The Web's new viral star

Millions of viewers are tuning in for science-related YouTube videos like one that gives a tour of the Large Hadron Super Collider and clips of little-seen giant sea creatures.

Astronaut Karen Nyberg washes her hair in zero gravity on the International Space Station.

While the term “viral video” may bring to mind clips of sneezing baby pandas or teens doing the Harlem Shake, millions of viewers are proving they have a taste for the weird and wacky world of science. Perhaps it’s the result of a generation raised on “Bill Nye the Science Guy” and “MythBusters,” but virtual tours of the Large Hadron Super Collider near Geneva, high-speed photography exposing the laws of physics, and clips of elusive giant sea creatures are driving a lot of YouTube traffic these days.

Last spring and summer, nearly 2 million viewers logged on to NASA’s YouTube channel to learn how astronaut Karen Nyberg washes her hair in zero gravity while living on the International Space Station (see photo). Another 2 million subscribers regularly tune in to AsapSCIENCE’s explanations of such questions as “Can plants think?” and “What if you stopped sleeping?” Some 20 million viewers – nearly the number of NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” viewers – watch Vsauce, the “gee, whiz” science videos created by Internet personality Michael Stevens each month.

The availability of inexpensive, high-quality, digital video tools has brought scientists and their work out of seclusion and into the public sphere. The result: Science and other educational videos have become so popular on YouTube that they are giving cat videos a run for their money.

These explainer vignettes, directed toward our inner geeks, offer up science content in a digestible form “without losing the wonder,” says Crystal Nurazura Hall, an aspiring inventor at a technology cooperative in Pittsburgh and a self-professed science video nerd.

Of course, the level of educational value delivered through digital video content varies greatly and their “otherworldly” wow factors can make viewers vulnerable to a scam if they aren’t invited to think for themselves. Remember the viral photos of the “giant squid” that washed ashore in California from the direction of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant? They were a hoax. Or the 2012 video of a neodymium magnet falling slowly through a copper pipe (1.2 million YouTube views)? It was a visual delight that taught nothing about the scientific rules it demonstrated. But that may not be such a bad thing.

“People who see that video and experience a sense of wonder might be inspired to actually look [deeper into the subject],” says Ms. Nurazura Hall. That’s the beauty of quick videos that capture the layperson’s interest, she says. “It’s like choose your own adventure.”

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