“My problem when I was at Oxford was I tried way too hard and I was constantly trying to work and I just burned out spectacularly”
Interview with Dr Simon Clark
Dr Simon Clark is a YouTuber, science communicator and alumnus of St Peter’s College. His videos focus mainly on climate change and human impacts on the biodiversity and atmosphere of our planet. My interest in Simon’s videos began with his involvement with the YouTube collective, the Yogscast, and the channel Hat Films, who Simon began collaborating with around 4 years ago. From there I began to watch Simon’s videos regularly, in particular his videos documenting his time at Oxford and latterly his experience completing a PhD at the University of Exeter.
MH: Firstly, would you recommend Oxford to people you know, such as family members, and what advice would you give both to those applying and those already here to balance the workload and pressures?
SC: I definitely would recommend people to apply, because Oxford has an awful lot to offer people. I didn’t have the best personal experience, but I feel like if I could take my 18 year old self aside I would give the advice of ring-fence time off. My problem when I was at Oxford was I tried way too hard and I was constantly trying to work and I just burned out spectacularly, because in school my time was managed for me whereas at University its wide open and you’ve got to ring-fence time that’s just for you and to not feel guilty about not working during that time. It’s not about how long you work or how hard you work, but about how smart you work. I feel like with that knowledge and a bit better time-management, as well as the fact that Notion (an organisational app) exists now and it’s free for students, I would definitely recommend people, family members or otherwise, to apply to Oxford. I’d obviously give them the caveat that it’s not for everyone and there are plenty of people for whom it would be an absolute nightmare to go to. Just because it’s at the top of the league tables doesn’t mean you should necessarily be applying there, because it’s a very specific type of University experience that is for some people but isn’t for others. I think it was for me, I just went about it the wrong way.
MH: I definitely feel the same, for me at school I wasn’t heavily involved in extracurricular stuff and as soon as I came to Oxford I found myself filling my timetable with so many other things that are so much more difficult to organise than simply classes or lectures. Onto the next question, was it a dream of yours that one day your book would be in the St Peter’s library, and is there any kind of designated alumni section in your library like we have at Exeter?
SC: I don’t think they do, or at least they didn’t when I was there. The college has only existed for about 60 years now, so I’m not sure if there would be enough alumni to merit an entire shelf, maybe in the future though. I never would have believed it if you had told me as an undergraduate that I would write a book and it would be in the library, and the librarian would seemingly be happy to have it. I never would have believed it. It wasn’t a dream because I never thought it was even vaguely possible. I’ve wanted to be an author since I was very young, probably since primary school, but I never thought it would really happen. I just assumed I would go down the Physics route and that wouldn’t leave time for any fun things like writing books. It’s very surreal knowing that it’s somewhere in St Peter’s library.
MH: As you said in the video about going back to Oxford, the idea that it might then inspire someone else to actually study Physics.
SC: I wrote Firmament (his book) basically as the book I wish I could’ve been given when I was in Sixth Form starting as an undergraduate, as like this whole area of Physics and Science that you don’t know exists and has got this really interesting history and there are really relevant bits of work that you can do in it. Trying to capture the same moment I had in St Peter’s library when it came to falling in love with geophysical fluid dynamics, trying to bottle that I suppose and to give it to people to experience themselves and hopefully help them fall in love with the subject too.
MH: Given that your videos helped me personally to have the resources and knowledge to apply and get into Oxford, how does it feel to know you’re having a positive impact on admissions and the University?
SC: I just assume at this point that I’m so old and that those videos are so old that they’re not relevant anymore. It’s a bit surreal when I go to Oxford and Cambridge and I meet people who say I was the reason they applied. I always say sorry, I always feel like I have to apologise for inflicting an Oxbridge education on people, especially if you’re doing Physics at Oxford. To hear that you’ve profoundly shaped someone’s 3 or 4 years of their life and that you are potentially responsible for hopefully a really good experience but potentially a really bad one, I feel a huge sense of responsibility. It’s like finding out that you’re going to be a parent, I imagine. It’s like being ambushed by your as yet unknown 18 year old children, and being told you’re somehow responsible for them. It’s a lovely feeling but it does feel like a heavy responsibility.
MH: For most people who find your videos and then might go back in your channel and look into your Oxford videos its probably based on an interest in science, but for me I was introduced to you through the video you did of the Science Game Show with Hat Films, and I watched it I think when I was in Sixth Form and so I found your channel at a time when I was applying to Universities.
SC: I feel like that’s the really valuable kind of science communication. There’s a lot to be said about doing the kind of things I do most weeks where it’s a video just about science which you may find interesting, but there’s a huge amount to be said for doing collaborations with people like Hat Films and the Yogscast. There’s a great quote which I actually took from the first video I ever found on YouTube about Oxford which was from the Said Business School. There was an alumnus who was talking about “We are all prisoners of our previous reference points.” and you don’t know something is possible until you see someone has done it. I feel like when you do that kind of science communication and you reach that audience who won’t have seen a scientist in a very unguarded and casual sense. That’s when they see they are just like normal people, they’re just like me and they make stupid mistakes like me. That is a really valuable entry point for people into science, in or outside of academia.
MH: What has been your favourite video to make, one from your channel and one from someone else’s?
SC: That’s a really hard question actually. Can I even put it down to one? Going down a mine in Yorkshire to examine dark matter and exo-planetary biology was really awesome. It’s such a diverse group of videos to pick from. Also ‘Which planets in Warhammer could really exist?’ has to be up there as well. Any video in which you get to really indulge in your nerdy side and get into the details and combine your passion with some kind of science is really interesting. In terms of someone else’s channel, it’s also Warhammer related but I did a battle report with Midwinter Minis where my Hawaiin Orcs faced off against his Orcs, and it was the first time I’d done a collaboration like that in that sphere and I loved it so much I felt like a kid in a candy shop for the entire time.
MH: If you were on Desert Island discs, what would you choose as your favourite song, book and luxury item?
SC: My favourite book would be My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrel, because it’s just endlessly re-readable and there’s just a simple joy to it. If you’re on a desert island on your own you’re gonna be very contemplative, so I’m gonna cheat a bit and say for my song The Path of Miracles, which is 4 movements and is by Joby Talbot. That’s my favourite piece of Choral Music and is very spiritual and I could just imagine myself on a desert island listening to it. My luxury item would probably be a book on how to rebuild society from scratch, although I don’t think I’m gonna have much luck repopulating the island on my own.
MH: Do you think it’s realistic to expect the changes to lifestyle, certainly in a western context, which are necessary to halt climate change?
SC: We can absolutely hold it to less than 2 degrees, and yet have largely similar lifestyles. When you’re talking about overhauling lifestyles, particularly western ones, you’re talking about really overhauling the top 10% or fewer of the population. So curbing the amount of flying taking place, or changing diets, changing transport patterns, and fundamentally where we get our energy from. Some of that stuff you can do in a way that doesn’t impact people, like you don’t know where your electricity comes from in your house, so you can absolutely reduce the emissions intensity when it comes to energy. From an individual perspective about 75% of all individual emissions come from electricity usage, and heating and cooling. So 75% of your life can be absolutely unaffected. The transport stuff will be the difficult thing, because transport is a really difficult thing to decarbonise. Decarbonising transport comes down to two things: decarbonising long-distance transport and urban transport. Urban transport is the thing that will affect people more and that absolutely is something that is possible and would probably actually improve people’s quality of life, once you divorce people from the idea of everybody needing to own a car. The long-distance transport is what is going to be really tough, because you’ve basically got to kill the demand for long-distance travel which the Pandemic has shown us you can with telecoms conferencing, there are far fewer flights now for business reasons. But that is going to be the thing which I think is the largest stumbling block for people’s quality of life. I think we can get to something approaching net-zero, but what will probably happen is that we get ourselves to an almost net-zero situation and then it will come down to how much negative emissions can take place. I’m certainly sceptical about synthetic carbon removal and I’m generally sceptical about negative emissions.
MH: How do you personally remain optimistic and avoid climate anxiety?
SC: I really struggle, it is hard to look at this stuff. I was researching for a video that’s coming out this week (w/c 9/01/23) about everything that happened last year and it just got too much, and I had to just sort of walk away. You can only look through so many articles and you eventually have to find some kind of distance between you and the subject matter and I think like anything in life, you have a choice when it comes to attitude. If you choose to focus on the negatives then you are going to have a hard time, even if it is overloaded with negatives so that’s the most realistic standpoint, you’re going to have a more negative outcome. Whereas, if you at least try to focus on the positives, if you look for hope in the situation, then you at least stand a chance of doing something, especially when it comes to climate change, anything you do to limit emission makes the problem better, so giving up has no point whilst we still have options to make it better. I think just try and focus on those things, accept the negatives are there, but choose to focus on the positives.
MH: This may not be a fair analogy, but I would certainly liken it personally to my inspirations to study history, you feel like it’s your responsibility and duty to keep going even when the subject matter is often very depressing.
SC: Hopefully in a climate context as well, it’s short-term pain and long-term gain. There’s also a question of mindset, and this was something that when I was Oxford I was in a fixed mindset. I was in the mindset that this is happening to me and it’s a test of me and I’ll be found wanting, and there’s no way I’m going to pass this test. Whereas, what I tried to do in my PhD and it really turned everything around for me, was I tried to have a growth mindset. This isn’t a test of me, it’s an opportunity. I feel like you can do that with the climate crisis as well, you can view the climate crisis as a test of humanity but you can also frame it as an opportunity. Science tells us we need to have this huge societal overhaul, but in that overhaul there is a chance to make a fairer, more egalitarian, cleaner world where fewer die from air pollution or fewer people die in the global south because of healthcare inequalities. It’s an opportunity, and if you try to frame it that way it remains an opportunity even against insurmountable odds, and it becomes a lot easier to stick to the course of action.
MH: What is the thing that frustrates you the most in the world, and this doesn’t have to be tied at all to the climate crisis?
SC: People who upload PNGs to the internet with a checkerboard background. Because I will think that they are transparent but they are not. And for the number of times this has happened to me when I’m pulling together thumbnails or graphics, there is a special place in hell for those people who upload PNGs with checkerboard backgrounds.
Given how much I feel I owe to Simon for having the opportunity to be at Oxford, this was an incredibly fun interview and I’d like to thank Simon for making time for me on a busy day for him to organise this meeting. After the interview Simon gave me some great advice about making the most of the resources and opportunities that are scarce in the real world but in abundance at University.