The YouTube version of science and research | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 19.02.2014
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The YouTube version of science and research

Groovy music clips teach about science and make fun of widely held stereotypes. The new genre has great potential, a German researcher says. But he warns that it might also backfire.

"Balloons are full of helium and so is every star. Stars are mostly hydrogen which will someday fuel your car…" In three and a half minutes, the alternative band They Might Be Giants sings itself once across the periodic table and invites viewers to "Meet the Elements."

In Fatboy Slim's "Right here, right now," we see how a squid leaves the water, how apes turn into humans and how a man finally puts his trousers and much more fat on - evolution fast forwarded.

And during a "Chemical Party," we learn that it's love at first sight between the black, stately-sized carbon atom and the white, slim hydrogen. With this video clip, the European Commission promoted its Marie Curie research grants.

Yes, it's obvious: Music clips dealing with science are "in." For hours one can click from one video to another on Internet portals like YouTube and Vimeo. But be cautious: The format is addictive.

Informing, teaching and advertizing

"Music clips have great potential," says sociologist Joachim Allgaier. He researches the role of music videos in science communication.

Students tend to remember something entertaining more than a boring lecture. That's why teachers at German and US schools already use music videos as part of their classes.

Mark Rosengarten, a chemistry teacher in the US, has created more than two dozen music clips for using in chemistry classes at schools. "One Half-life to Live" explains how fast radioactive elements decay. "Atomos, Atomos" shows how our view of an atom's composition changed during the centuries - from simple spheres to complicated quantum-mechanical distributions.

Students at the University of California at Berkeley, together with sesame-street-like hand puppets, troll in their "Nano Song" that "the ordinary is extraordinary if you make it nano size."

Even the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) took up the new genre and created a "Large Hadron Rap" which presents all research activities round the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva. "The viewer gets a grasp of what researchers are doing there and where all the money is going," Allgaier says.

German research institutions, though, haven't realized the potential of music videos yet, he says. But companies in Germany and around the world already have. Many of them have started to advertize their products with video clips.

A risk for stereotypes

Allgaier cautions that science clips tend to backfire when they are produced by professional advertising agencies. This was the case with "Science - it's a Girl Thing!" which was commissioned by the European Commission.

It was supposed to make careers in science more appealing to girls. But the video mainly showed chic clothes and pink lipsticks. A lot of people thought it was sexist. So the European Commission withdrew the clip.

The best videos tend to be created by the researchers, Allgaier says. They like to make fun of the image of crazy scientists dancing around the lab with test tubes in their hands. "They want to show that researchers are just normal people who also make a joke from time to time."

Allgaier's favorite video is a parody on Lady Gaga by biology researchers at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. It deals with a PhD student who urgently needs good lab results for a paper in a highly-ranked scientific journal. But all the experiments go wrong and she despairs of her "Bad Project". It's funny, well-done and a counter-pole to all the scientific success stories, Allgaier says. "It shows that research is hard work at difficult conditions."

Platform for conspiracy theorists

But there is one drawback. Control mechanisms are missing. Everybody can produce a video and upload it to YouTube. That's why the Internet is swarming with videos from creationists, climate change deniers and vaccination opponents. According to Allgaier, video clips can become "dangerous propaganda tools."

To take the wind out of creationists' sails, Canadian rap artist Baba Brinkman produces rap video clips about Darwin's theory of evolution. UK-based Wellcome Trust funds the project.

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