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Physics Girl

A YouTube frame grab shows Physics Girl explaining mass density. 

An expert on asking questions made the case for curiosity Monday at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with the help of a tennis ball, a bouncy ball, a PowerPoint featuring lots of cats -- and a lot of enthusiasm.

Physics Girl, the YouTube phenomenon and physicist also known as Dianna Cowern, told a group of students curiosity helped turn a hobby into a career making science videos.

“Were it not for being interested in so many things I would never have started on YouTube,” she said. “For me it was a way to combine all these things I’m interested in ... so that’s what curiosity can do for you.”

Cowern was the keynote speaker for UNL’s second Science Slam, a campuswide contest for graduate and undergraduate researchers from all scientific disciplines to communicate their work in short, dynamic and engaging presentations.

Inspired by slam poetry contests, Science Slam encourages cross-disciplinary collaboration and explaining research in ways that will engage non-scientists -- or scientists outside that particular discipline, said Jocelyn Bosley, assistant director for education and outreach in the UNL department of physics and astronomy.

Like slam poetry contests, the audience gets involved -- yelling encouragement, throwing teddy bears and voting for the winner.

The philosophy of the Science Slam mirrors Physics Girl, who said she’s been asking questions since she was born.

Instead of sleeping as a young girl, she pondered: Does microwave radiation leak out? What would happen if you stuck a golf ball on top of a bouncy ball on top of a basketball and dropped it?

She demonstrated the latter question for students, in which the bigger ball transfers its momentum to the smaller ball on top so that the smaller ball shoots high in the air, while the bigger ball barely gets off the ground.

She loves the science of it, but mostly she likes showing people how the little ball on top flies high.

“What I like is just getting people excited about science,” she said.

Cowern, who grew up in Hawaii and earned her undergraduate degree in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2011, makes 32 YouTube videos a year for PBS.

Before that, she did astrophysics research at Harvard, then designed iPad apps as a software engineer at GE. From there, she became an educator at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center and a physics outreach coordinator at the University of California San Diego.

Some luck and hard work turned the YouTube videos into a career.

“Luck is underscored by working hard and putting yourself in places where the luck can happen,” she said.

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Curiosity, she said, opens all sorts of doors -- it helps people connect, it boosts achievement, it sparks learning.

Her advice for staying curious: pursue lots of interests, get excited, share and teach.

Asking one question, she said, leads to lots of other learning. Her interest in physics -- and answering the questions that popped into her head -- meant she eventually had to learn lots of other skills to produce her videos: film editing, writing scripts, using animation.

Your excitement, she said, will encourage others, and teaching others is a way to share that excitement --– and learn more yourself.

One question she's often asked: how does she come up with ideas for her videos?

Well, they just happen. Like the time she was sharing a hamburger with her boyfriend and she remembered a kid in fourth grade who made a cloud come out of his mouth.

She couldn’t forget the memory, investigated the science and came up with a video that’s gotten 3 million views.

“They’re random,” she said. “Like how does a cat decide who it’s gonna love?

"It’s random.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist.

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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