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So Much Inspiration, So Little Time: The Story of MinutePhysics

There is no doubt that Henry Reich is a physicist. He has training in both math and theoretical physics from Grinell college, along with a master’s from the Perimeter Institute of Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario. He was planning on pursuing a Ph.D. as well, but something stopped him: making videos on YouTube.

Image Courtesy of Henry Reich

Reich is the guy behind MinutePhysics, the hugely popular science channel on YouTube that boasts more than three and a half million subscribers. When I interviewed Reich for this story, I was surprised to learn that MinutePhysics (and its offshoot, MinuteEarth) was started almost by accident. Throughout high school, Reich had an interest in video production. However, his education in this field was less than formal; he taught himself by watching the special features of the extended edition of The Lord of the Rings. “In the age before YouTube it was really hard to figure out how to make videos, to learn how to do things,” he says. “So I watched those – many hours worth of behind the scenes, over and over and over again.”

Videography was completely new to Reich. But, as with his studies, he chased whatever information he could find, until eventually he had a background in video production that he calls “totally unofficial.”

“I actually learned a lot about YouTube videos in particular, from working with a YouTube channel called RocketJump,” Reich says. As one of the first YouTube channels to become commercially successful (their “Video Game High school” webseries was rated number one by Variety), RocketJump gave Reich a taste of what it took to have an effective presence on YouTube. “I learned a lot about some of the strategies and best practices for running a successful YouTube channel at the time,” he remembers.

As was his tutelage under The Lord of the Rings special features, Reich’s first forays as an independent YouTuber were founded on mimicry.  Using what he had learned about video, and inspired by the hand-drawn videos he found of The Royal Society of Animation’s YouTube channel, Reich decided to set up a camera and see if he couldn’t make something similar. One of his reasons for liking this style so much was that it made what might otherwise be a boring lecture interesting and engaging. “It helps bring the talk alive in a way that the audio piece isn’t, necessarily,” he tells me.

Image Courtesy of Henry Reich

The video he ended up making was called “Minute Physics: What is Gravity?” and can still be found on his channel. What was supposed to be a fun experiment – a one-off for Reich to prove that he could make fun hand-drawn style videos – ended up becoming a successful realization of his skills as a videographer.

He relates to me how his first intention was to share it with some friends and then leave it at that: “It ended up getting around three to four thousand views, which is more than I ever expected because I was thinking, ‘I’ll show it to some people, and maybe ten people look at it’” But then, he says, “I started working with [RocketJump] and I got a sense that you could make video intentionally for YouTube, and that could be a place to grow and have an audience.” This conclusion seems like common sense to us now, but at the time YouTube was only four years old and still in the process of realizing its full potential. So Reich authored the MinutePhysics channel, posted the first video, and from that point on, he says, the rest is history.

Though YouTube can be a place to make a living, that has never been Reich’s goal for MinutePhysics. Similar to channels like CGP Grey, Veritasium, or Vsauce, MinutePhysics is designed to provide information on a complex topic in a way that’s easier to understand.

“From the very beginning, my goals were twofold,” Reich explains. “One is to make the kind of videos I would want to watch; and then the second, to make science and physics accessible to people in ways that it wasn’t accessible otherwise.” In other words, he wanted his videos to be engaging and entertaining, while at the same time acting as primer of sorts on science that the average person would probably never hear about otherwise. It was about getting people interested, not about re-explaining something that people had probably already seen (and grown tired of) in high school.

Part of what makes this work is the passion that both he and other creators bring to their videos. It’s clear when you watch them that there is motive beyond building their subscriber count or making a viral hit. There is real excitement that comes through in the video because of the care with which they are produced. For Reich (and, as he explained, other channels I’ve mentioned here), this care is possible because the channels are each  run by a single person. The owner of the channel is in full control of their enterprise. As Reich puts it, when you have one person who understands every part of the process, “the entire vision for everything is contained in one person’s mind.” The old adage, “too many cooks spoil the broth,” comes to mind. Having one person who can envision what he wants to create and then realize that vision – without interference – allows him to make sure it meets his standards. This ensures that despite not having a team of animators, editors, and videographers, the quality stays high and the content stays interesting.

Image Courtesy of Henry Reich

In MinutePhysics specifically, Reich also set a goal for himself: explain science accessibly, but don’t simplify the details. In his explanations of physics, Reich always tries his best to strip away the technical jargon that isn’t always necessary and leave behind the key elements, the “core essence,” as he puts it, of what is going on. This isn’t always easy.

“Sometimes,” he says, “it is the case where I’ve been excited about a particular topic…and I haven’t yet figured out a way of explaining.” The way Reich describes it, he stores this information in the back of his mind until one day – could be six months or a year down the road – he is able to figure out how to best explain the issue. Part of his excitement comes from this discovery, from being able to share something complex in the perfect way so that it’s not so complex anymore.

Once again, it comes down to passion. MinutePhysics, and other popular channels like it, all draw some of their success from the passion of the people behind the camera and the enthusiasm that they bring to their videos.

“There are a whole range of topics that people are interested in or always ask questions about, or that people have misconceptions about,” Reich says. “And I want to help address those misconceptions. But that’s still a passion, right? I’m passionate about addressing these misconceptions.

So far, it looks like he’s succeeded. MinutePhysics has garnered over 300 million total video views, and its sister channel, MinuteEarth, also has an impressive 100 million video views from its one and a half million subscribers. Though he attributes most of his success to the passion that he spoke so positively about, he also acknowledges how important the existence of YouTube is in helping him accomplish his mission.

“I think that it has been vastly impactful on getting people excited about science and math and learning, and just about the world and understanding,” he says. He likens what his and other YouTube channels are doing to what Bill Nye the Science Guy and Carl Sagan did in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

“I know for a fact there are, at this point, students who are in college or are going to college or have graduated college who decided to study physics, or math, or some other field because they watched these YouTube channels,” Reich tells me. “You are seeing more students going into fields…getting excited about these subject areas and wanting to study them, [who] pursue them more seriously as their vocation or their field of study because of the excitement and passion that they see online.”

For Henry Reich, MinutePhysics has always been about passion; the passion for making videos, for sharing what he knows, for correcting mistakes, and for learning more. What started out as a proof-of-concept ultimately became a deeply rewarding and fulfilling realization of a hobby, one that allows him to explore a variety of topics within physics without a set curriculum, instead following his interests.

“My goal is not to teach people how to do things,” he said, “but to paint them a picture of how things actually work, and what the world is really like.”

 

Images Courtesy of Henry Reich

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June 2, 2017
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