physics hasn't always been the most positive influencer on society because of course it was physicists that came up with how to create nuclear bombs.
However, you know not to say that physics is the only bad field, but in other fields you know in health and Environmental Sciences and in even psychology we're learning so much about really really complicated systems that I think are going to help heal people kill diseases, you know learn a lot more about mental health through cognitive sciences and through brain scans and things like that. So, I am really excited about those fields of science. As for physics I mean what physics has done is really just satisfy our curiosity and if we can keep that up if we can continue to be a curious society that's asking questions, I always like to say that curiosity increases empathy is the more you know about other people and other things the more you can relate to them and the more we’ll connect with each other as human beings.
And so, I think sciences like chemistry and physics that have interesting experiments you can do, and interesting demos and things like that can help people maintain their curiosity. So, I worry about certain ways that science can be used or ways that science can be perceived because a lot of times experiments are misinterpreted, just something that I worry about in our lack of knowledge about science but I'm also optimistic for the different ways that we can improve technologies improves health improve and maintain our curiosity as human beings.
Jayshree Seth: That notion of curiosity being essential to science has come up frequently on the podcast.
Dianna Cowern: I have always been a really curious person so maybe I don't know maybe I'm just trying to justify why I'm so curious to justify that think of thing but no I have emphasized curiosity on my channel and in what I do and what I talk about at various events when I give talks and things like that. And curiosity is always something that I encourage and I push, and so I wondered why and I sort of looked into it why do I think curiosity is so important? and so I looked at some of the benefits of curiosity; and one is actually that if you combine curiosity with hard work you can actually rival the effects of just pure intelligence on tests and things like that.
So, when you're curious about something it improves how well you think about things and like I said it can improve empathy. I really have looked a lot into why curiosity is a good thing for people. And I think it's a bit sad when I think about curiosity and why people lose it over time? and why kids are so curious? but a lot of times adults are not thought of as curious, I guess it seems like a youthfull trait to be really curious about the world and I don't think that it should be, I think that it should be something that's really encouraged and cultivated - that's probably the wrong word for humans the right word for plants but also a cultivated in people's minds to maintain their curiosity.
Jayshree Seth: How do you keep up with the latest science news?
Dianna Cowern: That's a great question. All different places, I mean sometimes I just get my information from other science communicators that I follow which is fine; I don't have a deep background in and base for biology and chemistry, so often I will just learn new things about biochemistry from other YouTubers or from other science communicators who write articles or tweet. I get a lot of my news from Twitter because I happen to follow a ton of scientists and a ton of science communicators who share great articles all the time.
And then there are certain websites that I go to like my alma mater, I check out MIT and sort of their publications on what's going on. Recently there, I look at phys.org for some physics news. And then sometimes I actually go to physics conferences just to see research - I went to a Fluid Dynamics conference in November of last year because I was super curious about what kind of interesting new research is coming out in fluid dynamics, which is a field of physics that really fascinates me.
Jayshree Seth: In general, how do you think society views science? Why? How do you think their viewpoints change over time and why?
Dianna Cowern: Yeah, I think if I stopped someone on the street and just said what do you think about science? I've had similar conversations like this, I think that they were probably go something like - Yeah, I think science is cool and brilliant to astronomy or I love learning about the human body or something. But I think in general people would say that it's not their favorite subject or that it is they don't know a whole lot about it. Some people would say they love science and some people will say they hate it, but I think the average person on the street would say it's not something they spend a lot of time thinking about and learning about.
And I don't know how these viewpoints have changed over time; I know now and since over the last decade there been a bit of mistrust towards scientists and I think that comes from ignorance and I don't want to use ignorance in a bad way - I just mean it in a lack of knowledge about science. And I don't think that's anybody's fault, necessarily I think it could be that they're not interested or that they had a bad teacher; I know the importance of having a really good teacher to spark your interest in a field.
Because, you know I'm speaking from personal experience - I had incredible teachers in science and in physics in particular, so I don't blame anyone necessarily but I think that we do need as a society to emphasize why it's important to have that science knowledge? Why it's important to have math knowledge? And what benefits it can give you to be able to think analytically and to work well with numbers? And so, I think one of the other parts of this issue is how does society see as who should become or who can become a scientist?
I think there's a very strong stereotype there that's hopefully changing and people can start thinking that anyone can become a scientist, anyone can do science, anyone can go into STEM fields. And pass that view on to their kids on to their daughters and their sons and not allow sort of these unconscious biases for thinking only certain people should go into science and therefore we should only encourage certain people to go into science; that's something I hope is changing as we can start breaking stereotypes but I think that the stereotype of what’s a scientist is and who a scientists can be is still impacting who ultimately become scientists.
Jayshree Seth: Dianna, thanks very much for joining me.
So many of the creature comforts of modern society come directly from scientific advancement. But science is still undervalued, even taken for granted. Changing the public perception of science requires activating people’s curiosity about the world around them, fostering and channeling that curiosity to cultivate a love of scientific discovery.
Thank you for listening to Science Champions. For more in-depth analysis of the current state of science, join us at 3m.com/scienceindex. And make sure to subscribe to the podcast to catch our next episode! You can subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, or anywhere you listen to podcasts.