YouTube star Dr. Becky is my guest on this episode of INTO THE IMPOSSIBLE. On top of her popular and engaging videos about physics and astronomy, she does research at the University of Oxford and has written the new book “Space at the Speed of Light: The secrets of 14 billion years for people short on time.”
Becky’s enthusiasm about her research is undeniable and infectious. “I’m more overexcitable than elegant and eloquent,” she says. Nearly everyone is interested in some aspect of astrophysics, which Becky believes is due to the “pretty pictures” involved. She has the same aversion to the term “dumbing down” that I do and knows there’s a better way.
Explaining complicated science in a simple manner is a skill Dr. Becky has honed well. For her, a personal connection helps: she always considers whether her mom would understand. Though Becky was told by a teacher that it was bad to write the way she talked, this is the key to her approachability as a scientist, and thus the popularity of her videos.
I am so impressed with her book, which is called “Space: The 10 Things You Should Know” outside of the U.S. and Canada. It is a fun read and the content is easily digestible. I think Dr. Becky will spark a passion for astrophysics in a large and diverse group of people with this book.
“You can’t be what you can’t see” Sally Ride famously declared during her own journey to science communication greatness. As for Dr. Becky, she says, “Thankfully I was stubborn enough that I didn’t need to do that to become an astrophysicist. But I’m very aware that that is necessary for a lot of people.”
It’s important to Becky that her visibility as a scientist inspires the next generation. Girls and boys will see her being an astrophysicist and know there are women in the field. And hopefully also realize how much cool stuff there is left to learn and join us!
“I didn’t realize at the time that going into research meant you will still be learning for the rest of your life,” says Becky. “You’re not necessarily being taught anymore, you’re the one figuring out the answers. You’re literally writing the textbooks.”
Becky encourages critical thinking in all her viewers, though this has led to an interesting level of fan engagement. Her website includes a standard response to the FAQ “I have a theory about the Universe, will you read it?”
Perhaps it’s a sign of the times that Becky’s idea for an ethical will is one to get a dystopian world bereft of scientific knowledge back on track: by providing plans to build a telescope so discoveries could be made all over again “I don’t want to tell them stuff, I want them to figure it out themselves,” she says.
Or perhaps she was just pandering to her host. Either way, a fascinating addition to the rich and varied answers we’ve heard on the podcast. I am so pleased to have had this chat with Dr. Becky and hope to meet her in person someday soon.
Subscribe to Dr. Becky’s YouTube channel for engaging videos about physics and astronomy.
Please subscribe, rate, and review the INTO THE IMPOSSIBLE Podcast on iTunes for a chance to win a copy of Dr. Becky’s book: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/into-the-impossible/id1169885840?mt=2
Becky Smethurst is a Junior Research Fellow at University of Oxford, where she also earned her PhD. She studies galaxy quenching and supermassive black holes. Her YouTube channel Dr. Becky has over 150,000 subscribers.