Greg and Mitchel Moffit
Mitch Moffit, left, and Gregory Brown

Ever wonder how drinking too much alcohol causes a hangover? Or which really did come first, the chicken or the egg? Or if playing video games can actually make you smarter?

Most of us have an odd question or two nagging at us – questions that U of G biological science graduates Mitch Moffit and Gregory Brown might be able to answer.  In fact, those are just some of the questions they’ve handled on their YouTube channel AsapSCIENCE.

Moffit and Brown started out in more traditional roles. “After graduation, I was working at a lab, and Greg went on to teacher’s college at the University of Toronto,” Moffit says. “Then I started doing some video editing work, and I saw the potential to reach people and share the love of science that we both have.”

Moffit says many people don’t realize how interesting science can be and how much it applies to everyday life. He’s passionate about letting others in on the intriguing secrets of science and inspiring them to learn more.

But how did they get that message out to people? Brown, who was teaching the equivalent of Grades 8 to 10 in the United Kingdom, had noticed how much his students loved to watch YouTube videos. Moffit was impressed when his younger brother learned to play the guitar thanks to YouTube, and they both realized this could be the perfect way to share their ideas with others.

“It started as a hobby,” Moffit says. Some hobby: today, they have nearly 2.8 million subscribers to their channel, who not only enthusiastically watch their videos but send in more questions for future episodes. Fees from advertising and sponsors fund their work. Brown quit his teaching job and works with Moffit full time now; they’ve also hired a team of staff to help with the production.

The videos seem simple: they are created on a whiteboard with a voice-over and include plenty of humour and often surprising information. (Yes, video games can make you smarter!) But their appeal is wide-reaching. “YouTube is mostly very young teen viewers,” Moffit explains. “Some of the topics on our videos would appeal to young teens, even kids. But our demographic data shows that the largest portion of our audience is men aged 30.” Knowing that has motivated them to look for ways to attract more women and younger viewers.

“We’re trying to identify the kinds of questions that will appeal to that broadest audience,” he says.

When they choose the questions, how do they get their answers? Moffit says that in the beginning, most of the material in their videos was based on what they learned at the University of Guelph. But as they began responding more to audience questions, they found they needed to do more research, using peer-reviewed studies, science magazines, textbooks and other sources. They take that information and transform it into an easy-to-follow explanation without a lot of scientific terms.

“We also try to stay current. When Robin Williams died, for example, we did a video on the biology of depression, because people were wondering about that.”

The success of their videos has caught the eye of others as well. During the Olympics, they were asked to do a series of videos on the science of sports, to be broadcast as part of the CBC’s coverage of the games. Moffit and Brown are also working on a book that will cover many of the topics from the videos. “We want to make science accessible in different formats,” Moffit says. “There are people who will read a book who aren’t interested in watching the videos.”

A highlight for both men was doing a video with Bill Nye, “the Science Guy.”

“He was our idol when we were younger, and now here he was wanting to do a video with us!”

Their most popular video so far has addressed the question, which came first: the chicken or the egg?

“I think that shows the power of a compelling question,” says Moffit. “Even though it doesn’t have a clear scientific answer, it gave us a chance to talk about evolution.”

Recently, the two started a second YouTube channel called AsapTHOUGHT.

“AsapSCIENCE doesn’t put the two of us on camera – it’s all the whiteboard drawings. We wanted to try something a bit different, so in these new videos, we can talk more about all the things we are interested in beyond science.”

Ultimately, Moffit admits he’s not sure where this path will lead. “It may just fade away, or it may continue to grow,” he says. “We’re riding the wave, having a lot of fun and seeing where it goes.”

Note: Mitch Moffit and Gregory Brown will be speaking on campus Oct. 8 for the CBaSE Bigger Picture Series, 5:30 to 6:45 p.m., in Room 113, BIZ Building, 50 College Avenue West.