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Currently there are an enormous number of free videos relating to physics on the web. One can, for example, find sites that feature physics lectures, as well as videos of physics demonstrations and simulations. The latter two collections are often useful for teaching, particularly if they involve simulations of systems for which live demos are not possible, or footage of live demos that are difficult or expensive to carry out. As one measure of the prevalence of physics videos on the popular site YouTube, a search for the keyword physics gave 14300 hits - almost as many as a search on the keywords "Barak Obama" or "Lady Gaga," for whom one video had 160 million views. It is difficult to know how reliable the physics figure is, since many of the most widely viewed videos with this keyword actually have little to do with physics, and conversely many videos that appear using other physics-related search terms, such as energy or astronomy, are perhaps not included in those 14 300. (The top-viewed physics video "Large Hadron Rap," with nearly 6 million views, describes the physics being pursued at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN to the tune of an engaging rap song.) One useful resource for sorting through the videos most relevant to teaching is the monthly "YouTube Physics" column in The Physics Teacher journal which highlights different videos each month. Our narrower focus here, however, is on how web videos can serve as a recruiting tool, their value relative to other recruiting vehicles, how they can be made inexpensively, and some tips on getting maximum visibility for your video.
Well done physics-related videos can stimulate student interest in physics and be a recruiting tool in that sense, but what about their value as a recruiting tool for individual departments? Traditionally, many academic departments have relied on printed flyers, and many still do, judging from the number that continues to pour into my own department each week. Since we at George Mason have long ago run out of wall space to post these expensively produced flyers, most of them wind up in a drawer somewhere, and may even get thrown out. Although virtually all departments now have their own web sites, a departmental video posted on YouTube can make a nice addition. Unlike flyers, for which departments have no idea how many eyeballs actually see them, with YouTube videos one not only can see the day-by-day numbers of viewers, but also the viewer’s demographics (age and sex) and their country of origin.
The most interesting data supplied is what YouTube calls "hot spots." The hot spot data is a graph that shows the ups-and-downs of viewership at each moment in the video, compared to videos of similar length. Thus, the higher the graph, the "hotter" your video, i.e., fewer viewers are leaving your video and they may also be rewinding to watch that point in the video again. Audience attention is an overall measure of your video’s ability to retain its audience. While few physics recruiting videos are likely to "go viral," they can receive considerable attention if done well, and they are entertaining and compelling enough for people to want to pass around. To "go viral" implies that word spreads exponentially like a virus because most viewers like it so much they each tell their friends about it. What are the properties for a video to have this potential? Humor certainly is a big plus, as is brevity, surprise, and avoidance of blatant advertising.
Given the relative advantages of using videos for recruiting, it is surprising that so few physics departments use them, which I attribute to lack of knowledge of how they can be made at very little expense, and perhaps academic stodginess. I was able to find only six of them on YouTube, with just three at U.S. schools: Utah Valley, West Virginia, and Northeastern Universities. Recently, I created the concept for a video for our department, and contracted to have it made using the services of a professional narrator and a professional animation company (AFX Animation) based in India. Today this process can be very easily done by posting one’s job on web sites such as E-lance, and allowing people and companies worldwide to bid on the project. In our case, the cost of the animation, the narration, and all the editing was well under $500, which is less than we would have paid to produce 500 copies of an attractive flyer. The video starts out fairly conventionally, and the shocker comes about halfway through, when miniature aliens land on a pizza being served to a visiting group of students and their parents - see a still frame from the video below. It remains to be seen how much attention our video will ultimately receive, but it was viewed 200 times during its first three days on YouTube.
After analyzing YouTube’s "hot spot" data for our video I learned that many viewers tuned out after 15 - 20 seconds of what seemed to be a fairly conventional sales pitch, and they never got to the cute alien animation part about 2 minutes in! I therefore posted a second shorter version on YouTube so as to lure a greater number of viewers, in the hope that with the shocker coming early on, the video had the potential of "going viral." (Both versions can be easily found by searching YouTube for the keywords "George Mason" and "physics.") Just think - with 200 views in the first 3 days, if we can only manage to increase that by a factor of a million we will have exceeded the number of views of the top "Lady Gaga" video. Following Al Bartlett’s well-known lesson about exponential growth (one of the top physics-related videos on YouTube), that’s a "mere" 20 doublings - so if you tell two friends about it, and they tell two friends, that needs to happen only 18 more times!
Robert Ehrlich is a professor of physics at George Mason University.