Dianna Cowern is the creator and host of the viral web series “Physics Girl”, sponsored by PBS Digital Studios. The channel has over 1.6 Million subscribers and her videos have received 120 Million views. The Physics Girl YouTube channel is a super entertaining resource and platform for physics experiments and discussions about all things physics.
In 2019, Dianna was named to FORBES 30 under 30 list. Before Physics Girl, She graduated from MIT, studied as a post-baccalaureate research fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and then worked at GE as a Software Engineer designing mobile apps.
Dianna is a very sought-after science communication personality and YouTube Educator, as well as an in-demand speaker who is an expert on physics, STEM, the future of education, and presenting via online media platforms. Her fans range from kids to some of the biggest CEOs and leaders on the planet who all love Dianna because either they or their kids are hooked on her YouTube Channel! She has been featured in Forbes, Science Magazine, Popular Science, Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, Space.com, NBC, Vogue, HuffPost, and many more.
In this conversation, Chris and Dianna discuss her story, her upcoming projects, education today, what is exciting and inspiring to her about STEM, and she even demonstrates a couple of really cool physics experiments that we can all do at home!
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Physics Girl Dianna Cowern (Includes Two At Home Experiments!) – Virtually Speaking
Joining me is Dianna Cowern, creator and host of the viral Physics Girl web series sponsored by PBS Digital Studios. The channel has over 1.6 million subscribers and her videos at this point have received over 100 million views. The Physics Girl YouTube channel is a super entertaining resource and platform for physics experiments and discussions about all things physics. In 2019, Dianna was named to Forbes 30 Under 30 list. Before Physics Girl, she graduated from MIT and studied as a Postbaccalaureate Research Fellow at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. She worked at GE as a Software Engineer designing mobile apps.
Dianna is a very sought-after science communication personality and YouTube educator, as well as an in-demand speaker who is an expert on STEM, the future of education, and virtual online media. Her fans range from kids to some of the biggest CEOs and leaders on the planet who all love her because either they or their kids are hooked on her YouTube channel. She’s been featured in Forbes, Science Magazine, Popular Science, Washington Post, US News & World Report, NBC, Vogue, and many more. Please join me with the awesome Physics Girl, Dianna Cowern. Thank you for joining me on the show. How the heck are you doing?
Chris, I’m doing pretty good. I’m smacked in the middle of five million projects, but it’s good to take a minute and take a breath.
You are a hard worker and you are always working on stuff. I know that during this new world we live in, you’ve been even busier than ever.
I was supposed to be on tour for a couple of months. I was supposed to be going on tour with a rock band and opening for them with a science show over May and June of 2021, but for obvious reasons, that got canceled, and then lots of other online projects on my education projects swooped in. We’ve been doing that pivoting towards some new interesting different education projects.
I didn’t say Physics Girl, to begin with. I said your name because I don’t want to say, “Hi, Physics Girl.” When you’re walking down the street, do you have people who sometimes say, “Physics Girl?”
Sometimes, but for the most part, if I get recognized it’s usually, “Are you on YouTube?” or “Are you Physics Girl?” Some people will know my full name. Once in New Orleans, a drunk guy on the street was like, “Science Girl.”
Tell me about what you’re most excited about. You do this incredible show. You’re headed towards two million subscribers. You have tens and tens of millions of views on your show, which is quite impressive and amazing. You love doing the experiments and the projects on each episode of your show and that’s awesome. You’ve had a lot of great feedback. Forbes calls you one of their Top 30 Under 30.
I snuck in. I was 29.5 at the time.
I remember that. You hadn’t quite hit 30, but they were like, “We better give this to her now because we can’t next year.”
Thank you, Forbes. I was their Forbes 30 barely under 30.
For education, they have to say subtopics.
They have mostly teachers in the education space doing Ed Tech like Innovative Educational Technology. Every once in a while they’ll have an education media person doing different types of online education projects. That was what I was included in for the Physics Girl YouTube channel.
In a lot of ways, you are a teacher, even though you decided to start your own school, classes and platform. You’ve been something that’s a place where kids and adults can go on YouTube, which is great for education, learning, growing and improving yourself.
I would say this channel is not aimed at kids. If you look at some of the titles like Why Is the Universe Flat, which talks about cosmology. There’s one about quantum encryption. There are also experiments at home that you can do with your kids. We have a wide range for different audience. I know it’s called Physics Girl. It seems it’s made for kids, but we do a broad spectrum of my interests, which range from childish to adult interest. That’s why it ends up like that.
I know personally that there are some CEOs, founders and presidents of large corporations and organizations whose own kids are huge fans of yours. They want to come to your show or they become fans because their kids are watching this thing. They love the fact that their kids are watching something educational rather than watching somebody play a video game.
That has happened a number of times. I met one of the founders of Google that way because his kids watched Physics Girl, which was cool. We were going to have him on, answering some physics riddles, which I like to do with science-curious adults. We had the founder of 23andMe and the CEO of YouTube answering riddles. That’s a fun way to bring in heads of companies and the corporate world into the science and physics world, answering these brain teasers and riddles.
What are you excited about now? Are you working on some new projects and shows maybe?Brainteaser questions are a great way to start lessons. Click To Tweet
I’m excited to keep the regular Physics Girl videos going. We always think of that as the main focus of what we do. It’s me and then a small team. I have an editor and a videographer, the same person, Levi. I have a production assistant, a social media manager, which is Hope, and then an operations manager that you know, Laura. It’s just a small little team, mostly working from home. The four of us focus on the YouTube channel, but we are mainly focused on another project now, which will be announced by the time this goes out. That is a Physics 101 series. It’s going to be tied to the AP Physics curriculum because we figured most students in the US who take physics will take AP Physics.
That’s above my pay grade. That’s an area I never even sniffed.
The AP stands for Advanced Placement. We didn’t even have AP at the time.
What does AP stand for? It’s not for me. I know that.
The course is aligned with that curriculum, but it is going to be aimed at whoever wants to take a course who wants to know about like if you take physics, what do you learn in the first few lessons? You learn something about motion, energy, electricity, magnetism, orbiting, gravity and things like that. This is going to be twenty lessons. This is going to take us probably through the end of 2021, full-time working on the course. I’m excited about that. We have a whole new set for it. We’ve got some fluffy clouds with LEDs and equations hanging from the ceiling. I’m excited about that course. That’s taking up the majority of our time now.
In that discussion of the new show, you’re doing experiments and some more examples of science in action.
We’ll have some at the intro. There will often be either an experiment or a brain teaser. I always love those brain teaser question to get the lessons started. I noticed I have this Band-Aid that’s so bright. I went mountain biking and gravity got me. I’m slowly working on healing that.
That’s a great Band-Aid. My kids would love that because it’s big, bright and it’s not going to come off.
It was great in person, but on the camera, it picks up like I’m wearing a fluorescent orange strip.
I thought you were going to do something. I saw it earlier and I was like, “She’s going to do something for an experiment.”
It could be me, but they could make a Band-Aid where you close your hand and lasers shoot out, but it’s not what this is. This was from a mountain biking accident. Where are we? I got distracted by my own Band-Aid.
You’re talking about your new show and that you’re going to do experiments on it for your YouTube.
At the beginning of these lessons, there’s going to be the experiments like the ping pong cannon that we’ve made a video about, which is a large tube that fires a ping pong ball at over 500 miles an hour and filming that. We smashed it into cans and an iPhone when we made the Physics Girl video. Now for this Physics 101 series, which we haven’t named yet. I better figure that out by the time we announce it. Physics by Dianna, I don’t know. We’re figuring it out. For that one, we’ll probably shoot the ping pong ball at a watermelon or something. It’s going to be explosive. We’ll have those experiments at the beginning. There’s going to be a lot more worked problems because it does go into equations in a way that I don’t typically do on my YouTube channel.
YouTube is doing that with you and you’re going to have two shows.
In the learning course, we probably won’t be doing many of the at-home experiments. That’s what I’ve been doing a lot on the YouTube channel. Everybody’s in lockdown. Teachers and parents are stuck at home with their kids. We’ve been focusing a lot more on these at-home experiments that kids can do at home and try them on, which I have on my table.
You want to have some experiments right there.
If you want to do a little experiment here, I’ve got a couple, but we can start with one.
I would not have you do it at the same time because that would be confusing.
This is also with the one that you can do at home. Although you have to be careful with this one. This one’s a little teabag, the cheaper the better for this experiment. If you cut off the top so that it becomes two bags opened up to this little tube and dump it out. I’m dumping it into a little plastic container. You end up with a little sock. We’re going to light that on fire. Be careful and don’t do this at home without adult supervision. Don’t do it near anything flammable. I’m going to light the top of the teabag and we’ll see what happens. It lifts off. That’s a little teabag rocket. What’s left is some ash that rains down from the sky. As soon as it burns down, it gets light. All that hot air is rising like a hot air balloon that sweeps up the little leftover teabag ash up into the air. You can light a bunch of them at once and get the best teabag rockets. It’s a fun little one. That’s a cool one that parents and teachers can do to show hot air rising because you don’t expect it. It’s all burning down. You’re wondering what’s going to happen when it lifts up off the ground, which is fun.
That is cool and so easy to do.
Let me do the next one. For this one, you would have to purchase either an ultraviolet light or a violet laser. This is a violet-colored laser, which is pretty uncommon, but I found this one on Amazon. It’s a laser pointer. Don’t let kids use this. We put a lot of these warnings on our video. Don’t point it at your eyes. At this point, people know how to use laser pointers. Chris, I’m going to shine it through these two glasses of liquid. What do you think is in them? If there were kids or even teachers, I’d be having them guess and have them raise their hands. Since it’s you here, you’re my subject. What do you think is in these?
I’m going to guess that it’s not water since you asked me what it is. That would be the obvious one. I’m going to say vinegar.
That’s a good guess. This one smells a little sweet. If you were here, this one doesn’t smell like anything. You’d be able to smell it and smell this. It smells a little sweet. Does that change your answer?
I wouldn’t expect you to know what this random clear liquid is. I’m going to shine my violet laser into the glass over here. We’ll call this glass A and you can see there are some reflections off of the side of the glass. You can see the line a little bit through the glass, but not much. When I shine it through this glass B, you can see a super bright blue line on that one and I can even get some cool little reflections going on inside the glass on my laser. I’ve got another little ultraviolet flashlight that does the same thing. This is on, but shining in the water you see almost nothing. Shining it into the other glass of mystery liquid. You see this super bright blue glow.
Is it gasoline?
It’s not gasoline. It’s a common ingredient in cocktails.
It’s tonic water.
It was a type of water.
It’s old and flat, but I also did that on purpose. I shook it up so there are no more bubbles in it. It’s not to know which one’s water and not. There’s an ingredient in tonic water called quinine. Have you ever seen anything glow under a black light? If you go into a club or something like that and your shirt glows under black. You can see white paper glows pretty bright under black light. Quinine does the same thing. If you shine an ultraviolet light or a violet-colored laser, it’ll glow blue. You get this cool fluorescence. That’s a fun one to do at home if you have a black light and you’ve got some tonic water.
How does somebody find that out? Is it by accident or is it a known thing?
I would suspect something like that came from going to a club and bringing your drink and noticing that certain things will glow.
That would be a cool thing to have as the black light, and then the bartender making these glowing drinks.
They do that. If I can shine the laser through both of them, you’ll see the line shows clearly.
The one on the left is water.Being asked what you want to be when you grow up is a frustrating question if you have no idea what you’re passionate about. Click To Tweet
This is water.
The orange looks cool along with the whole thing. Can you shine the laser on the orange Band-Aid and see what happens?
Here’s the black light. If you were here, you would see that is incredibly bright.
It looks like it’s on fire. That’s incredible.
It looks like it’s glowing.
I knew that the Band-Aid was going to be a part of the experiment.
If you have a black light, it’s fun to go around the house. That tape fluoresces brightly. There’s a bunch of other plastic that fluoresce. That’s a fun thing for kids to go around the house and check what fluoresces, which means that it glows when you shine a black light on it.
Is that the same type of thing you can bring in to a hotel room with you and shine it all over to see if everything’s clean?
Precisely, it’s a black light.
That’s maybe some stuff we don’t want.
I don’t know if you can see that, but there’s a little fuzz on my fingers that fluoresce. You can check your hands for fluorescent chemicals and fuzz.
Thank you for that. That was cool. I’m going to do all of that with my kids.
They’re the perfect age for that. I wouldn’t give them the lighter, but they would love the teabag rockets off the table. You got to do that one.
That’s why the cheap ones work because you don’t want to waste all your money on good tea.
Also, the more expensive ones have a lighter bag and it doesn’t work.
You went to MIT.
I did, years ago.
I’m bringing you back a little bit.
Bringing me back to college. Every once in a while, I still get mistaken for a college student, which is incredibly flattering. I went to MIT. I started there in 2007, graduated in 2011 and I studied Physics.
I would hope you studied physics there or all of this is a sham.
Although I did do my focus in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. A little-known fact, I worked as a programmer for a few years after I graduated because I had that background in coding. I recommend to any students reading, take some coding classes, it’s going to give you great job prospects.
You can start young with coding.
With the Ed Tech, some fascinating new programs teach coding like little blocks and chunks of logic rather than, “Here’s the text in a box,” and you don’t understand what the syntax means and all these little caret things that look like a messy mishmash of symbols. They’ve got some cool coding classes for kids starting at age four, Chris.
We’ll see what we can do about that. They might like that. I’ll let you know.
It’s a lot of fun. There are some cool tools.
You came out of MIT. Most of your friends who went to school with you at MIT, what are they doing now?
There’s no one thing that any of them are doing.
What are some of the things they’re doing, generally speaking?
Here are some of the coolest projects my friends have worked on. One of my friends has made all the technology for a Grammy Award Winning jazz musician. He makes these digital instruments for Jacob Collier, who’s an incredible jazz musician. Another one of my friends works as a materials researcher trying to make new materials with new thermal properties for paint coatings for airplanes. She’s an amazing PhD chemist and physicist. Another few friends work on robotics and work on pieces of designing technology at Apple. Some of them work in investment banking. They’re all over the place. One of my best friends is an infectious disease epidemiologist. They’ve gone all different directions and then some of them are taking time off and living in vans and driving around the country.
I know the story a little bit, but you didn’t know exactly what you wanted to do. You loved STEM, Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics. You said to yourself, “I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I’m going to start putting some content online.” Is that what you said to yourself back in the day, just for fun? Is that what happens?
Thinking back to being in high school or being in middle school, every parent or teacher asks little kids like, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I know they mean well. I ask that to kids myself but it’s such a frustrating question if you have no idea or if you don’t have one thing that you’re focused on or your passion for life. How are you supposed to know that when you’re a kid. I graduated from school and I had this degree in Physics and I was like, “I don’t think I want to be a physics teacher, but I don’t think I want to go on and do research.” Although I did think that for a while. I did some astrophysics research and I was studying the oldest stars in the universe for a while. That’s what maybe I’d go on and be an astrophysicist, but I didn’t want to take the GREs in physics so I didn’t go to grad school. That’s the reason why I didn’t go to grad school is I was over it with the exams. This is a total aside, but now they’re finding that the GRE scores are not at all related to how well you do, and they’re starting to cut them, so they could have had me.
You love that fact. It’s a good thing that that happened because otherwise, we wouldn’t have Physics Girl.
The world needed some Physics Girl. I always had a real fascination for video, film and media as a storytelling medium. I started making little videos when I was in high school. I had videos of crabs at the beach. I grew up in Hawaii. It was not as weird. They’re little crabs throwing sand and stuff, and put that to music to tell a little silly stories. I also loved science and science communication. I was inspired by Neil deGrasse Tyson in high school. I watched this incredible DVD series that he made about space when DVDs were still a thing. I was combining my love for video with my love for science communication which eventually led to making videos. YouTube was the obvious choice at the time around 2012 when I uploaded my first videos. It slowly progressed and grew. I started to find other educational YouTubers, which is now a term. It’s a thing. Educational YouTubers are people who do this as a living.
Thank God that’s a term because we need educational YouTubers rather than crap YouTubers.
There are all kinds of cool and interesting YouTubers that travel, teach, cook, craft and stuff. There are also some craps on YouTube, no doubt about it. I started uploading them and the channel slowly grew until eventually, it was big enough to maintain an audience and start to make a little bit of money. At that point, PBS and I started to talk and they eventually signed my channel, and I became under the umbrella of PBS Digital Studios networks. They’d been the sponsor of the channel for years now.
What a great channel it is. You can go and watch all kinds of incredible content. One of my favorites is the interview and episode you had with Rodney Mullen.There are people out there who love science. People are not just passionate about music and arts. People are also passionate about science. Click To Tweet
That is by far my favorite. Anytime anyone asks, I always say it’s hard to pick your favorite child but I have no problem with it. I picked my favorite child and it’s the Rodney Mullen video. I love that one.
It’s so short. It goes by like that. I love that in the comments section, people were like, “You could have done 20 minutes, 30 minutes, an hour.” We need to have a part two at some point. We’ll have to talk about that.
We need to have a part two. What’s funny is that was one of the longer videos we had made at the time. It was me and my editor working part-time. Jabril Ashe was my editor at the time who now has his own channel about software engineering and AI. He’s doing amazing stuff, but at the time I still had him and it was the two of us working on it. To make that long of a video with pulling together the high-speed footage with some high-speed camera guys to capture, and the interview section and the animations, which we commissioned from another animator. All these pieces take a long time. We try to stay on a schedule at the time. We were trying to do a video every 1 to 2 weeks, and now we’re down to every three weeks because it’s a lot to keep up with when you’re making 10 to 15-minute videos.
I know it was different when you first started. You were doing it to have fun and you thought it would be cool to put stuff out there that you love, and you love this.
It’s to show people that there are people out there who love science. It’s not just people who are passionate about music and art. It’s also science that people are passionate about. That was the goal initially.
In this world, which has gone in your favor very much virtually online as far as where everything is now. I would imagine that for somebody like you who was already living in that world, that not only a lot of opportunities have opened up for you, but the opportunity for your love of science and engineering and all of the things that you’re all about. There’s an opportunity for more people to get involved, find out about it and learn. Also, for you to say, “I told you, this is a great medium for teaching or inspiring or learning.” Do you think that because of COVID some things have changed in the world that are to everyone’s benefit?
There’s a little silver lining to all of this. For sure it has changed the projects we’ve worked on and our workflow, which was maybe more than a little frustrating at the beginning of all this. I used to film at home by myself in my room, but going back to that after a few years of getting to film in a studio with a cameraman is so frustrating. It’s like taking a step back. We have a lot of interesting projects that have popped up. I’ll walk through a couple of them quickly. We got a series of videos funded by TikTok. TikTok has a push for educational online videos. We’re doing science videos for them.
We worked with a big corporate client. This isn’t live yet so I can’t mention who it is, but a big corporate client came in to commission this, choose your own adventure science app. For example, if we’re doing this experiment with the two different liquids, it’d be like, “Do you think that it’s water or cooking oil?” They’d click on which one they think it is. It would go to the next piece. We worked on production for that and they sent this whole mesh of equipment to my house. We set up a big orange backdrop. We had two cameras, all the lighting and sound equipment that they walked us through, setting up here in the room, and then a ten-person crew over video directing us.
That was interesting to see how corporate clients are navigating the online at home world. We’re doing the online course and regular videos. You’re starting to see a lot more teachers go online and make their own online content, but also look for other online videos when they can’t do experiments in the classroom. That’s been cool to get a lot more letters from teachers than normal saying, “Thank you for your videos. You guys have given us something else to start the lesson with to spark curiosity in the kids when they can’t do the labs and the experiments at home.” That’s been cool to see.
It seems like the future of education is now at warp speed, whereas homeschooling before used to be these different families and people who would even consider doing that. Now it’s almost like, “Do we even need classrooms? How do kids learn now?” Looking at this, so often we need to bring it through there for homework and even maybe the classroom. It seems like things are changing at a very fast pace as far as what’s being accepted and what’s possible. What do you think the future holds?
This is such an interesting time. There was already a push for a lot of online learning, for flipping the classroom to do more of the instruction on video and then in class, do some of the hands-on experiments and word problems and things like that in person. That method works quite well because when you are doing experiments and word problems, and you’re working through them then you get stuck, that’s where you need the instruction. You can listen to someone lecture at home in your own time. It’s exciting that technology is starting and it was forced to catch up to the various needs of students by forcing everyone to be at home for a while and forcing teachers to teach from their homes.
I will always maintain that teachers in classrooms are invaluable and that one-on-one interaction with kids is invaluable. Maybe it’s possible that teaching online is making it easier for more teachers to interface with students if they have to be in a different location than the students. There is something hard about seeing these teachers having to teach from home and change their curriculum when there’s already a lot of stress on them. I’m hoping that maybe technology will help pick up where the online virtual teaching environment is making it harder for teachers.
This world is changing so fast and we’re all having to deal with it the best we can. It’s amazing to watch how everybody’s dealing with it from advertising campaigns to people are watching concerts and learning at home, and how even Saturday Night Live and other shows are being filmed in people’s homes. They’re starting to maybe creep back into the studios and we’ll see what happens, but it’s a very interesting time.
It has made it a lot easier. Every once in a while, when I have some time, I’ll go visit a classroom in San Diego and bring some experiments and talk to the kids, which have been hard to find the time to do. Now that it’s online, I’ve had more opportunity to drop in as a guest to some random classrooms around the country and be able to do some experiments with them and talk to them. It’s a unique and cool opportunity to have guest speakers and a variety of voices come to talk to these students online.
You have more access to people who maybe you wouldn’t have had access to or thought of having access to or adding to your world. They’re probably more available than they used to be as well because they’re at home.
Although now that we’re diving into this Physics 101 course, I’m out of commission for classroom visits for probably four months.
You always find new and creative ways to do what you do and to bring what you love to the world. Thank you for doing that and for being an inspiration to not only kids but also teachers. I know I’ve had a lot of teachers say, “We love what she’s doing. She teaches us how to do it. Our kids want to learn more now because they saw her show online.” People who want to know more about physics and science, no matter what their age is, you’re there for them. You’re so fun, funny and likable. Every episode is something that’s not a waste of time and it goes by like that. You’re like, “It’s over. That was cool.” You’re doing an amazing job. Thank you again for inspiring everyone. Thanks for coming on to my show. I know you’ve got to get back to filming.
We’re going to record the next lesson. It’s a constant here. Thank you so much for having me, Chris.
It’s my pleasure. Thank you. I will talk to you soon and stay safe.
Stay safe. Take care of yourself.
What’s that people say, happy Physicsing?
Thanks so much, Dianna.
Thank you, Chris.
About Dianna Cowern
Dianna Cowern is the creator and host of the viral and PBS sponsored “Physics Girl” web series with over 1.7 Million Subscribers, which is a resource for fun physics videos and other materials about physics and topics related to physics. Her videos have 120 million views. Her show has featured well known figures including the legendary Rodney Mullen, Bill Nye, and Anne Wojcicki – founder of 23 and me. In 2019, Dianna was named to the FORBES 30 under 30 list.
Dianna researched dark matter with Prof. Jocelyn Monroe as an undergraduate at MIT, and low-metallicity stars with Prof. Anna Frebel as a post-baccalaureate research fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, before bringing her happy intern pants to GE where she worked as a Software Engineer designing mobile apps.
Dianna is sought after as a science communication expert as well as an in-demand speaker talking about the future of education and how to better relate to students using various medias. Dianna says: “I just love that physics can explain the world, and the weird intricacies of it, and the weird quirks of our universe.” Some of the biggest CEOs and leaders on the planet are fans of Dianna because their children are hooked on her educational YouTube Channel! She has been featured in FORBES, Science Magazine, Popular Science, Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, Space.com, NBC, Vogue, HuffPost, Nerdist, and many more.
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