The Lutetium Project: combining research, arts and outreach on YouTube

What does a physicist study? If you ask this question to the general public, you’re likely to hear back either about the extremely small—quantum physics, particle physics—or the extremely large—general relativity or cosmology. Indeed, those are probably the most visible fields of physics, having been depicted in Hollywood movies and TV series, and being prominently featured on the cover of popular science books and magazines.

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Desperately looking for soft matter in the Map of Physics, from youtu.be/ZihywtixUYo

At the Lutetium Project, we want to show that this is not all there is to physics. We believe that one field, in particular, is more relatable to our everyday experiences, as long as we pay attention to its beauty and its complexity. Soft matter physics is the study of systems that can easily be deformed at our time- and length-scales, of objects that cannot easily be classified as solids or liquids. Research in soft matter physics is often pursued at the intersection with other fields, such as fluid dynamics, biology, chemistry or statistical physics. For example, soft matter physicists try to answer questions like: Why do foams change over time, and how can we make them more stable? Why does toothpaste behave like a liquid when squeezed out from a tube and like a solid when left alone? Why do biological tissues grow differently on rough versus smooth surfaces? Can we learn the general principles that guide the collective behaviour of flocks of birds or of schools of fish? And many more keep popping up every day!

 

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Physics Confession, by xkcd.

 

Soft matter physics is well-suited to video: one needs only an optical microscope to see the movement of defects in liquid crystals, or a high-speed camera to record the bounce of water droplets on a hydrophobic surface. As a group of Ph.D. students, we have this kind of equipment in our labs, and we know how to use it. This is why we decided to launch a YouTube channel primarily showcasing high-quality footage of our experiments.

 

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Defects in liquid crystals under the polarized microscope, Guillaume Durey for the Lutetium Project.

 

We teamed up with talented art students, who developed a visual identity for the project, composed original soundtracks for the videos, and coordinated all the cinema-related aspects of the channel, in order to produce three categories of videos. In the first category, we explain scientific concepts from our studio, such as microfluidics and granular matter, using motion design and footage from the labs. In the second one, we interview our colleagues, whether young scientists or project leaders, about their current experiments. In the third one, we immerse the viewer in one single research experiment, which we explain using short pieces of text. We set these videos to an original soundtrack whose melody reflects the physics of the experiment. This last series is our most successful to date: we were thrilled to be awarded a prize from the American Physical Society for one of these videos, featuring bursting droplets!

After four years of hard work, we have set up a YouTube channel that relies equally on current experimental research, artistic creation, and scientific outreach. Its name is a callback to lutetium, a chemical element named after Paris, a city that pioneered the study of soft matter physics. We hope that our videos will stir your imagination; if that sounds appealing to you, you can follow us at youtube.com/thelutetiumproject, or @TheLuProject on Twitter: we’d be delighted to have you!

Thanks to our friends at Softbites for giving us this opportunity to present our project, and thanks to our funders (ESPGG, Université PSL, ESPCI Paris, ESPCI Alumni, Fonds ESPCI Paris) for making it possible.

The Lutetium Project team

 

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