James Dingley is a second year science student at UWA – Majoring in Mechanical Engineering and Finance. He runs Atomic Frontier – a science channel on Youtube that explores the exciting scientific projects around Western Australia, and the concepts behind them.
James dreams of working in space – as an engineer on Mars to be exact – but during high school he wondered something a lot of us do: is Perth just too boring to make your dreams come true?
“I always thought, Perth is really terrible, Western Australia doesn’t do any science, and my whole time during high school I was like ‘I need to get out of here!’”
When he decided to stay in Perth for university, he also decided to question this in the way he enjoyed most – making videos.
The more James investigated, the more he realised that WA has a lot going for it. His most recent video is on the Square Kilometre array, a radio astronomy project largely based in Western Australia. It’s a great example of one of the ways WA is well placed, large stretches of outback are some of the most radio-quiet locations in the world. However, the biggest thing that stood out to James was the people.
“I keep being surprised by how amazing Perth people are, whether it’s the researchers and scientists, or the people running the places you want to visit. They want to share this stuff with you.”
Location, Location, Location
When you watch James’s videos you’ll be struck by how much access he has to the interesting places and equipment involved. Recently he’s walked through the the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre to explain the cooling system, played the organ at St Georges Cathedral to explain the acoustics of bells, and showed us actual antennas from the Square Kilometre Array. He cites Tom Scott – the British Youtuber – as his key influence.
“He’ll actually go the location to explain it… and that’s really cool because you see the real thing going on… he goes, what is this thing, why is it interesting and why is it here? The thing I like to add onto that is what is the science of it?”
This makes his videos interesting for everyone, science nerds can geek out over the fascinating labs and gear, while everyone else can always get on board with interesting places in their home town. My big question was, how on earth does he manage to get into all of these places!? ‘Be interested and ask’ was his answer – people will either help you out, or pass you onto someone who can. With the Square Kilometre Array video he sent out about 5 different emails, and after a few pointers and suggestions he found someone who was able to loan him some equipment.
“Other times, you send an email, they don’t respond and you just show up at their office with a camera!”.
“Edit it as soon as you get the videos recorded”
For this interview I really wanted to pick James’ brain about making videos. Here’s a quick run down of the most interesting bits of wisdom.
We first discussed his process, which runs about 2 months per video. It usually starts with a core concept, many of which come from his job tutoring high school students – when he sees a concept like momentum, that can be hard for students to wrap their head around, it starts him thinking about different ways to explain it. For example, after a month thinking about momentum on buses into uni, investigating the lighthouses on Rottnest and reading papers about pulsars on Onesearch, a storyline emerged and he was ready to write and film an episode.
Over that two months, an enormous amount of work goes into the videos. “I did actually calculate this once, about a year ago- upwards 50 hours of dedicated work editing and writing… filming will take a day and the process before takes a month or so.” The best way he’s found to cut that down is abandoning the full script and replacing it with dot points, he also finds this helps make his presenting style more natural.
Editing is the part that he most enjoys, and he says making sure things are edited as soon as possible after they’re recorded is the best way to stay motived. Setting deadlines also helps him push himself, he aims to publish a new video at the start of each month.
When I asked we need to make Western Australian science better, he said there was one thing that kept coming up over and over again. “They need better government help with projects… scientists and researchers are concerned that the government won’t follow through with their promises.” He says that if the government doesn’t keep providing support, research will end up being done somewhere else. “We’re very good at mining engineering, but I think other projects going on here would be really beneficial.”
For my final big question I asked if he thought you had to be a good science communicator you had to be a good scientist, and he thought you did. “The more you’ve already learned, the easier it is.” He thinks that more scientists also need to be good science communicators. “I honestly think that there are many problems that could have been avoided if we had scientists, who as well as being brilliant scientists… had also put some focus on communicating their research. I think that’s really key, and people are catching onto that more. We have the whole antivaxxers, climate change – I don’t think these would be issues if the scientists involved had also focussed more… on communicating their work… If the researches discovering stuff are the ones explaining it, there’s less of a disconnect.”
While James is busy working on rockets on Mars, he also wants to keep making videos. But before then we’ll be seeing many more on earth. He’s just been at NASA’s Johnson space centre working on a video about heat shielding and conservation of energy, and you’ll see of his work in Pelican over this year.
Patrick Morrison | @iampatricksego