For the past seven years, Joe Hanson has been tied to the lab bench, inching toward his Ph.D in biology. But he was one of those people who just couldn’t keep his geeky enthusiasms to himself.
“I was always that guy at parties who wanted to tells you about the cool article he read,” Hanson says, “And instead of having people walk away, I decided to put this online.”
After a few years writing a popular science blog called It’s Okay to be Smart, Hanson got a call last November from PBS Digital Studios. They asked if he would want to host his own science show—on YouTube.
"I didn't see myself at the bench working with my petri dishes anymore,” he says, “I had a real chance to do this for a living.”
As soon as Hanson was crowned with a doctorate this fall, he went straight to a teaching career on YouTube. On his weekly show, which is part of a PBS line-up on YouTube, the tall, bespectacled Hanson delivers fast-paced science lessons on subjects like color, space or the odds of finding love. It’s a job that, according to him, puts all his Ph.D-honed talents to use.
In the last year, YouTube has become the place to watch really smart people with advanced degrees hold forth on science. The top science channels got hundreds of millions of views with their zippy explanations of dark matter and the periodic table. "Education" videos on YouTube now get twice as many views as "Pets & Animals" videos, according to the company. Science nerds are officially beating out the cat playing a piano, that old juggernaut of online video.
Vsauce, the top YouTube science show, averages 20 million viewers a month—something in the range of NBC’s Sunday Night Football audience. Minute Physics, Crash Course, SciShow and The Brain Scoop are a few of the several shows producing fun, compelling science videos. Even Bill Nye the Science Guy, who hosted an Emmy Award-winning show on PBS in the nineties, has made guest appearances on online shows like ASAP Science.
The migration of Nye and these other pop scientists to YouTube has happened within the past two to three years. Kevin Allocca, the head of Culture & Trends at the company, says there have been a few big science moments where millions of viewers went to YouTube to see viral videos: the rover landing on Mars, the Red Bull “Stratos” jump from space, and the Russian Meteor.
At the same time, the trends group within YouTube was seeing the steady rise of these science shows that were regularly producing original content. “As viewers, we’ve come to understand we’re interested in this kind of stuff,” says Allocca, “And people have been getting really good at feeding it to us.”
YouTube seems to have become a destination for science, but can these online science teachers actually make a living doing this?
Henry Reich runs Minute Physics, one of the most popular science shows on YouTube. He uses stick figure drawings to explain the physics behind Schrödinger’s Cat or parallel universes. The show, which began in 2011, was successful enough that Reich was able to start another show, Minute Earth, and hire a production team to make its videos.
Reich still produces the Minute Physics videos himself. His budget is basically zero, he says, with the only expenses being printer paper and Crayola markers—and lots and lots of his time.
Minute Physics videos average a million views every week. Reich can’t disclose how much ad money he earns. In general, a million views on YouTube brings in between one to two thousand dollars in ad revenue, though in some cases, the number can be as low as $200 or as high as $8000.
Add to that corporate sponsorships and viewer donations via sites like Subbable, and the top science channels are doing pretty well for themselves. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy for any science enthusiast to pull this off.
“Getting a million views is still really hard,” says Hanson, the PhD-turned-YouTube-host, “And the bigger YouTube gets, the harder it is to discover things.”
But Hanson adds that this doesn’t seem to keep the science lovers from trying. Nowadays, the two most common emails he gets are, “Hey, should I get my Ph.D?” and “Hey, how can I do what you do?”
After giving similar responses week after week, Hanson says he’s now working on a YouTube video that’ll share his advice -- in a most scientific manner, of course.
YouTube channels like Crash Course give viewers a fast tutorial on scientific topics. Here's one recent upload explaining topics in chemistry: