Charlie McDonnell Is Making Science Fun For Everyone
He also loves Dr. Who
Last year, YouTube celebrated its 10th anniversary. Next year, YouTube veteran and soon-to-be published author Charlie McDonnell will celebrate his 10th year on the platform.
Five years ago, McDonnell became the first U.K. YouTuber to reach one million subscribers on the platform. He’d started his channel four years earlier, and found his first success when YouTube featured one of his vlogs on its front page. Over the years, he’s been a video creator, screenwriter, actor, director, and musician for various projects around the internet, but his latest title? Author. Nearly a decade into his internet career, McDonnell is days away from releasing Fun Science, an everyman’s introductory manual to science, and a spin-off of his successful Fun Science video series.
As a self-professed fan and longtime viewer of McDonnell’s work on the web, when this book was announced earlier this year, I was thrilled. Recently, I had a chance to sit down with the internet polymath and pick his brain about his new book, growing up online, self-care, and the exciting future he has in store.
One of my favorite quotes from your book is that being a fan of science is “allowing yourself to get unapologetically excited and moved by the real world.” What are some things that you get unapologetically excited about? What is the Charlie McDonnell List of Fandoms?
I mean I have been a part of many fandoms over my lifetime. Doctor Who used to be a big one for me. I think that the only thing that I truly still turn into a fanboy over is "The Legend of Zelda." I’m, like, actually obsessed with just the waiting process right now for the new "Legend of Zelda" game. I look at the Zelda subreddit every single day; I have watched many, many hours of footage of that game. It’s my wallpaper, it’s my screensaver. I’m worried what will happen to me when the game comes out.
What about it makes it so great?
It’s partly just the nostalgia factor, I think. I played "Ocarina of Time" when I was quite young, but I don’t know. It’s the sense of adventure you get from the games—it was kind of my first introduction to that style of game where you feel like you’re actually immersed in the world—it feels real, and there’s just so much to explore and do. I feel like this next game seems like it’s going to be the epitome of that. It looks like—from the outside right now—that they’ve really nailed that and just given you this massive world to look around and that the story just comes naturally from your exploration. So I’m very, very excited about that.
Do you think today, if you had never started a YouTube channel all those years ago, that you would still start one now?
I think I would be pretty intimidated to start one now. Before, it felt very possible to just be yourself and do anything you wanted. Now, I think you look at YouTube and see all of these formats of things you’re supposed to do in order to gain popularity and the real creative, original stuff feels much more hidden. So, I think, if I had managed to seek that stuff out already, then that’s what would have inspired me to make videos, but I don’t think I would look at the stuff that’s super popular on YouTube these days and be like, “Yes, I want to do that.” I listen to a lot of podcasts, so I can imagine that if I was starting a project like YouTube, I would probably go down that avenue. And that’s something that I’d still like to do, but I just don’t have the time right now.
I remember a couple of years ago you and a few other creators made videos about celebrity culture within YouTube. Do you feel like the way YouTubers are treated has changed at all since then?
I don’t know if it’s changed too much. It does sort of feel like certain YouTubers are still seen as celebrities. What I was saying in that video was that we need to acknowledge that some YouTubers aren’t just internet celebrities—they’re proper, bona fide celebrities now. I read something recently about Tyler Oakley getting his own chat show?
Yeah, he’s doing a talk show now on Ellen DeGeneres’ digital network!
Yeah, that’s the sort of thing that’s very much being able to take someone from the YouTube community, and saying that this person is legitimate and that he is good enough at what he does that you can justify giving him his own chat show. I think that side of things seems to be very much the same. I think now more YouTubers are coming to the same realizations I had a few years ago, about what it’s like to be in that position and how confusing it can be. So I think when you’re a more traditional celebrity, it’s more likely that you have people around you to tell you how the process works.
You’re sort of on your own as a YouTuber.
Yeah, it’s much harder when you’re doing everything yourself, and you’re trying to aim to always share yourself with people and be a regular person. I think that probably results in a lot of inner turmoil for a lot of people.
As someone who made a living through YouTube, was it surreal to sit down and write your book?
I think the groundwork has been laid for YouTubers doing books now, but it felt like a very daunting task, for sure. It felt like it was going to very much be impossible when I sat down and tried to do it. And then I kind of surprised myself, as I was doing it, by how much I really enjoyed it. I think the weirdest part is going to come when I, you know, walk into a bookstore and my book is there next to the other YouTuber books. It will feel like, “Oh my god, it’s a real thing that I actually did.” But it comes back to that point of, like, legitimacy. A lot of people don’t see YouTubers as being really legitimate at all. Being able to say, “I’m a published author and you can go and find my book in the store,” I’m already getting proactively weirded out by that.
I’m sure. As primarily a filmmaker, what was it like to transcend into this new medium?
It was honestly a bit of a self-realization experience for me. After focusing on filmmaking for so long, this book really made me realize that personality and my habits are much better suited to writing as opposed to directing. I definitely want to work on more non-fiction like Fun Science going forward, but this process also ignited a real passion in me for screenwriting, specifically, which was a bit of a surprise! The big difference between writing for the two mediums was obviously that I’m used to hardly anyone ever seeing what I write. That goes for video blogs of mine too. I’m so used to preparing a script and then performing it… but with this book, the writing is the performance. Which is pretty scary! But I really tried to embrace it; there’s a lot of stuff in the book that would never work in a vlog. In fact, I had to do quite a lot of rewriting to make the audiobook work.
I noticed while reading the book that a lot of the voice we’re used to getting from you in your videos really does come across in the book itself. It’s humorous while also being educational, you have these adorable illustrations by the wonderful artist Fran Meneses, and there are plenty of existential crises. What was the process like for translating your voice into the written medium successfully?
Well, I kind of started it off by writing the beginning of the book a little more strictly, and I think that as it goes through, I’m kind of settling into the medium a little bit. For a majority of the book, as well, I was reading it out loud so that I could make sure it was sounding kind of like my own voice. A lot of the stuff as well was done the same way that I do the YouTube videos; you know, I’ll write them in the beginning, and things will change on the fly. And it’s that bit of spontaneity, infused with a plan, that kind of works for me when I’m making my videos. So a lot of the jokes and things in the book, I was just coming up with them as I was going through.
Well, I audibly laughed a couple of times—cracking up to myself in a coffee shop reading scientific dad jokes and puns. I think obviously in addition to the humor that you’ve woven through, there is also this element of crisis. Did you have any existential crises while writing this?
The stuff [I wrote] about the atoms in your body being incredibly old and coming from inside stars you know... I’ve known that for a long time, and I was just like, “Whoaaaaaaaa.” Also, atoms being 99.999 percent air... I had remembered it previously but hadn’t necessarily applied it to myself.
Oh yes, we are all nothing.
I was like, “Oh god, yes, that is really horrible.” It kind of messes with what your perception is of yourself and your perceived reality.
On the topic of existential and mental crises, you mentioned in your most recent video that you struggle with depression and anxiety. As someone who has been in the spotlight for a number of years, there is a sort of magnifying glass over you, and it is brave to share those thoughts with your audience. What are some of the ways you’ve learned to manage anxiety and depression?
I mean, a lot of it is that I’ve started to prioritize myself much more recently. It’s very much getting rid of the habit of feeling overwhelmed by everything I need to do and spending all of my time focusing on everything around me. Over the past week, I’ve been focusing more on, you know, making myself a project again which is something I come back to every once in awhile. You know, spending an hour reading a book or playing a game or going and exercising. Knowing that I’ve set apart the time to know that, [laughs] I’m going to function correctly. So that helps a lot to put things into perspective every day... you know, “What do I work on first, oh myself!” When you make everything else secondary, it becomes less stressful and less anxiety-inducing. In terms of the science stuff, it’s very easy to apply the logic of science to yourself. I mostly don’t sit around being stressed about it because it’s not helpful. It’s an interesting thing to think about, but most of the time, I live in ignorance so that I don’t think about it.
Are you reading anything interesting right now?
I’m reading a book called Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers Strategies by Nick Bostrom. Superintelligence is something I’m really interested in right now. I’m working on a potential web series, at the moment, which involves artificial intelligence. It’s quite a dense book, as well; it’s made me laugh a couple of times because of its density. There’s a point near the beginning of the book where the author’s just like, “Yeah, I really tried to make this as accessible, but I don’t think I’ve succeeded.” [Laughs] There is some very technical language, but it’s an area I’m really fascinated by. I’ve just read Tuesdays With Morrie because I’m very scared of death, and that’s a story about a sports reporter, who revisits one of his favorite teachers from school who has Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and he visits him every Tuesday just to get his thoughts on life and death, and how knowing death helps you to live.
Love that book. So if someone were to write your life story, who would you want it to be?
[Laughs] Ooh, I don’t know. Ideally, me, to be honest. Just because I know the most about what happened. [Laughs] That would be good. All I know is that I want the audiobook to be read by Stephen Fry. I think he could write it too, but if he doesn’t have time, at least he could record the audiobook.
I assumed he would be involved. You hinted toward the end of your book that you’d be interested in writing another book covering additional topics. What are some things you’d be interested in further exploring?
There was a section on my top 10 moons that got taken out of the final book... just lots of stuff like that. Stuff about how people previously rationalized the stars in the sky. The stories people used to come up about the Milky Way. I know there’s a story of people who used to see it as this great big river in the sky. It’s not necessarily science, but back then those things were true because that’s all the information people had to figure out what everything was. And, you know, it’s really still the same today. We see that stuff now as being obviously not true, but we only believe what is true based on what we know. The whole part of science is trying to prove it all wrong, and we could find out, you know, next year, that we’ve been completely wrong about how gravity works this whole time. And then it’s like, “Okay, now we know the truth,” but do we really? [Laughs]
We know the current truth
Yes, exactly. The truth is just us trying to figure [the universe] out, so we can explain it to ourselves, really. But, I’d also like to do other non-science stuff as well. Now that I’ve done a book that’s not about me, it’d be nice to do one about me! [Laughs] I feel like I could justify it now.
And we can get Stephen Fry on the audiobook.
So are you going on a book tour for Fun Science?
Yeah, there is a plan to do a primarily U.K. tour. I have one date set up in New York. That’s the first sort of event I’m going to do. It will be at Books of Wonder. I think it’s the only event as well where I’ll be doing a little talk about Fun Science. I’m not necessarily sure what it is yet, but I’m sure I’ll come up with something! [Laughs] But mostly it will be around different cities in the U.K. I’m working on five Fun Science episodes for my YouTube channel, so the hope is also to premiere one of those at Buffer Festival. So yeah, Fun Science is currently taking up all my time.
Can we get a sneak peek at any of the topics for the new video series?
I’m doing one about misconceptions that people have about evolution, so that one will be fun. [Laughs] We’ll see how that one goes down.
Risky, but important.
Important for sure. So it’s five videos and each one will be inspired a bit by one of the chapters from the book. For the first one, I’m talking kind of exclusively about dark matter and dark energy. And then I’m just weaving into different areas, some stuff that didn’t make it into the book or just bits of writing that I did that didn’t fit in. The idea is to also give people a little hint as to what they can expect from the book. It’s very weird: As a YouTuber, I usually get to just make something and get all the reactions in one go, but it’s odd to have worked on a project for so long, and for it to be finished, but to have only spoken to a few people about what they actually think about it! It’s quite weird. I’m excited for it to actually come out. It feels like a proper real thing now.
Before we go, is there anything you’d like people to know about the book?
You do not need to be a fan of science already to enjoy this book. My whole aim here, and this is the same for my Fun Science videos too, is to try and instill a passion for science in people who find the subject at school a bit of a bore. My personal feeling is that everyone can and should love science, but often, you just need to have the right person to explain everything to you. If I can fill that gap for some people, then I’ve definitely done my job.
Fun Science will be published in the U.S. on October 18 (Quadrille).