Urine, bees, explosions: Science can be a lot of fun on YouTube

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    This screen shot from a YouTube video titled "Pouring liquid nitrogen on a grease fire" reflects Cody Don Reeder's approach to experimentation. Courtesy—Cody's Lab YouTube channel

Monitor staff
Published: 3/27/2017 11:37:54 PM

After three decades of trying to spread the joy of science through polysyllabic newspaper columns, I’m beginning to think that I should be flushing mercury down the toilet on YouTube, instead.

That approach seems to be working for Cody Don Reeder, a Utah college student whose sciencey online shenanigans – including a session of his “Will It Flush?” series involving everybody’s favorite liquid-at-room-temperature metal and an experimental toilet – will bring him to St. Paul’s School for a presentation on Friday.

In the process, Reeder raises some interesting points about how science gets society to realize its value. Maybe we need fewer ponderous fact-filled diatribes and more exciting goofiness.

Reeder, 24, began sharing science demonstrations for the same reason many people become scientists: He was doing stuff he thought was interesting.

“I guess this is sort of an accident,” he said in a phone interview. “I would do science experiments all the time anyway, but didn’t really start uploading them until I wanted to share a video with my grandma. Then other people started watching them.”

As is often the case online, things took off when one video caught people’s attention. It discussed how to make gunpowder using your own urine, presenting geeky details (“I produce about 30 grams of urea per day”) within a rifle-toting, post-apocalypse theme. Irresistible.

Now that video is part of a YouTube channel called Cody’s Lab, alongside others about handling bees, panning for gold, blowing things up and (my favorite) gathering platinum by processing detritus he swept up from the side of Interstate 80.

The videos are low-budget but high-concept, and Reeder isn’t afraid to include serious calculation, chemistry and physics alongside the explosions. It’s like a mini Mythbusters, which is high praise, indeed.

Between ad-sharing revenue on YouTube and his fundraising Patreon account, Reeder says the channel is paying for school. And he’s getting a free trip to lovely New Hampshire, during which he will use a scale in flight to demonstrate how weight (but not mass) differs depending on acceleration – as long as the TSA lets him.

He will join science faculty and students for dinner on Thursday and Friday, but you and I can hear him talk about this test of Kepler force as well as who knows what else at 7 p.m. Friday, when he will appear as part of St. Paul’s School’s Friday-evening Lovejoy Science Lecture Series, which is free and open to the public.

“I’m basically treating it like I’m doing a video,” he said of the presentation. But there probably won’t be any explosions, alas: “I can’t really bring chemicals on the plane.”

Reeder has no connection to St. Paul’s (he admits he didn’t even know what state it was in, when he accepted the invitation). He’s here because science teacher Nursel Riley, who learned of Reeder after his flushing-down-mercury video showed up on her news feed, invited him.

“He seemed like an interesting young person who could inspire our kids” is how Riley described her thought process in an email.

And therein lies a lesson for all us science fans.

In the battle for public acceptance, emotion (“this is so cool!”) almost always beats logic (“this data demonstrates reality within two standard deviations”).

If the world’s nonscientists are going to appreciate and help pay for science – and protect it from people who want to shut it down because they’re afraid it will produce results they don’t like – then the world’s nonscientists have to be excited about science.

That excitement won’t come from intellectual rigor alone; it also requires a jolt of emotion.

Many scientists are wary of this idea, fearful of overwhelming years of hard work with a moment of razzle-

dazzle, but for better or worse, they need to move beyond that. Public support requires at least a modicum of public love, and if that love requires building a fake toilet and flushing weird stuff down it, then so be it!

Incidentally, if you can’t make Reeder’s talk, check out upcoming Lovejoy Science Lecture Series presentations, all at 7 p.m.: Joe Kellogg of Kellogg’s Research Labs in Hudson will speak about “Electricity from Air” on April 7, and Josh Ain, a technologist and software engineer for Google, will present on April 21.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog granitegeek.org, as well as moderator of the monthly Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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