The Science of Fun: Charlie McDonnell on Youtube, Fun Science, and Carl Sagan

The Science of Fun: Charlie McDonnell on Youtube, Fun Science, and Carl Sagan

YouTube is an amazing place. You can learn how to make a steak dinner, solve a rubix cube, and comprehend the vast, unfathomable universe that we live in. What? Is that last one too intimidating? Not with Charlie McDonnell at the helm. McDonnell, an English vlogger, started his YouTube channel charlieissocoollike in 2007. The channel features original music, life advice, and a recurring series called Fun Science—where McDonnell, a passionate science lover, gives digestible information to his viewers about complex theories. The series was so popular, McDonnell wrote a book by the same name so that he could further explore the universe we live in. Here, we chat with McDonnell about Fun Science, existential crises, and why asteroids can no longer be named after pets.


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Bookish: If you were to actually become a scientist, what field would you study and why?

Charlie McDonnell: I’d want to study cosmology or astronomy. Those are fields I’m incredibly fascinated by. But I don’t feel like I’m quite smart enough to be a proper scientist, if I’m honest. I used to have a telescope, quite a cheap one, and I’d use it in the backyard. Being able to see outer space is incredible. It’s a reminder that the planets are real things out there in our solar system.

The first draft I did of the first chapter of the book, which is about the universe, was 20,000 words long. There was so much stuff I wanted to talk about. That got chopped in half. Things like my top ten favorite moons got removed. If I do get to do another Fun Science book, I’ll focus on space specifically.

Bookish: You make jokes about readers leaving their opinions in the YouTube comments section. But are there any ways that your channel helped you as a writer? Or ways that writing this book has influenced your channel?

CM: Being a YouTuber made me become a writer; so that’s a pretty big impact for sure. I didn’t really have any aspirations to write a book before I was approached by a publisher—who, like many others, had been approaching YouTubers to say, “You should write a book! You’ve got an audience.” Through the process though, I realized that writing fits my personality better than all of the creative pursuits I’ve tried before. So I 100% want to do more of it now.

As for my channel, I’ve made more videos because of the book. I’ve got a series of Fun Science videos coming out, but I’ve also posted about the process of writing the book and what it’s taught me.

Bookish: Which concept was the most challenging to write about in a way that was accessible to readers?

CM: I thought it was going to be string theory, but that ended up being much simpler. I consciously decided to not go too deeply into that and made it as simple as possible. The stuff about hidden dimensions was the most fun bit, so I focused on that.

It was really hard to figure out how to make the Earth science section interesting—just because of people’s preconceived notions about what geology is like. It can seem pretty boring, but I decided to just lean into that fear. Because of the structure of the book, I was going straight from space and the universe to rocks. I wanted to make it clear to readers that though it seems like things are going to get less interesting, I’ve still got good stuff to share.

Bookish: What’s your favorite scientific theory and why?

CM: This is a difficult one. It’s probably general relativity because I find the idea that gravity can affect time to be so fascinating. The notion is that the more gravity there is, the slower time flows. If you shoot a beam of light by a planet, you can see the light appear to slow down as it passes the planet. That sort of thing doesn’t make any sense, in terms of the context that we live in here on Earth. But it’s true. And then there’s the fact that even though gravity is the force that people think of most often, it’s actually one of the weakest forces in the universe.

Bookish: You share theories from a variety of different scientists in the book. Is there anyone you wanted to mention but didn’t find room for?

CM: Many people. I didn’t go too deep into Giovanni Domenico Cassini, who discovered the division in the rings around Saturn. I think in an earlier version of the book, I used him as a launchpad to talk about one of my favorite photos of Saturn, which comes from the Cassini spacecraft. The photo is like a Saturn eclipse. The sun is directly behind the planet and Saturn looks like it’s glowing.

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Bookish: If you could be lab partners with any scientist, living or dead, for the day, who would it be and what experiments would you conduct?

CM: It would be Carl Sagan, undoubtedly. I don’t know if I would want to do an experiment with him. I’d want to talk to him about life outside of our solar system, or even inside of it. He’s dead, so it would be nice to bring him back because he had this really deep love and passion for science. He was so great at communicating scientific ideas to people both inside and outside of the community.

Bookish: You wrote that the scariest scenario, when considering alien lifeforms, is that there aren’t any and we might be alone. To a lot of people, that sounds great. There’s no fear of imminent invasion. Why is that scary to you?

CM: I guess I just don’t want us to be alone. I would really like to live in a universe that has more to it than us. I think being a part of galactic society would be a good thing for the human race. We make so many divisions between each other, and to be able to communicate with an entirely different type of intelligence would really bring us together. Obviously, then we’d have problems dealing with the aliens, but I think those visions of humanity are quite beautiful. We are all humans; we have that in common.

Bookish: If you could name a galaxy, what would you call it?

CM: My instinct is that I want to name one after my cat. In 1971, an asteroid was named Mr. Spock after a cat. After that, the International Astronomical Union banned pet names for asteroids. So since I can’t name one of those after him, I’ll give Gideon his own galaxy. There are quite a lot of them. I’m sure that would be fine.

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Bookish: What scientific phenomenon blows your mind more than any other?

CM: There’s one that I still can’t quite comprehend which is that notion that atoms are made up of 99.999999% nothing and essentially it’s the force of them that makes them exist. By extension, I can’t get my head around the fact that humans are made up of nothing. Things like that just don’t fit into my perception of reality. It sounds obviously not true, but—as far as we know—it is. This idea makes humans seem very ethereal. We have these notions that we are individuals and that we’re steadfast in that. Science challenges all of that. Maybe it was stupid to call the book Fun Science. It should’ve been called Digestible Existential Crises.

Outer space is also awesome, in every sense of that word. The universe can blow your mind because you can’t believe something like it exists. But it’s alien, an “other.” You can get absorbed in the scale of the whole thing, but even that can make you feel terrible once you look at the scale of humanity in comparison.

Bookish: There are still a lot of mysteries in our universe and here on Earth, many of which you cover in your book. Have you developed any of your own theories about any of them?

CM: Some theories I think are more likely, such as the Fermi paradox. It’s the “where are the aliens?” question. It seems probable that aliens do exist, so where are they? My gut says that they probably just don’t think we’re very important. We haven’t made enough of a mark on our planet to be considered interesting enough to even pay attention to. But it’s hard to prove any of that until aliens actually come down and say, “Yeah, that’s why we didn’t pay attention to you back then. You were just some silly apes, weren’t you?”

I was asked recently about what kind of alien I’d want to meet. I said I’d want it to be an alien that is ever-so-slightly smarter than us. Smart enough to get to Earth, but not smart enough to be able to see us as lower beings and want to kill us.

Bookish: Of all of the quotes attributed to scientists in your book, which is your favorite?

CM: “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself,” from Carl Sagan. That is undoubtedly my favorite one. Sagan is saying that the universe is not an “other;” it is a thing that we are in right now and it is very much a part of us. It’s a much nicer way of looking at the whole thing, and makes you feel more connected to it.

He has a lot of good quotes. Another great one of his is his way of explaining the idea that all atoms are recycled: “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”

Bookish: If readers were to read one book about science, after yours of course, what would you recommend?

CM: I really love this book Bad Science by Ben Goldacre, which is about the scientific process itself and how it can be misused depending on what people’s agendas might be. It talks about the misconceptions people have about information that science has produced. It’s very easy to read one scientific paper and make conclusions about something. But that’s not how science works at all. It’s very slow and gradual. You need many, many papers to come to a consensus. But that’s not a good news story. I like that book a lot. It’s good if you want to see the bad side of science.

What I’m really liking at the moment isn’t a book at all; it’s a podcast called Science Vs. It takes on very controversial topics that people have strong opinions about and applies science to them. The host, Wendy Zukerman, tackles big things like gun control and attachment parenting—the kinds of topics that you would definitely have arguments about around the Thanksgiving table. I think the tone is quite similar to Fun Science. Zukerman is very engaging and makes you feel really informed.   

Bookish: You joke about writing a book called Fun Philosophy. Should readers expect another book from you in the future?

CM: In terms of the Fun books, I reckon I definitely want to stick to science.

The thing I’ve been mulling over recently is a book about internet celebrity culture written from an insider’s perspective. Traditional celebrities have managers to help them with the public. But video bloggers are self-made a lot of the time. They don’t always know how to separate their public personas from who they actually are. In fact, they want to communicate a more honest version of themselves and share that with their online community. This can be quite dangerous and result in a cycle where the person they are is affected by the person that their followers expect them to be. It can change the course of their lives, who they end up being. All of that is quite fascinating to me. I have no idea if that book will happen or if anyone will let me do it. But all of that is to say that as much as I want to write more science books, there’s lots of other stuff I want to do as well.

Charlie McDonnell began vlogging in 2007 under the handle charlieissocoollike and was the first vlogger to reach 1 million YouTube subscribers. Charlie now has 2.4 million YouTube subscribers and 690,000 Twitter followers. Charlie often attends VidCon and other US vlogger events.

Kelly Gallucci
Far too busy rereading the Harry Potter series, Kelly finds that her greatest literary sin is that she neglected to read classics like The Shining and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. In between overseeing the editorial content for Bookish, holding interviews with authors like Isaac Marion and Lauren Beukes, and creating book recommendations for Kanye West—Kelly’s trying to catch up on the books she missed out on. She just finished The Great Gatsby and might be in love with Fitzg. Kelly received her B.A. in English Writing from Marist College and her M.A. in Screenwriting from National University of Ireland, Galway.

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