What’s Cool about Science? Ask Physics Girl
MIT Technology Review
When Dianna Cowern ’11 graduated, she was unsure of her next step—so unsure that she made a video about it entitled “What to do with a physics degree…” Her initial idea for starting a YouTube channel was to try 101 things she hadn’t had time to do while earning that degree. Somehow, the project ended up bringing her right back to physics.
“In my third video, I decided to do a demonstration about surface tension,” says Cowern, who completed a Harvard fellowship in astrophysics in 2011 and then moved to San Diego. There she worked first as a GE software engineer and then in some local science outreach roles at UC San Diego and the Fleet Science Center. Meanwhile, her online series gained momentum. As she recalls, “Random people watched it and commented, ‘You should keep doing this.’”
“I have always been curious and asked a lot of questions. Now I get to explore those things as part of my job.”
She began focusing on creating videos that demonstrated the applications of physics in everyday life. The hobby slowly morphed into Physics Girl, a science education channel that now has more than a million subscribers and is supported by PBS. Cowern has made more than 130 videos—garnering nearly 80 million views—on topics including what weightlessness feels like, how to make a cloud in your mouth, and whether she can break a wine glass using her voice.
“I get to learn something new and go really in depth every time I make a video,” says Cowern, who was named to the 2019 Forbes 30 Under 30 list. “I have always been curious and asked a lot of questions. Now I get to explore those things as part of my job.”
Not only has Cowern had the opportunity to do fun experiments, but her channel has enabled her to work with and create videos with Bill Nye the Science Guy, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, and professional skateboarder Tony Hawk.
The best part, says Cowern, is viewer feedback: “I’ll get YouTube comments and e-mails that say things like ‘My daughter started having these science sleepovers with her friends because you inspired her to be okay with being interested in science.’ Or ‘I love watching your videos with my daughter before bedtime; thank you for what you do.’ That’s the coolest thing, knowing that it’s inspired them to play with science for themselves.”
She adds, “I like being able to use my platform and feature underrepresented people in science, like women or other minorities, and being able to encourage girls to go into science or even just try some science experiments to see if they like it.”
As for what’s next for Physics Girl, Cowern says she is still figuring it out as she goes, but she hopes it will involve even more ways to inspire kids to love physics. She realizes that topics like black holes and dark matter may not be the most age-appropriate—although many kids follow her anyway—and she plans to be more intentional about creating content that draws in grade-school viewers. “I would love to someday have or be working on a science show aimed at younger kids. I think that’s something we’re really missing. Bill Nye or Mr. Wizard—there used to be all these shows aimed at getting kids interested in science, and I’d like to reignite that trend,” she says. She’d also like to start a new trend in science shows. “None of them had a female host,” she says. “That’s something I’d like to address.”
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 issue of MIT News magazine, published by MIT Technology Review.