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May 10, 2021

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Think science is boring? Check out an online platform where it’s fun

He Shijie, a 22-year-old university student in Beijing who uploads science-related videos under the online name “He Tongxue,” recently interviewed Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook.

In the 20-minute video, Cook talked about innovation, work and life. The interview was another notch in He’s success as an uploader of short science videos, some reaching view counts of more than 25 million.

He is a senior at Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications. He now has a loyal following of more than 7 million on the short video platform Bilibili.

Compared with online courses, short videos imparting knowledge seem to appeal more to the generation born between 1996 and 2010.

Bilibili’s “Knowledge” section opened almost a year ago, merging its former “Science” section with other content covering subjects such as finance, history, law, art, campus study and careers.

In 2019, according to the platform, the number of people uploading knowledge material increased by 151 percent, and view counts surged 274 percent. An estimated 50 million or more netizens were watching the videos.

Among the most high-profile uploaders are Luo Xiang, a professor of law at China University of Political Science and Law, and Li Yongle, a high school math and physics teacher. Both find humorous ways to popularize their subjects.

Last year, a popular science online account called “Fun Stuff” was honored among the top 100 uploaders winning the annual Bilibili Power Up award. The account is run by a Shanghai couple — Tang Cheng, 30, and his wife Cai Chunlin, 28.

In 2013, when Tang was working on a PhD at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, he was sent to a small island to do some research on cloned monkeys. In his spare time, he wrote several articles that were published on Guokr, a leading popular science sharing platform.

By 2016, Tang had written more than 100 articles on popular science. He joined an association of similar writers and started providing several online classes for children.

After one class, a young student asked him what a cell is. The question made him stop and realize that popular science writers don’t often consider what their audiences already know and what they would like to know.

Tang and his wife came to realize that audio and images are more potent than long texts in popularizing science. In 2018, they began translating some foreign popular science videos and sharing them on Bilibili, including a series on ancient creatures that attracted over 700 followers to their account.

At that time, Bilibili had only a “Science and Technology” section, which was largely filled with pseudo-science videos. Tang estimated that less than 10 accounts in that section dealt with true science. He and his wife resolved to make their own original videos.

They spent two months on their first video, which looked at Anomalocaris, a bizarre underwater predator that lived half a billion years ago. They found the process costly and frustrating, almost causing them to give up on original videos.

In 2019, their flagging enthusiasm got a boost when Bilibili announced a competition that would provide a three-month VIP service to winning uploaders. The couple resumed work on the Anomalocaris video, using cartoons and pictures to bring the ancient creature to life.

The video, once completed and posted, was viewed more than 90,000 times within 24 hours. In less than a month, the couple made another two original videos, garnering over 100,000 followers in just a few days.

“Some foreign popular science videos may be a bit dull to younger students because they essentially feature a person giving a lecture on stage,” Cai told Shanghai Daily. “But Tang’s style of talking is humorous, engaging and entertaining.”

Indeed, the videos were catching on. One 6-year-old girl who watched the couple’s video on Trilobites, one of the earliest-known group of arthropods, even wrote about the creatures in a school essay.

“The video is one of the latest methods to popularize science,” Tang said. “Maybe someday we can add technology tools like virtual reality glasses.”

Cai said the more true science comes out in videos, the less the public will be suckered into believing pseudo-science. She said online viewers always should be skeptical about the sources of information.

Many people who upload material to Bilibili’s “Knowledge” section are part-time contributors.

Yang Fan, who has dreams of becoming an award-winning film director, is one of them. In his leisure time, he makes videos about chemistry and has about 342,000 followers on his account called Zhenfengwujiutian.

Yang said he has been interested in chemistry since middle school. He was studying at the Beijing Film Academy when he decided to film interesting chemical experiments.

His first video “Crazy Chemistry,” uploaded on a domestic community website, proved popular, and many netizens encouraged him to make a second film.

The second one, uploaded to Bilibili in 2013, rose to the platform’s front page in eight hours.

Then in cooperation with China Association for Science and Technology and, Yang decided to embark on a video series based on chemistry experiments. It was called “Daily Experiments of Chemillusionist.”


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