Erkcan Özcan becomes a YouTuber

Veysi Erkcan Özcan never imagined that one day he would be the face of science programming on FluTV, a popular Turkish media platform on YouTube. Filling what he says is a vacuum of Turkish-language popular science, the experimental particle physicist has headlined monthly videos since mid 2020 to explain topics that include the ATLAS experiment at CERN and quantum physics. The episodes in which he appears receive more than 600,000 views on average.

Erkcan Özcan in a FluTV studio. Credit: Serpil Özcan

Outside of his science communication work, Özcan has been heavily involved in the Turkish R&D establishment. He is a professor at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul and the acting head of Turkey’s Nuclear Energy Research Institute. In 2018 he united with researchers from Boğaziçi and eight other Turkish universities to found KAHVELab, with the goal of producing instruments, detectors, particle accelerators, and more for industrial applications in Turkey. The lab’s name is an acronym, but it is also a play on the Turkish word for coffee, kahve. Turkish coffee has universal recognition. It’s a brand, Özcan says, and the researchers want the same thing for their lab.

Students and faculty at Boğaziçi have held ongoing protests since Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan arbitrarily named a rector for the university in an appointment on New Year’s Day 2021. Law enforcement raided the homes of some students officers who participated in the protests, and faculty members have been displaced. In a particularly striking development, police sealed the university gates with handcuffs to lock protestors in, which supporters of the protests say symbolizes the lock placed on freedom of thought by the current administration.

Özcan spoke with me in Turkish for PhysicsToday overZoom. The conversation has been translated and condensed for this article.

PT: Briefly describe your education and career path.

ÖZCAN: Although I find every branch of physics enjoyable, particle physics is my home. I received my bachelor’s in physics and electrical and electronic engineering from the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey, in 1999. Later I moved to California to get my PhD at Stanford, and I worked on the BaBar experiment at SLAC on highly precise measurements of B-meson decay. As a postdoctoral fellow, I moved to Geneva to join the ATLAS experiment in 2006. I worked on Higgs-less models, researching the expected results in the case that the Higgs boson didn’t exist. After the 2012 discovery of the Higgs boson, I mostly did analysis, and my interest shifted toward ATLAS’s trigger system and exotic physics.

When I went back to Turkey, in 2011, I allocated most of my research time to developing small, almost tabletop, particle accelerators and detectors. In 2017 I became a tenured professor at Boğaziçi, and the following year we founded KAHVELab to work on projects that cater to the industrial needs of the country.

During the past nine months, I’ve been working on a temporary assignment at the Turkish Energy, Nuclear, and Mineral Research Agency, known as TENMAK. It is the headquarters of the Turkish Ministry of Energy and Minerals’ research, development, test, and evaluation establishment. I am the acting head of TENMAK’s Nuclear Energy Research Institute, where we conduct research in areas ranging from nuclear agriculture and medical physics to particle accelerators and research reactors.

PT: Tell us about your work with KAHVELab.

ÖZCAN: I am a firm believer that engineering demonstrations of basic to applied physics research are a great source of motivation for the masses. Therefore, we aimed to build a lab that would provide for every need of particle physics in Turkey, hence the Turkish backronym KAHVE (Kandilli Detector, Accelerator, and Instrumentation). We have been working on a number of projects that are firsts of their kind in Turkey: an electron-beam welding system, a delay wire chamber, various simulation software, and an RF quadrupole accelerator that will hopefully be the smallest of its kind in the world.

We have this saying in Turkish: “A cup of coffee with a beloved is worth 40 years of delightful memories.” Similarly, it’s our goal to manufacture products that’ll serve both the Turkish and the global industry for years to come. We would like every single researcher who gets to work in our lab, even for a single day, to carry that experience with them for years. In short, we wanted to build a place that’s worth 40 years of delightful memories.

PT: You have training as both a physicist and an engineer. Do you find that physicists and engineers think differently?

ÖZCAN: One critical skill shared by both professions is their method of solving a complex, almost insurmountable problem by dividing it into steps that are defeatable when approached one at a time.

I would say they diverge in that for a physicist, anything and everything can conjure up a sense of wonder. For an engineer, the main focus is to arrive at an efficient applied solution in a timely manner by accepting certain steps as they are. Theirs is a result-oriented process. They don’t necessarily need a comprehensive explanation as to what happens at every single step leading to a solution, as long as they have a basic understanding of the phenomenon.

As an experimental particle physicist, I try to take advantage of both aspects of my education. When you’re in the lab, you rarely have time to figure out the basics of why some piece of equipment is not working the way it should because you need to collect the data. There, my engineering training takes over. I try to ignite curiosity in engineering students, while encouraging practicality in physics students’ work.

PT: What led to your collaboration with FluTV? What kind of content are you producing?

ÖZCAN: FluTV was founded by a film director, Ilker Canikligil, who I can safely say is a Renaissance man who approaches every aspect of life with curiosity. He brought together experts from various fields, including history, psychology, music, and economics, and started recording his one-on-one conversations with them.

As an avid follower, I thought the same format could work for science. I expressed this in a conversation with a friend who happened to know Canikligil and arranged for us to meet. Due to the pandemic, I had an ample amount of time on my hands, so I had an hour-long conversation with Canikligil in his studio. Then he pulled out his camera to record the first episode. I was dumbfounded. I expected there to be a preparation stage before filming.

On that first day, we recorded a video about CERN, which instigated my journey at FluTV. Simple as that. I must say I was troubled by the recording of that first video. I was uncomfortable due to the lack of preparation. But Canikligil reassured me that he would edit the video to ensure a smooth experience for the audience, and he did. For each episode, we record a conversation of one to two hours, which he edits down to a 30- to 40-minute video.

PT: What do you think attracts the audience to your videos?

ÖZCAN: FluTV’s format is different from that of other informative science content on YouTube. There is no script to our conversations. In fact, we improvise a lot. Our videos are a product of the conversations we happen to have when the camera starts rolling. For the first episodes, we had a designated topic prior to recording, so I would come to the studio having studied the subject and decided the metaphors I could use to describe the physical concepts. For the last couple of episodes, we have been coming into the studio and recording our conversation after deciding that week’s topic right then and there.

Personally, I would rather prepare an outline to have a more productive conversation. Still, I believe the improvisational nature of our program provides the audience with the comfort of a conversation rather than the intimidation of a lecture. It doesn’t feel like you are in a lecture hall, so the program attracts many demographics, including people from nonscience backgrounds. Consequently, not only does FluTV fill the existing intellectual vacuum in Turkish scientific content, but it also provides conversational and informative content that many of our audience members can enjoy over a meal.

Later, I watch the videos a couple of times before their release and take notes on the parts that I believe need more details. I post these notes in the comments section [of the YouTube video page]. I bring up matters of confusion in the form of a different metaphor in the next video. I like to believe that this online interaction breaks the ice between the viewer and the content creator.

Going over the comments section has also proved to be beneficial for my teaching. Brilliant questions from viewers inform my teaching choices.

PT: Can physics education use similar strategies to attract more students?

ÖZCAN: As a part of our format, Canikligil and [cohost] Serpil Özcan ask me questions to which they know the answers to launch the conversation. These are questions that are frequently thought of, yet rarely asked, such as how exactly does electricity work. A dangerous habit of our education system is to teach students what type of questions they should be thinking about. FluTV’s science programming overrides this format and asks questions formed in the heat of the conversation. It saddens me to see comments like “Didn’t you learn this in high school?” to honest questions and simple confusions. We have to break out of this habit of going after people who are simply trying to learn. None of our viewers should be concerned about their level of physics education when watching one of our videos.

Science is so universally delightful that we should make room for people to ask questions, people who might have gone through a certain level of education without paying attention. I try to adopt an inclusive and welcoming approach in our videos. I believe the type of education that provides people with the same freedom to ask questions will exponentially increase the popularity of physical sciences among students.

PT: How have the protests of the presidentially appointed rector affected the academic and social environments at Boğaziçi?

ÖZCAN: Since I’ve been working at TENMAK these past nine months, I have fallen behind on the status of the protest and the ways in which the appointment impacted academic life. Still, it is safe to say that Boğaziçi is going through unprecedented times. The incoming freshmen are intimidated, and a few faculty members’ research projects are being impeded due to their resistance to the presidential appointee. I take immense pride in being a member of Boğaziçi because of the courage and tenacity my colleagues and students have demonstrated in the past year.

One needs to be an avid reader of history and politics to have the capacity to analyze Turkey’s current situation. As a physicist, it is second nature to categorize things by mapping continuous phenomena onto discrete phases. However, it is still challenging to try and model the regions between phases where the function is no longer continuous. Turkey is one of those regions where people are sticking up for universal values ​​obstinately. Boğaziçi is an example of this. It will prove to be on the right side of history.

PT: What are your future plans?

ÖZCAN: TENMAK has been taking concrete steps toward restructuring itself as an agile agency that actively listens to academics, forges collaborations with universities and industry, aims to be a reliable supporter of Big Science, and strongly engages with the public. I intend to keep contributing to this new vision, and I would like to strengthen the institute’s ties with academia.

At KAHVELab, we will keep on designing and manufacturing accelerators. We are in talks with CERN to collaborate on a project that would allow us to design and manufacture materials used in its future accelerators.

Finally, I have always loved teaching. And now that I have also caught the bug for producing, it is something I see myself doing occasionally in the future. I take immense joy in collaborating with FluTV, so I might bump up my efforts in science popularization and outreach after the conclusion of my term at TENMAK.

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