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Vsauce: Exploring Our Amazing World One Awesome Video at a Time
By Erik Jones
This is the second in a series of posts about learning on YouTube. Check out the first post here.
Will we ever run out of new music? What if the Earth stopped spinning? Or what would happen if the Sun disappeared? These are the types of questions your ten year old self annoyingly asked adults, or that you still secretly Google while procrastinating on some big project. They are the big, fun questions you really are curious about but only bring up to friends after too many beers at 3 am. They are also the questions that are difficult to find satisfying in depth answers to.
Luckily for us former annoying ten year olds and philosophical drunks, there is a wonderful YouTube channel that specializes in exploring these very types of questions.
Vsauce is a collection of amazing and wide ranging video essays on topics you always wondered about or had no idea you wanted to know. Vsauce creator Michael Stevens is a master at turning fun sounding videos into deep learning experiences that use the science of the natural world, the peculiarities of language, and the nuance of human behavior to help explore concepts. As he said in one of his TED talks, "The point is to bring people in with a great question, make them curious, and once they’re there, accidentally teach them a whole bunch of things about the universe."
Well, in my binge watching of his videos, I can say Stevens certainly accidentally taught me a whole bunch of stuff. He has a sly way of veering off on unexpected educational tangents while somehow keeping it cohesive and interesting throughout. For example, the video "Did the Past Really Happen" starts as a discussion on what we can actually know for sure, but suddenly turns into a secret lesson on entropy. You never know where a video will lead you, which is part of Vsauce's charm and why you can't always predict the content by the title alone. You'll just have to watch them all.
So let's jump into some context around what Vsauce is all about and where to start to get hooked.
VSAUCE IN CONTEXT
The name Vsauce was literally created on fakenamegenerator.com, so it has no inherent meaning except what people associate with the content. But in reality, it's the main condiment in a YouTube learning sandwich.
Lots of people dig the broad curiosity of Vsauce. Each video easily gets millions of views within a week of being released and over 20 videos have 8 million+. The channel overall has close to a billion views.
Vsauce has evolved over the years from a channel focusing on video game culture into the explainer of things channel it is today. Stevens has also slowed down his output in order to focus on quality over quantity. Check out this video showing Stevens walk you through his surprising early videos that are political, juvenile, and hilariously completely opposite of what you would expect given the seriousness of his recent content.
Stevens isn’t really a true expert in most of the topics he discusses, but is fantastic at researching and synthesizing what is out there and serving it up to the audience in delicious ways. He’s basically a professional explainer, which is a dream job for a curious person who likes to share cool things.
The videos are mostly Stevens talking directly to the camera, with occasional graphic cut ins. The odd pop into frame he does is simply because he does his own camera work and has to turn on the camera himself. Embrace it because it's in all the videos.
Every video has links in the description to all the research used in the video and are amazing curated lists of interesting things in their own right. They are not to be missed.
WHERE TO START
Like I said, every video might take you places where you wouldn't expect, but there are definitely some broad categories they can fall into. Here are links to playlists directly from the Vsauce page that helpfully breakdown some of these categories: Knowledge, Human Behavior, Culture, Language, Space, Earth, Perception, Art, Technology, and Physics. There are tons of videos in those playlists, so I'll filter it down to the below list that should give you a great feel for the channel overall. I also put them into this playlist that will autoplay one after another.
One of his most popular videos is a good place to start. A fine example of Stevens luring us in with a great question we've all had and then accidentally teaching us a whole bunch of amazing stuff.
This is a question I've literally thought. I was pleased that Stevens did not disappoint and really goes into the nitty gritty around everything you would hope for. Some great animations of people flying through the air is an added bonus.
Stevens explains the evolutionary biology involved with awkwardness and even breaks down a panic attack. The ending describing "sonder" and the Eleanor Roosevelt quote make this all in all one of my favorite videos and a prime example of how talented Stevens is at tying in interconnected ideas to teach you something that will stick.
An interesting question that opens the door to all sorts of fun concepts. Learn the difference between zero gravity and zero-g and why taking an elevator to the height of the International Space Station will not make you weightless.
Ah, another question I have actually searched many times to mixed results. What I really wanted to know is what the speed of gravity was. Like, if the Sun blew up, would we feel the effects gravitationally speaking before we actually saw it blow up? Well, this video finally completely answered this question for me in addition to tons of other fascinating stuff about the fate of the Earth in this apocalyptic nightmare scenario.
If you've listened to top 20 radio over the past decade, you already know the answer is YES. But not so fast, in true Vsauce fashion, you'll get lots of surprising angles and ways to think about the topic that leaves you with a giant, much more interesting, NO.
Paranoia of the juvenile, aka, "what is wrong with kids these days"? This is a meme that is pervasive on Facebook or anywhere else that people of a certain age like to complain about the next generations. The Vsauce treatment of this topic is one of the most interesting and reasonable arguments I've heard.
Worth it just to learn about Last Thursdayism and Newton's Flaming Lazer Sword. Two things I try to shoehorn into as many conversations as possible. And of course the secret lesson on entropy.
I've seen this question pop up a lot around the internet and I'm always curious to see if I can finally wrap my head even a little around Einstein's special theory of relativity. I had good faith Vsauce would do much more than simply answer the question, and indeed it used this question as a framework to discuss the weirdness of light speed as a larger discussion.
This video talks about Carl Sagan which is enough to make it one of my favorites. Even if I didn't fully understand it, the Library of Babel website mentioned towards the end absolutely blew my mind and is definitely worth checking out. Quote from my wife who was half watching the video with me that you'll appreciate after watching- "I don't get it, they just arranged the alphabet a bunch of different ways, seems pretty easy."
Some of the more recent videos have been getting longer and a little more math intense. This was pretty above my mental pay grade but I still found it fascinating. I wanted to include this because towards the end of this pretty dense video, Stevens asks what some might be thinking after such a highly theoretical discussion. "So what? Who cares?" His answer of "Neanderthals" is so out of nowhere but so brilliant. The explanation is something I will always remember when I encounter people annoyed at the sometimes pointless sounding questions math and science ask.
Another math heavy one but much more accessible than super tasks. Humans are simply terrible at putting large numbers into perspective and at intuitively knowing probabilities. This video addresses both in a highly entertaining way with a deck of cards. The explanation and visuals on how many combinations one deck of cards can be in is truly astonishing. This video had to be included in my recommendations because several people made a comment similar to "this video hurt my brain". That's what I'm talking about!
This is a show case of why the answers that Stevens puts together in his videos can be trusted. Before watching, try to do a quick mental run through of how you would answer this impossible question and all the "well what about THAT, huh!?" questions you think you would throw at him. Then watch the video and be impressed that it actually is a pretty solid argument and answer that covers all the possible ways to look at this.
Over the years, Stevens has slowly expanded his brand to include other channels under the Vsauce name. Vsauce2 is hosted by Kevin Lieber and does Vsauce style videos examining mind-blowing technology. Vsauce3 is hosted by Jake Roper and breaks down real world science that appears in fictional worlds. Both seem geared towards a younger crowd with a shorter attention span, but this highly satisfying Vsauce3 video titled "Could You Rip Out a Spine?" is a good example of why these channels are worth checking out.
WHY DO WE ASK QUESTIONS?
One of my favorite things I stumbled upon in my research was this TED talk Stevens gave called "Why Do We Ask Questions?". It's where I pulled the quote from for the into of this post. Definitely check it out but I wanted to provide a few more of my favorite quotes about learning. You also get a great sense of how he approaches his videos and why they are so successful.
“I get to ask some pretty ridiculous questions, like is anything real? C’mon, how could you possibly answer that? Well, that’s not really the point. The point is to bring people in with a great question, make them curious, and once they’re there, accidentally teach them a whole bunch of things about the universe."
And a summary of what his experience making these videos has taught him:
“And I’ve learned two things from this, first of all, people love a good explanation. They hunt them down. Even people who say they hate learning, and they hate books and all that stuff, pfff, they love explanations. Second of all, if you look closely enough, and you take the time, anything can be interesting to anyone, because everything is related in some way to something they care about."
After talking about some of his popular videos, he closes with a quote from Harold Edgerton.
"The trick to education is to teach in such a way that people only find out they're learning when it's too late."
AND AS ALWAYS, THANKS FOR READING
I first heard about Vsauce years ago and I truly wish I checked it out then instead of only two months ago. What an interesting and amazing channel Stevens has put together where literally anyone curious about the world can walk away with new answers and better questions. The internet is in desperate need of more quality synthesis of science and ideas and Vsauce is certainly doing it's part.
Please leave any thoughts or suggestions down in the comment section.
For a deeper dive into the background and personality of Stevens, check out the fantastic interview he gave to YouTube personalities Rhett and Link on their Ear Biscuits podcast. For more interesting podcasts, check out the Supersized Podcast Playlist.
Also check out the funny side of Stevens in this episode of The Not Too Deep with Grace Helbig podcast. For a super lengthy and sometimes awkward discussion, also check out his episode on the Joe Rogan Podcast.
One genius thing Stevens does within his playlists tab on the Vsauce YouTube page is something called a "leanback". Basically, he collects a bunch of really interesting YouTube videos on a topic and puts them in a playlist with his quick thoughts before each one. The idea is that all you have to do is lean back in your chair and he'll introduce the videos and everything will autoplay as you ingest some hand selected awesomeness. This first one is all about the scale of the universe and this second one is all about optical illusions. There are many more in the Vsauce playlist tab so check it out.
The video on the Vsauce channel that seemed to be the transition point into more in depth explanations of things is the July 2011 Biggest Explosions.