Creator Voices: Joe Hanson
Oct 11, 2022 – minute read
Joe Hanson, Ph.D., is a science writer, biologist, host, video producer, and educator. He has made it his quest to explore ways that digital storytelling can help people think more deeply about the universe they live in. Joe is also the creator and host of “Be Smart,” an award-winning science education show from PBS Digital Studios that celebrates curiosity and the pleasure of finding things out. He recently shared some things he’s learned from his own YouTube journey.
There’s one thing people ask me more than anything else: “Was there a moment you remember that really got you into science?”
I really don’t like that question because that moment doesn’t exist for me. I’ve loved science since I was a little kid carrying around that uncontrollable little kid urge to ask “Why?” We’re all born with that urge toward curiosity. I’m just one of the lucky ones who never lost that urge or, worse, had it taken away by people telling me to stop asking questions.
My journey on YouTube over the past nine years has been focused on helping people get back in touch with that feeling, or better yet, to help them never lose it in the first place.
My journey on YouTube over the past nine years has been focused on helping people get back in touch with that feeling, or better yet, to help them never lose it in the first place.”
So how do we as creators get people to rediscover, as the great physicist and science communicator Richard Feynman put it, the “pleasure of finding things out”? It’s easier said than done. There’s an infinite deluge of other content out there competing for people’s attention. My greatest task as an educational creator is not merely to teach people things. It’s to help them develop tools to wade into that sea of what is knowable and sift out what is actually worth knowing. And all the while, the content I make has to be accurate, valuable, and entertaining.
Do you want to achieve those goals too? Here’s a few lessons I’ve learned from being a creator (and from Feynman).
Feynman credited his father for showing him the joy of learning. His dad would read encyclopedias for fun. He was full of facts, like the name of a local bird in six different languages. But what did he know about the bird? Feynman realized there was a difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.
As an educational creator, I can’t focus simply on teaching people things. They’ll only end up knowing exactly what I have time to tell them, and no more. This is often why people say that science doesn’t excite them in traditional school settings, where the focus is often on just telling people what they need to know. When we learn by merely memorizing stuff, rather than by understanding things, our knowledge is fragile.
I’ve learned that the best educational YouTube videos instead ask the viewer to learn with you. Very often when I set out to make a video, I know most of what I’ll cover. I’ve done extensive research, I’ve read books and research papers. But when I turn on the camera to tell a story or talk to a scientist, I recreate my own process of learning. I ask questions, and I use the answers to lead me to new questions, even if I often already know the answer. Because when the audience learns with me, they learn more than just the facts. Instead, they experience many moments of personal discovery along the way. If I succeed, I’ve nudged them to peek over the hedge and discover more on their own.
You might think that what we know and what we believe are more or less the same thing. But it turns out we often believe what we believe for reasons that have more to do with who we are (or who we think we are) than what we know.
This means it’s difficult, if not impossible, to change someone’s mind or update their beliefs using facts alone. This can present enormous challenges for educational creators, especially when we’re dealing with controversial or politically-charged topics. Thankfully, there’s a secret weapon you can use to make it easier.
Make people feel wonder.
As creators, we do this by showing how scientists know what they know, and leaning into the emotions they felt during the process of discovery – by showing off the scale of the universe big and small, or the spectacle of “Big Science Machines.” We shouldn’t shy away from using emotion in science stories, especially difficult ones, because science is a human endeavor. Among emotions, wonder can be a great unifier because it’s universal.
I believe science is the greatest tool humans have ever come up with to keep us from fooling ourselves. Changing someone’s mind doesn’t always happen painlessly, but wonder makes it easier.
I remember watching a video of an old interview with Richard Feynman. He isn’t explaining quantum mechanics or the mathematics behind nuclear physics, or anything you might expect from a Nobel Prize winner. He is wondering how magnets work and why rubber bands are stretchy.
One of Feynman’s other great lessons for creators: 'Nearly everything is interesting if you go into it deeply enough.'”
It turns out these kinds of questions lead to deeply mysterious and interesting places. They demonstrate one of Feynman’s other great lessons for creators: “Nearly everything is interesting if you go into it deeply enough.”
One of my favorite things to do as an educational YouTuber is to start with a complex or difficult concept, and work my journey backwards until I end up with a simple question as the entry point. Simple questions are not dumb questions… they are universal questions. They provide a starting point into a learning pathway which anyone can access, regardless of their age, education, or experience. And they can lead you to some surprising places. How deep? That’s up to you, and how far you want to go. But in asking simple questions, we can help the largest possible number of people begin the journey. Start with the color of a butterfly, for instance, and you may end up at biological nanotechnology and optical physics.
Most importantly, it’s these simple things that help us navigate the world every day with more wonder and curiosity, knowing a bit better how we fit into it. I want my viewers to end up as more than just keepers of facts. I want to give them the tools they need to go out and understand anything they want to understand. When we experience the “pleasure of finding things out” together, I know my viewers will go out and continue to chase that feeling on their own.