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4 Reasons We're All Sharing a Physics Video We Don't Understand

Stanford physics professor Chao-Lin Kuo visits colleague Andrei Linde to tell him that sigma is five with an r value of point-two. Why this is both riveting and shareable.
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It's the most unlikely of viral videos. There are no cats, babies, or other signs of adorable pudginess. There are no celebrities. As far as I can tell, Pharrell Williams has nothing to do with it.

Instead, the video is about the results of a physics experiment that only a very small portion of viewers are aware of. The big revelation--that sigma is five, with an r value of 0.2--is gobbledygook to the vast majority of humanity.

Yet after Stanford posted the video on its YouTube channel earlier this week, it quickly went viral. It's been viewed almost two million times on that site alone. Why? Because really, it’s about a lot more than physics. Here’s why it’s become so popular:

It’s uplifting

At its most basic, this is a video about the delivery of good news. And stories and videos that are positive are more likely to be shared than those that are negative.

Chao-Lin Kuo, a professor of physics at Stanford University, has been co-leader of a team running an experiment at the South Pole using a telescope called BICEP2. The team has found direct evidence for gravitational waves, lending key support for colleague Andrei Linde’s theory that the universe expanded rapidly after the Big Bang. Linde has no idea of the discovery. The video shows Kuo visiting Linde at his house to share the news. Presumably, this is going to go well.

It’s emotional. Better? It’s first-hand

This is not a video of Linde talking to the camera explaining that his theory has been validated, and he's pleased. It’s a video of Linde learning the result of the experiment for the first time.

Kuo indulges in hardly any preamble. There’s no "Hello, Professor Linde, how are you today?" Instead, when Linde opens the door, Kuo simply says, "So I have a surprise for you. It’s five sigma, at point two."

That may mean nothing to you or I, but Linde is shocked and keeps asking Kuo to repeat himself. Linde’s wife, physics professor Renata Kollosh, simply says, "Discovery?" and hugs Kuo when he says yes. We wonder if Linde and Kollosh are going to faint or cry.

It's easy to identify with Linde

Part of what’s appealing about Linde’s reaction, and the conversation that follows, is that it is so unproduced.

Even if you don’t know anything about physics, it’s easy to identify with, and to like, Linde. First off, we see him at home, not in a research lab or a lecture hall. When the doorbell rang, he says, his wife asked him if it was a delivery--if he ordered anything. He says, laughing, "Yes, I ordered the [garbled] sigma. Finally it arrived!" He and his wife are both dressed casually. And their kitchen table is about as cluttered as mine.

There is vulnerability

The humanity--as opposed to the celebration--emerges as Linde starts to discuss the discovery with Kuo and Kollosh. He says:

If this is true, this is a moment of understanding of nature of such a magnitude that it just overwhelms. Let us see. Let us hope that it is not a trick. I always lived with this feeling, 'What if I'm tricked? What if I believe in this, just because it is beautiful?' What if? ... Yes. So this is really helpful, to have evidence like that. Really, really helpful.

This isn't the glee of an over-exposed reality show contestant who wins a million dollars or a proposal from an attractive singleton of dubious reputation. This is the reaction of someone who has spent 30 years in pursuit of an idea, and receives compelling evidence that he could actually be right. When do we see that,  never mind experience it ourselves?

At the very end of the video, Linde turns to Kuo, and says of the experiment using BICEP2: "Thank you so much for doing it."

 Here's Professor Linde learning of the discovery:

 

Last updated: Mar 19, 2014

KIMBERLY WEISUL | Staff Writer | Inc.com Editor-at-Large

Kimberly Weisul is editor-at-large at Inc. and co-founder of One Thing New, the digital media startup that is rebooting women's content. She was previously a senior editor at BusinessWeek.




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