Sydney PhD alumnus presents physics for everyone!

21 August 2014

When most people hear the word physics, eyes glaze over, attention wanders, and inner dialogue mutters, “There’s no way I will understand this. Okay, maybe gravity. I understand gravity. I think.”
University of Sydney PhD graduate Derek Muller is primed to change all that. His science blog “Veritasium” is a video-based blog geared for science beginners (ahem) and his interesting and well-presented demonstrations truly offer physics for everyone!
Tell us a little bit about Veritasium
Veritasium is a science video blog which I started about three years ago. I wanted to communicate science to everyone and make science really beautiful and accessible. Since then it’s grown to be a YouTube channel with more than a million subscribers. It is ranked about eighth in Australia and it is one of the only really big science channels in Australia, or even globally.
What did you like about science at school?
I did all three sciences and I loved the way they helped me understand the world. Science was so clear; you could work out whether things were true or not. That was important to me. There’s something about fundamental solid truth that I find appealing.

What did you study at university and why did you choose that?
I grew up in Canada and for my undergraduate degree I studied engineering physics at Queens University (in Kingston, Ontario). This involved a lot of courses with the engineers and mechanical-type labs. I chose engineering physics because I thought it was a challenge but I felt it was also practical. These two sides appeal to me.
What made you come back to Australia to do your PhD?
Eastern Canada was very cold, so after all of those winters I decided to come back to Australia (where I was born). As well as science, I had always been very interested in education. I was also really interested in video-making and media, and I wanted to make all these things interact. So I ended up doing a PhD here in the School of Physics (2008) on how to make films that communicate science effectively.
I discovered that just saying the correct things and showing the best real-world examples doesn’t really result in much learning, especially for novices. To communicate with people who have never understood the subject, you need to engage them on their level. Often that is not even a zero starting point.
Often people come in, at least in physics, with ideas which are not scientific. I found that incorporating these alternative ideas, or misconceptions, into the videos, significantly boosted the way in which students watched the video and also the ways they learned from it.
That made me realise that when we go out there to try to change opinions, we need to start with incorrect information. You can’t just avoid it; teaching that way doesn’t work.
What was your experience of studying physics at Sydney?
I studied a few of the graduate units here—advanced quantum mechanics, and relativistic quantum mechanics, general relativity, which were quite challenging. They were taught by great lecturers and I really enjoyed learning from them. A lot of what I did here at Sydney was independent research and that’s what I spent most of my time doing.
What lessons did you draw on for Veritasium?
The PhD has influenced dramatically what I do with Veritasium. For one thing, a lot of my videos focus on a misconception, areas where people think they know what’s going on, but they don’t. Doing the PhD helped me understand how to communicate with those people (to correct those misconceptions).
What do you do outside of Veritasium?
I like to play soccer, go running, go to the beach and I also read a lot about science. I like to speak about science, I like to talk to teachers about what they’re doing. I feel like my life is totally encapsulated with this mission of getting to the truth of matters. And when I’m not thinking about the truth of science, I’m thinking about the truth of other things.

Intrigued? Find out how you can study science at the University of Sydney. Contact OzTREKK for more information about science programs at Australian universities and about how OzTREKK can help you to study in Australia!