Three years ago Bob Stienen, at the time a Nikhef PhD student, started his YouTube channel where he playfully explains particle physics in great detail. In recent weeks, tens of thousands of new viewers have visited his channel. The number of subscribers continues to grow.
The videos Bob makes last around 15 minutes, but days, if not weeks, go into production. Bob: “Coming up with the subject, writing a first draft of a script, often rewriting it several times, making drawings, doing voice-overs, editing, making subtitles…. There’s quite a bit involved all in all.”
The stories Bob tells are supported by animations that he makes himself. “I knew I was putting pressure on myself by choosing an animation format; making the drawings and accompanying editing are the most time-consuming part of the whole process. The choice of that format was, nevertheless, very deliberate. Physics has the image of being incomprehensible and I wanted to show that on a conceptual level this is often not so bad. I didn’t just want to give that message explicitly (by saying it) and make it clear through the explanations I give, but also convey it implicitly through the chosen format. The look of the simple drawings, I think, does a good job of taking care of that.”
Bob has been Education Innovator Physics & Astronomy at Radboud University Nijmegen since September 2020, a role in which he supports lecturers in coming up with, developing and implementing new ideas for the Physics and Astronomy curriculum.
“I find it really cool to be able to be unabashedly enthusiastic about something and to be able to share knowledge with others, whether they are students or the wider public. For that reason, for example, I am also regularly at the open days of Radboud University to give trial lectures. The only problem with that form of outreach is that it only attracts people who are already interested; I won’t reach a new target group with it.”
When Bob started the channel, the idea was to “bring his story to his audience,” rather than waiting for the audience to come to his story. “Someone like Nikhef researcher Clara Nellist I find hugely inspiring for that reason: she brings her story to the audience on TikTok; an audience that might otherwise never have heard of CERN. For the longform content that sometimes needs in-depth explanation, YouTube felt like the best platform for me. Inspired by other channels, I thought “Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I’m just going to try it!”. So I’m not married to the format or to YouTube, but now that things are going so well with the channel I’m really curious to see where it goes!”
Bob explains that the success of a YouTube channel is largely determined by The Algorithm: the matchmaker that suggests videos for users to watch. So to be seen on the website you have to lie favourably in that algorithm, and in practice that simply means producing a lot of videos. “So for the short term that’s the plan. I made the most recent video (about the discovery of the Higgs) in such a way that I can easily reuse the drawn elements in it, so I hope that production will be a bit faster from now on. In any case, I will notice it soon, because I am now working on a simulation of rotation curves in galaxies and I hope to be able to put it online with a video on dark matter sometime in the next few months.”
“At the same time, I’m also looking beyond the channel, looking for further opportunities to spread physics. Am I going to follow Clara in her TikTok adventure? Do I move more toward a lecture series to really build substance? Do I still want to work with cameras to increase production speed? Above all, there are still a lot of questions at the moment, but I think it’s a good sign that they’re actually just energizing me.”
Also watch the PAPERCLIP video Nikhef did with Bob about his PhD thesis: