The most compelling science channel on any platform right now is run by a German high school dropout.
When Philipp Dettmer was 15, he found school and learning to be so boring that he just up and left. But a chance meeting two years later with a teacher changed everything. Over the course of a class Dettmer took with her, she delivered information into his brain in a way that actually made a topic like history exciting and invigorating, according to an interview Dettmer did with the Guardian. This ignited within him a passion for learning and understanding the world — and sharing that knowledge with the rest of us.
This was what motivated Dettmer to start Kurzgesagt, a YouTube channel and animation studio based in Munich focused on education about all sorts of scientific topics. German for “in a nutshell” and pronounced kurts-guh-zaakt, Kurzgesagt tackles it all, from dropping a nuclear bomb on the moon to what can be done about climate change and even loneliness and how to make friends. Its style and clear, to-the-point explanations make even obscure philosophies like optimistic nihilism and longtermism easy to understand for a general audience.
Since its conception in 2013, shortly after Dettmer graduated college, Kurzgesagt has grown into a heavyweight in the science YouTube space, now boasting almost 20 million subscribers, with videos released in multiple languages including English and German.
For Dettmer, it vindicates the truth he learned from that history teacher. “Everything complicated is only complicated because someone is bad at explaining it,” he said in an interview. Through the visually and intellectually enthralling stories Kurzgesagt’s videos tell, Dettmer hopes to spark curiosity in his audience to learn more about the world and themselves.
This is all best exemplified in Kurzgesagt’s coronavirus explainer, the channel’s most popular video at over 87 million views. In the video, released at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, Dettmer and his team (in collaboration with Our World in Data) adeptly broke down what Covid-19 is as a virus, disease, and pandemic. It is a master class in science communication, something that — as Dettmer told New Scientist about Kurzgesagt’s ethos — grandparents can watch with their grandkids.
Last year, Dettmer took his approach to print by releasing his first book, Immune: A Journey Into the Mysterious System That Keeps You Alive, informed by his own study and experience with cancer.
Disease, pandemics, climate catastrophe, and nuclear explosions are not cheery topics. But Dettmer’s project somehow doesn’t mire you in gloom. At their core, the videos he and his team make don’t just inform and empower — they evince hope that humanity can continue to move toward a better future for all.