Title: Michael “Vsauce” Stevens on Why do we ask questions? – Transcript
Speaker: Michael Stevens – YouTube educator
Venue: TEDxVienna conference on November 2, 2013 at Volkstheater Wien, Vienna, Austria.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: MP3 – Why do we ask questions by Michael Vsauce Stevens at TEDxVienna
What is the best kind of cheese to use to catch a bear? Someone knows over here. Obviously the answer is Camembert. Camembert! Camembert!
Okay. Thank you. I have a head full of cheese puns but I was told I have to keep it brief.
What did the piece of cheese say when it looked into the mirror?
No. It said, hello me, hello me. What can I say guys I love a good pun? Why, I don’t know because puns are funny, right?
Why? Well, because there’s a bit of a surprise factor. You know, you feel outsmarted for a second until you get the double meaning.
Why? I don’t — because that’s the way language works.
Okay. I did what these slides are doing. They are playing the why game, right, where you just keep asking why, why but why after everything someone says. Kids do it all of the time and adults should do it more often. I’m just kidding. Don’t, it’s annoying.
You can ask why over and over and over again forever even if one day we explain every physical interaction and scientific law and hope and dream and regret with a single elegant equation. You could still ask why. Why that equation? Why doesn’t the universe operate with some different equation? So, yes, the why game is irritating, it’s annoying and it’s what I do for a living.
Every week for the past few years I have researched a big question, a funny why question. I’ve researched the science, the mathematics, recent theories behind all kinds of things. I do this on my YouTube channel Vsauce.
So Vsauce in the last couple of years has grown phenomenally. It’s hard to believe. I now am doing more than 30 million views every single month with five and a half subscribers growing more than 10,000 new subscribers every day. It’s awesome, I love it. And I get to ask some pretty ridiculous questions. For instance, is anything real? Come on. How can 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.
So some examples of other questions I’ve asked: How much does a shadow weigh? What does it mean to ask a question like that? What is a shadow? What color is the mirror? In answering this question you can explain a lot about specular reflection, the physics of light. This one of my favorites: Why are things creepy? Yeah.
So I often go into psychology, that’s more where my background is in but a question I have yet to answer hopefully someone out there knows — please tell me why is this called your bottom if it’s technically in the middle of your body? It’s ridiculous but it’s a really good question.
I ask questions all the time but today, this is my question: Why do we ask questions? Seriously, I mean what’s the point, who cares why things are creepy. They just are. Who cares why this is called my bottom, it’s gross, don’t do that anymore, right?
Questions. How do I get people to care about these questions, especially people who think that learning is boring? Well, I like to believe that the limits of what you can be interested in are unlimited. And this is my story.
I began making YouTube videos about six years ago. But only recently did I start making explanatory videos and I have no idea what took me so long. I have been explaining things my entire life except usually I did it alone out loud. I talk to myself when I’m alone, like all the time. If you snuck up on me when I didn’t think anyone was around, you would overhear me explaining the most mundane stuff. It’s kind of weird maybe. Okay, it’s really weird but for me it is a great way for me to know that I kind of know more about what I’m talking about if I can verbally explain it. As Albert Einstein said, if you can’t explain it simply you don’t understand it well enough.
Now when I was a teenager, I discovered a competitive speaking program and one of the events was informative speaking where you literally got to write a speech explaining something to judges and then you were given points and medals if you were good enough.
My very first informative speech ever was about ketchup. The history of ketchup, the etymology of the name, its legal status, the physics of its viscosity and how it flowed. It was super nerdy stuff but at my very very first public speaking tournament, I took first place. Hey! Look at that guy.
So some of the hairs here moved down here but other than that, I am the same guy. Seriously, still doing the same thing. To be at that tournament, and to see the expression on someone’s face win, they suddenly understand and are fascinated by something in the same way that you are is a phenomenal feeling. And I’ve learned two things from this. First of all, people love a good explanation. I mean they hunt them down. Even people who say they hate learning and that they hate books and all that stuff, 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.
Richard Feynman called the pleasure of finding things out a kick in the discovery. And I agree but I think there might be a little bit more to that. Let’s get rid of this picture of me. Okay. So we want to express ourselves. Everyone wants to express themselves. They do this through the music they listen to, the clothing they wear, the way they act but they also do it with knowledge, the things they know about the stuff they like, their interests, their hobbies.
I’ve noticed that the most operative motive behind someone sharing one of my videos, promoting me by word of mouth isn’t so much about me as it is about them. Hey, look what I found. I like this. I am like this. Whenever you share a video, whenever you share anything, a few of the attributes of that thing reflect back on to you.
So I’ve found that one of the best ways to gain attentive listeners is not to be who you think your audience wants you to be but instead to say and make and show things that allow your audience or your students to be who they want to be.
I once discussed in a video why the sky is blue. And backstage when I was sort of going through what I wanted to talk about, I ran into this girl, that seriously actually happened backstage go finder. I said, “Do you know why the sky is blue?” And she said, “I think I used to know but like it didn’t really matter.” Exactly, exactly, and I knew that was going to be a problem. It turns out that the sky is blue because of the way light scatters in our atmosphere. It’s called Rayleigh scattering. And light of shorter wavelengths scatters more, so greens, blues and violets. That’s why when you look at the sky away from the sun, you see this beautiful sky blue. It’s all of those shorter wavelengths combining. And when you look directly at the sun which you shouldn’t do very often — don’t do it ever — you see the longer wavelengths which are surviving that scattering. That’s why the Sun looks yellow during the day. Of course, when the sun’s light needs to travel through a whole lot of air to get to your eyeball, a lot of scattering occurs and only really really long wavelengths make it all the way there directly from the sun, which is why it looks orange or sometimes red at sunrise, or sunset.
Now I think that’s really cool, but obviously some people, including someone backstage right now, don’t or maybe they kind of already know it or, you know, could probably figure out if they thought about it. So what do you do — I’m trying to collect the largest audience possible that I can I want to appeal to and attract as many people as possible. So what I do is I camp out with the subject, in this case, Rayleigh scattering. I learn as much about it as I can. What else is it responsible for? Who is it named after? Who did he love? Whatever I can find that could become a great hook to bring in just the right person.
So in this case, I read about Rayleigh scattering and I realized — I didn’t realize I learned — that blue eyes or blue for the exact same reason — blue eyes do not have blue pigment in them. So we heard that was real. Blue eyes don’t have blue pigment in them anymore than the air has blue pigment in it. If you were to rip out my iris, I would be like ouch, but then if you grounded up into a fine powder it wouldn’t be blue anymore, it would be sort of a dole brownish blackish color. Instead blue eyes are blue because at a microscopic level their texture scatters light just like the air in our atmosphere scatters the sun’s light to make the sky blue. Maybe you already know why the sky is blue, maybe you don’t care but maybe you will be fascinated by something like this, and this is why my episodes often seem to go all over the place. It’s not just because I’m crazy, it’s also because I want to have as many hooks out as possible to catch as many people and make them interested.
I once did a video about rainbows. And I thought some people might think rainbows are lame. Mmm, I’ll teach about rainbows. What other types of bows are there? Well, like windstream like a knot is a bow, a knot, why do headphones always get tied up in knots? So I researched the mathematics behind this. It’s fascinating. I’ll spare you all of the details. Also, this will allow you to go check out my videos and give me many many views rather than just one.
In the 1950s, Harold Edgerton took a series of amazing pictures of nuclear explosions. This is the detonation, just milliseconds after happening with an exposure time of 1 billionth of a second. You can see the energy of this plasma ball, the energy of the explosion is vaporizing the metal wires holding up the tower, that’s where these glowing spindly legs come from. His work attracted wider and new interest to physical phenomenon simply because he featured something that people couldn’t help but want to look at, a moment you couldn’t witness alone. He famously said the trick to education is to teach in such a way that people only find out they’re learning when it’s too late. Works for me.
So recently I took on the most difficult question ever but also the most requested — how do I know that the colors I see are the same to you? Okay. How do I know that when I look at something red, you don’t look at the same thing and see what I would call green but you call it red because that’s what we’ve always heard and we both agree and go on our separate lives never knowing just how different our perceptions were. There is no such thing as a stupid question but there are questions that make us feel stupid. And this is one of them because there is no way for me to crawl inside someone else’s mind to see the world as they see it. I thought it might be frustrating to my viewers that there really wasn’t a good answer, I couldn’t finish this once and for all.
So I started looking more generally into questions. And the more I read about them and their history, the more I realized that questions might be quite unique to humans, apes that have been taught to use sign language can communicate with us. They can answer complex questions. They can convey novel thoughts and they can express their emotions. But an ape who knows sign language has never been observed to ask a question. Soliciting information from an organism belies this assumption that other organisms in some way have access to information that you don’t that they have different unique intentions or desires. It’s often called the theory of mind and it is incredibly difficult to show that animals have such a thing. But of course we intuitively feel that we do.
Chimpanzees are clever but they fail a pretty simple seeming test, deciding who to go to, to get food that has been hidden in a room. A person who was literally in the room and saw where the food was hidden or a person who was also in the room but he’s had a bucket on their head all day. So whether or not animals have the capacity to ask questions is still being debated but after reading all of this, I realized that questions are very special. We ask them because it’s fun. Learning things is a fun experience. It’s what Feynman called a kick in the discovery. We also ask questions because learning things allows us to explore what we like and to show off what we know about it, to show who we are.
But we also ask questions because we can, because perhaps uniquely here on earth we know that other people can help. And that’s a great reason to ask more and more questions, to celebrate more and more whys. We all want to be kicked in the discovery. It feels great but we don’t all have a discovery in the same place. Taking the time to find where someone’s discovery is so you can give them a kick there isn’t just about whys, it’s also a very wise thing to do. And as always, thanks for watching.