Communicating Research to the Public through YouTube
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Nottingham
Unit of AssessmentPhysics
Summary Impact TypeCultural
Research Subject Area(s)
Physical Sciences: Astronomical and Space Sciences, Atomic, Molecular, Nuclear, Particle and Plasma Physics, Other Physical Sciences
Summary of the impact
In collaboration with film-maker Brady Haran we have developed the
YouTube channel Sixty Symbols to present topics related to
research in physics to the wider public. Since the 2009 launch of Sixty
Symbols we have posted 212 videos, which have amassed 21.2M views,
over 200k comments, over 266k subscribers and a content approval rating of
99.4%, placing Sixty Symbols in the top 0.01% of all YouTube
channels. The success of Sixty Symbols led to commissions from
Google and STFC for the launch of additional science-focused YouTube
channels, and to the formation of the company Periodic Videos Ltd
by Brady Haran (2011). Quantitative evidence gathered by management
consultants, O'Herlihy & Co, demonstrates Sixty Symbols'
global reach, and significant impact on the attitudes, scientific
understanding and career aspirations of its audience. Overall the impact
has been on society, culture and creativity through the promotion of
public engagement and discourse on science and engineering, and through
educational use in schools.
The primary motivation within the School for the establishment of Sixty
Symbols was to provide a new vehicle for the dissemination of our
research using social media, specifically YouTube videos, in order to
reach a much wider audience (demographically and geographically) than is
possible using conventional approaches to outreach.
Videos have now been delivered by 15 different researchers, including
academic staff, postdoctoral research assistants (PDRA) and PhD students,
who span all of the research groups within the School:
Astronomy: Almaini, Gray, Merrifield, Bauer (PDRA)
Cold Atoms & Quantum Optics: Kr03cbger
Condensed Matter Theory: Clewett (PhD/PDRA), Bowley
(Emeritus Professor), Fromhold
Experimental Condensed Matter and Nanoscience: Eaves, Hill,
Magnetic Resonance Imaging: Bowtell, Glover
Particle Theory: Copeland, Padilla
Accordingly, research across all areas within the School underpins Sixty
Symbols, and the videos derive their authority from the expertise of
the featured researchers. The topics covered in many of the early videos
provide the context for our research activities, and built an audience
through the release of videos tackling problems of topical interest and
scientific curiosities. This platform has subsequently been used to
introduce videos that focus upon specific results arising from research
within the School. In particular, videos focusing on specific research
outputs in the areas of nanoscience , galactic astronomy ,
magnetoscience , soft matter [4,5] and theoretical particle physics 
have been produced. To illustrate our approach, we describe below two
areas of research which have been successfully translated into series of Sixty
2.1 Scanning probe microscopy: In a series of papers dating back
to 1995, Moriarty has investigated the use of scanning probes to
manipulate and image single molecules and atoms on silicon surfaces. The
initial focus was on the use of a scanning tunnelling microscope (STM) to
position single C60 molecules on silicon surfaces at room
temperature. Following the purchase of a SRIF3-funded low temperature,
ultra-high vacuum atomic force microscope (AFM) in 2008, Moriarty
subsequently used AFM to toggle the state of Si dimers  and image
molecular orbitals of fullerene molecules (with support from EPSRC [i]).
This work has been translated to the Sixty Symbols project through
the initial posting of videos on background material in condensed matter
and surface physics: the video Gold Nanoparticles provides an
introduction to crystal structure, electron microscopy and nanoparticles;
Electrons introduces the wave nature of particles, including
electron diffraction from a silicon surface; Nano provides an
introduction to STM and nanoscience; Wave Function provides
background information on probability amplitude and describes the
molecular orbitals of C60; Vacuum Cannon introduces
vacuum technology. These videos contain many references to, and
explanations of, relevant experimental techniques and provide contextual
information for videos which focus on specific research outputs, such as
the AFM manipulation of Si atoms discussed in  and the video Atomic
Switch (manipulating a single atom).
2.2 Galactic Astronomy: Merrifield has been studying the
rates at which patterns rotate in galaxies since 1995, and this work has
resulted in 7 refereed publications to date, including , with support
from STFC [ii]. Measurements of this wave phenomenon have significant
implications for the way in which galaxies evolve and may even provide new
insight into the distribution of dark matter in galaxies. Merrifield
described many of the properties of galaxies in the videos Plus or
Minus (looking at the distance scale in the Milky Way), Redshift
(Milky Way merger with Andromeda), Dark Matter (looking at the
existence and distribution of dark matter in the Universe) and Milky
Way's Twin (spiral structure, etc. in a galaxy very like our own),
as well as in videos on the sister Deep Sky Videos channel (see
Section 4). This allowed us to present his recent work  on measuring
pattern speeds and their variation with radius in spiral galaxies, as well
as galaxy bar pattern speeds, in the video Spiral Galaxies.
In addition, we have released background videos related to cold atoms,
magnetic levitation, graphene, magnetic resonance imaging and
semiconductor physics which will provide the relevant background physics
for a further phase of videos focusing on specific research results.
References to the research
(*denotes paper which best highlights the quality of the research)
1) *A. Sweetman, S. Jarvis, R. Danza, J. Bamidele, S. Gangopadhyay,
G.A. Shaw, L. Kantorovich, P. Moriarty `Toggling Bistable Atoms
via Mechanical Switching of Bond Angle', Phys. Rev. Lett. 106,
136101 (2011). Listed in REF2; DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.106.136101
2) *S.E. Meidt, R.J. Rand, M.R. Merrifield `Uncovering the
Origins of Spiral Structure by Measuring Radial Variation in Pattern
Speeds', Astrophysical Journal 702, 277 (2009). Listed in
3) *R.J.A. Hill and L. Eaves, `Nonaxisymmetric Shapes of a
Magnetically Levitated and Spinning Water Droplet', Phys. Rev. Lett.
101, 234501 (2008). Listed in REF2; DOI:
4) K. Roeller, J.P.D. Clewett, R.M. Bowley, S. Herminghaus, M.R.
Swift, 'Liquid-Gas Phase Separation in Confined Vibrated Dry
Granular Matter', Phys. Rev. Lett. 107, 048002 (2011).
Listed in REF2; DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.107.048002
5) J.P.D. Clewett, K. Roeller, R.M. Bowley, S. Herminghaus, M.R.
Swift, `Emergent Surface Tension in Vibrated, Noncohesive
Granular Media', Phys. Rev. Lett. 109, 228002 (2012).
Listed in REF2; DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.109.228002
6) A. Avgoustidis, E.J. Copeland, A. Moss, L. Pogosian, A.
Pourtsidou, D.A. Steer, 'Constraints on the Fundamental String
Coupling from B-Mode Experiments', Phys. Rev. Lett. 107,
Listed in REF2; DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.107.121301
i. `Digital Matter: towards mechanised mechanosynthesis', PI:
Moriarty, EPSRC Leadership Fellowship EP/G007837/1, (Nov 2008 — Mar 2014),
ii. `Nottingham astronomy rolling grant', PI: Merrifield, STFC,
(Apr 2008 — Mar 2011), £1,846,070
Details of the impact
In 2007 the School started to collaborate with Brady Haran, then a
freelance BBC journalist, who had worked previously with the Nottingham
School of Chemistry on the production of short videos on the chemical
elements. This initiative arose from interest within the School to engage
with the wide and diverse audiences which can be accessed through new
forms of social media and mobile technology. Following the success of a
pilot phase in which several Physics-focused videos were featured on
Haran's Test Tube YouTube channel, which is aimed at a general
science audience, a decision was taken to launch the Sixty Symbols
YouTube channel (http://www.youtube.com/user/sixtysymbols)
and website (www.sixtysymbols.com),
devoted entirely to physics-related topics. This activity serves the
strategic aim of providing a route through which the public can become
engaged with our research.
Since its launch in February 2009, Sixty Symbols has amassed
21.2M views and 266k subscribers and there are now 212 freely-available
videos (all figures quoted are up to 31st July 2013), each of
which consists of a commentary on a particular scientific topic by a
researcher from the School. Sixty Symbols was designed to present
the workings of a research-led physics department in a manner that engages
the viewer by giving them a sense of membership through the development of
themes, familiar faces, and a common informal style. This feeling of
community is reflected by the rapid growth in the number of Sixty
Symbols' subscribers and the high proportion of returning viewers,
evidenced by large numbers of comments and channel subscriptions. Sixty
Symbols is now ranked within the top 0.01% of the tens of millions
of YouTube channels by number of views. For comparison, the viewing
statistics for Sixty Symbols compare favourably with the highly
acclaimed CERNTV, the YouTube channel of CERN, a major
international organisation which attracts wide media interest: CERNTV
has attracted 3.3M views and 36k subscribers to 179 uploaded videos since
its launch in 2007.
The Sixty Symbols videos and viewing figures (31st July
2013) related to the topics discussed in detail under the research section
on scanning probe microscopy (Section 2.1) are: Gold Nanoparticles
(72,627), Electrons (74,842), Nano (41,082), Wavefunction
(111,012), Vacuum Cannon (87,785), and Atomic Switch
(49,608). Those related to Galactic Astronomy (Section 2.2) are Plus
or Minus (54,451), Milky Way's Twin (41,370), Redshift
(47,248), Dark Matter (142,422) and Spiral Galaxies
(52,040). The videos may be readily accessed through an internet search on
`Sixty Symbols Videoname' and the viewing figures confirm the
effectiveness of this dissemination route for our research.
To assess further the impact of the Sixty Symbols project, the
School commissioned an independent evaluation by management consultants
O'Herlihy & Co [A] which was completed in 2013. This report is used
extensively below to provide supporting statistics and analysis of
audience interaction with Sixty Symbols. The report is based on:
data extracted from viewing statistics, audience comments appended to each
video [B], social media conversations, newspaper reports, stakeholder
interviews, teaching resources, and a student survey. The report confirms
the viewing figures above and makes the following additional points,
- 99.4% positive feedback, quantified by viewers `liking' (positively
rating) the video content.
- Geographical analysis of viewer statistics shows that Sixty
Symbols reaches a global audience across all continents with a
particular concentration in Australia, North America and Europe.
- Prior to university study, 1st year undergraduates
reported that Sixty Symbols significantly raised their interest
in Physics (74%) and also raised their understanding of Physics (77%).
- The large number of comments (over 7000 for some videos) provides
clear evidence of debate between the public and the researchers
themselves (including 100s of direct emails). Scientific debates arising
from Sixty Symbols videos are often followed up through other
social media sites such as Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/sixtysymbols)
Sixty Symbols has been used as a formal educational resource,
positively referenced by numerous teachers' support networks including;
Times Educational Supplement (TES), the California Learning Resource
Network and the Northern Illinois University [A].
For a specific example of inclusion in core teaching material, see
reference [C] from a UK teacher in a secondary school who highlights the
importance of the link with research (in this case the topic of scanning
probe microscopy discussed in Section 2.1) in stating:
"....greatly enjoyed throughout our student population, around 130 at
A level studying for Physics. A key element of Sixty Symbols is the
symbiotic content of real research carried out with a physics
department, such as nanoscale microscopy, supported by discussion of the
The educational influence of Sixty Symbols has also steered other
organisations in their approach to outreach and investment in new media.
In 2010, STFC commissioned a series of videos under the title of Backstage
to present their facilities using an approach similar to the Sixty
Symbols format. The open call for an STFC contract to shoot these
videos was won by a consortium headed by Merrifield (£70.5k,
2010), with further support (£18k) in 2012. These videos have had over
0.5M views, and the Backstage Science channel has 24,000
subscribers. STFC have estimated that this channel has been used by 3,000
teachers [A; see page 19].
The success of Sixty Symbols in delivering videos of high quality
and with educational value has been recognised by the invitation to Merrifield
to speak at the BrainSTEM `unconference' on YouTube science held
at the Perimeter Institute in 2012. Recognition has also come from Google:
"Sixty Symbols provides quality educational content on YouTube. The
videos have theories in physics and astronomy put forth so passionately
by experts in the fields, they serve as a very effective way to
propagate this knowledge." Global Head of Education Partnerships,
In an initiative to raise the quality of content on YouTube, Google [E]
funded Brady Haran to establish several new YouTube channels including Numberphile
related to mathematics and, in collaboration with the astronomy
researchers in the School, Deep Sky Videos. These new channels,
which build directly on the success of the Sixty Symbols project,
have already attracted over 30M views and 400k subscribers. To support
this additional activity, Brady Haran has recently formed "Periodic
Videos Ltd" (2011), securing the future for this style of
disseminating scientific research. Haran himself [E] notes the importance
of the role of research in the success of the videos:
"I believe this "real life researcher" discussion is what makes Sixty
Symbols so successful. The people in these films are "the real deal" at
the cutting edge of research — and viewers respond to that!"
4.1 Comments and critical review by leading scientific communicators
Physics World [F]
"This is what online physics should look like.....professional but not
too slick...explained thoughtfully. The scientists skilfully avoid either
confusing or patronizing their audience".
Henry Reich, Perimeter Institute (producer of Minute Physics) [G]
"..Sixty Symbols is a particularly important channel because it shares
the real "on the ground" stories....increase public awareness and
understanding, but also to make science a more approachable and desirable
path for young students around the world."
Simon Singh (science writer) [H]
"Sixty Symbols is an excellent example of science engagement, reaching
large number so people (sic), using the internet in an effective manner,
and working within a modest budget. Others should pay attention and
learn from this model. With millions of videos viewed and over 100,000
comments, the project speaks for itself. Part of the reason for its
success is that the people behind Sixty Symbols regularly update with
fresh material, thus bringing cutting edge research direct to the
public. Perhaps the site's greatest achievement, after sheer volume of
traffic, is its ability to strike the right balance between serious
content and a flair for entertainment"
Comments uploaded by the audience reveal inspiration, and motivation to
study physics. The Word Cloud (right) summarising over 220k comments,
indicates the frequency of keywords. Specific comments [B] include:
"convinced me of studying physics at university"
"I want to be a physicist"
"inspiring me in the sciences"
"go back to school and finish my undergraduate in
Sources to corroborate the impact
A. Evaluation of the Sixty Symbols Video Series, O'Herlihy &
Co. Ltd. Management Consultants.
B. A sample of comments from the Sixty Symbols YouTube channel;
additional comments for each video may be accessed through the Sixty
Symbols YouTube channel.
C. Letter from a secondary school teacher at Queen Mary's College,
D. YouTube Partnerships Manager for Education, Europe, Middle East and
E. Letter from Brady Haran.
F. Physics world "Web life: Sixty Symbols", 2nd September
2009, (Institute of Physics).
G. Email from Henry Reich producer of Minute Physics.
H. Letter from independent science writer Simon Singh.