"People want to listen and learn about nuclear power"
Javier Santaolalla, engineer and doctor in particle physics, is a well-known communicator on scientific matters, with over two million followers and subscribers to his various channels. Nuclear power is among the numerous topics he covers on his YouTube videos: ‘Date un Voltio’, ‘Date un Vlog’ y ‘Date un Mí’.
The answers and comments he receives on this topic are “much more constructive and positive than I expected”, he assures. Regarding nuclear power, he considers that “there is a lot of erroneous information, a lot of harmful prejudice and also many pressure groups”.
"People want to listen and learn about nuclear power”
You have been invited to speak at online conferences for various organizations on the topic of coronavirus. How did you approach this?
I approached this as a citizen and as a responsible person who is lucky to have a large loudspeaker. The truth is that I have been reading articles and documenting myself ever since the alarm went off in China. We could say that I had a privileged position because I had a head start and I felt I had a responsibility. I considered this a situation where I had something positive to contribute. I made that a priority: what I can contribute, trying to be a good colleague and a good citizen. First of all, I wanted to make this quarantine more fun and tried to get people to disconnect and have the chance to step out of reality through my videos, and also spread information and awareness.
What made you go into scientific divulgation, and how and when did your channel #DateUnVoltio appear on YouTube?
It started thanks to a series of coincidental situations that made it all possible. It was a true adventure, an extreme sport, almost personal suicide. I noticed a lot of gaps in my own scientific training. I was not satisfied with the way I was taught about science. It did not even come close to what I did professionally, and I wanted to do my bit. On the other hand, I felt that students have a very negative perception of physics and very scarce information on the things a physicist can do. I wanted to show them that a physicist’s work can be fascinating. I also did not feel very inspired with the way I was making science and I wanted to find a career opportunity that made me feel fulfilled.
"Divulgation is a world you enter because you like it, because you are passionate about it or because you want to be in it"
You mentioned that making the leap to divulgation changed your life.
Yes, it is true that it changed my life. In my case, reading and learning about science also changed the way I understand life. I not only take the knowledge science gave me, but also its values. If you open your eyes wide and see how work is done in science, you receive very positive lessons on cooperation, sacrifice and teamwork, but also on the social and human values of cooperation and contribution. Science has changed my life in many senses, not only professionally but also as a human being. When you read about science it affects your daily life, and that is one of the most beautiful things about my work.
"in my work there are several things that work, like the human connection between the sender and the receiver"
Some followers say they learn more from one of your videos that during a month of physics classes. How do you feel about that?
It is certainly the kind of message that makes your day and gives you strength to carry on. It is clearly the reward for all the hard work I am doing.
You proved that humor and science are compatible, and that there are other ways of spreading scientific knowledge.
Indeed, there are many mechanisms to spread scientific knowledge and they are all very valid. But I have seen how wonderful it is when people feel the connection after you give them a bit of human warmth in any of its versions, whether it is through humor, with some emotions or with a surprise. The goal is to add a human dimension, a bit of warmth to the stories. It is about making scientific content, which can be cold and abstract, a bit more relatable for the person that receives it, and more relevant to their life. It is hard work, it does not come easily, but the numbers are there. I do not consider myself an educator, but I do believe that my work opens up new perspectives, because ultimately the approach to contents is different from the traditional approach. I am very happy about the positive response.
You have over two million followers or subscribers in the web, waiting for your tweets and videos. Is that a great responsibility?
I am aware that I have a good loudspeaker, and I want to use it in the best possible way. I know my opinions reach people. I know that every step I take is not just one step in my life, it can also affect other people’s lives. What I say is not only my own opinion; it is also the reflection of a way of understanding life. So, on the one hand it is a great privilege and on the other it is a great responsibility. Every time I make a video I give it a lot of thought before I upload it. If you want to change the world, you need a big loudspeaker. I have one, I am aware of that, and I am always going to use it honestly.
"You need a big 'loudspeaker' and I have one. I am aware of that, and I am always going to use it honestly"
Regarding nuclear power, do you perceive fear, lack of knowledge or prejudices among your followers and in your comments, or are there favorable opinions?
I have found that responses are more constructive and positive than what I expected. I try to be very careful, but sometimes I do get into controversial subjects. Out of all the controversial subjects that I first thought could cause susceptibilities, this [nuclear power] is the one less prone to that. I really did find a very positive reception, with critical judgement and a response that is proportional to the challenge being presented. In this sense I am very happy that the message I tried to convey along with @OperadorNuclear has been perceived as what it is. Very often, when you give your opinion on a topic, the people who were initially against it initially adopt a defensive attitude, they do not listen to the message because they are predisposed against it. They are against what you say from the first word, since passions are detrimental when it comes to listening and understanding reasons. With nuclear power, what I have seen in my channel, and maybe it is because I have a very, very young audience, is a willingness to listen and learn.
You mentioned @OperadorNuclear. How did you decide to take on projects together?
In the field of communication I have met people that not only were highly talented and had a lot of interesting things to talk about but were also like minded. Divulgation is a world you enter because you like it, because you are passionate about it or because you want to be in it, and you end up meeting passionate people that share the way you think and understand life. This is what happened with Operador, whose vision and training are very similar to mine. I am very collaborative in my job; I enjoy joining people who know more than me and who have something interesting to say. When I saw Operador’s profile I really wanted to learn from him and understand his message. I listened to him, I understood him. I found him to be honest, reasonable and deserving of people’s attention. I am very proud of my collaborations with him. There will be more in the future, because this is only the beginning. In fact, I wrote the prologue to his book and I am very proud of the fact that he called me and of my participation. It was very flattering. In my prologue I pointed out that he is a superhero, because of the way he defends nuclear power in such a prejudiced society. In that sense, I think his work is doubly important: he defends his view with information and data, but it is also a field full of erroneous information, a lot of harmful prejudice and also many pressure groups.
You dared to make the video “Nuclear power: lies from Greenpeace (and others)”. What drove you to make it? Did you get a lot of criticism?
It was a video that could raise a lot of controversy, but the response was positive and there wasn’t much criticism. On the video, both Operador and I decided that, generally speaking, Greenpeace does a very good job, although they are very aggressive in their communications and positions regarding certain topics. This group has a good basis, but for some reason it starts certain wars with questionable attitudes. Sometimes they lack manners because they step beyond scientific rigor and lean on their passionate side. This is great for some things, but when it makes you lose your point of view it is a mistake. In this case, our intention was to pinpoint that mistake and that position. We did not want to harm the organization because they do a very important job. In this sense, we made a video showing how they are causing harm in this particular issue, but we did not go beyond that. No one got especially offended, no one from Greenpeace called me and I hope it is perceived as what it is: a way of showing a position that differs from that of other people, respectfully and with the willingness to contribute.
Do you believe that other applications of nuclear power in fields like medicine or industry are better accepted than electric production?
Generally speaking, I believe that there is a lot of hypocrisy in the position society takes on certain things. Hypocrisy is born from lack of knowledge. It is amazing to see how people position themselves against nuclear power and yet accept other things that are much riskier. This is hypocritical because you are making a wrongful evaluation of risks and criteria in your decision making. All is the same basis: a lack of education, knowledge and tools to show your own point of view. I mention this in the book: you can be perfectly antinuclear, but be antinuclear with all the data on the table and full knowledge of what you are doing, because people are often antinuclear without even knowing what they are against. In this sense, what is important is that the information is there, and that, to some extent, is what our work is about. I strive to offer people information and tools so that they can freely position themselves, and to freely position yourself you need to be well informed.
"It is amazing to see how people position themselves against nuclear power and yet accept other things that are much riskier"
As an expert in scientific divulgation, how do you think nuclear power should be explained?
I wish I had a magic wand. I do not, but I believe that in my work there are several things that work. One of them is empathy and some understanding of the position of the people that receive the message, as well as the human connection between the sender and the receiver: the other person must understand your reasons to communicate, how you communicate, what you want to convey... to me, the most important thing is to emphatically connect with the person out there, and this is done in many different ways. It is a very long road, which is certainly stimulating but also highly complex.