After a day of writing software for Apple, Scott Manley transforms into the internet’s favorite astronogamer, hitching on his vintage 20-year-old Sony headphones and lighting up his gaming console to simulate space flight, and share witty science factoids, to the delight of his 1.26 million subscribers.
But, what exactly does an internet astronogamer do? In Manley’s experience, it means answering questions about science and technology, with a focus on gaming and space travel, in short and interesting YouTube video clips on the internet. Recent videos Manley has produced have included topics like the rebirth of space tourism and making a space suit from duct tape. But the side gig varies, and while one day he’s explaining the basics of orbital mechanics, another day he finds himself debating someone on the internet who believes the earth is flat with a funny meme. Or he might be advising on science in fiction films and books, like in “Stowaway,” that just recently premiered on Netflix in April.
“It’s never been a straight line,” Manley says of his career. “But it’s always been steeped in learning new things and talking about them and sharing them.”
He traces his passion for science communication and edutainment back to the 90s, when he was studying physics and astronomy at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, where he earned his undergraduate degree and his Master of Science in computational physics. At that time, Manley planned to stay in academia, but five years into his three-year Ph.D., he realized he was getting distracted by other projects, gadgets, and data visualization work. He was quickly recruited by an American company because of streaming mp3 software he wrote and was off to work a full-time job in San Francisco.
“I sort of dropped out (of school), but I never forgot about the work that I’d done, and I never stopped reading the science and trying to understand it,” Manley says. “So, there was sort of 10 years where I’m a professional coder and just being that crazy person who would talk to everybody at lunch about the latest cool thing in science. Always having the answers.”
In 2009, Manley got an iPhone and became interested in YouTube – at the time, the video platform company was just four years old and still relatively new. Manley wanted to create something, so he signed up and made a video based on research he’d done during his postgraduate work on the asteroid belt in our solar system, helping to illuminate one of the many mysteries of space. He knew that a lot of people who saw pictures of the solar system would get very little detail about this rocky body which also orbits the sun. So, he created art that showed the position of every known single asteroid in the asteroid belt. Then, he added an extra layer of complexity, showing how over time the knowledge of asteroids inside the belt has increased.
“When I started doing this, there were maybe less than 30,000 asteroids and now we’re up to like 750,000,” he says. “I made this video back in 2010 where we just plotted the positions of the asteroids for every single day and then added them in as they were discovered with a flash of light so you could see this… This was a big hit on YouTube,” he says.
He made a few other videos for fun, including videos of him playing Kerbal Space Program, a space flight simulation video game, and then found himself explaining other basic science concepts. Satisfied by his experience in producing a few videos, he stopped creating. That was when the emails started flooding his inbox, with people around the world writing Manley things like, “Why aren’t you making more videos?” and “This is great. I want to know more.”
So, Manley got back in the video production seat. He realized he could have fun playing space games, create something new, and share interesting science stories at the same time. As someone who grew up fascinated by microcomputers and idolizing science-fiction heroes like Luke Skywalker, it was a dream come true.
“We’d be flying a rocket that was powered by some sort of ion thruster and I would be explaining how Hall-Effect thrusters worked because I needed to fill dead air for people to be interested,” he says of one video. “And, of course, as time goes on, it becomes more about talking about how science works and more about using the game as a foundation to help explain that. And now, yeah, I talk at a camera and then I fill in the stuff afterwards. And there are so many things I like to cover.”
Recently, Manley flexed his science communication skills in another media — film. A fellow YouTuber, Joe Penna, known as TheMysteryGuitarMan on the site, direct messaged Manley, saying he wanted to show Manley something. Penna sent Manley a script he was working on, a story about astronauts en route to Mars faced with a terrible moral dilemma.
“I began telling him everything that was wrong with it (the script) and how he could fix it. And this sort of went on and off,” Manley says. “...I would look at the problems and say, ‘Joe, you know, we have to explain why we can’t solve it this way.’ This was in 2015.”
In his five years of consulting on the script, Manley built models of the spacecraft and an excel sheet of equations to show how long people could survive in a spacecraft without life support. He also provided key insight on the science of radiation shields and found a way to incorporate that into the story’s final twist. For his efforts, Manley was credited as an aerospace expert in the “Stowaway” credits, even though he is quick to say he is not really qualified for that title.
The rewarding collaboration with Penna also gave Manley a new appreciation for storytelling and a desire to write more. His next self-described mission is to try his hand at long-form writing.
“I’m desperate to write a book at this point. I’ve got like four or five books ideas now, and I just need somebody to sort of come along and say, you know, ‘Make it happen,’” he says.
For other AAAS Members interested in science communication and reaching new audiences, Manley says it’s important to not get lost in the weeds, and to remember, everyone loves a good story.
“Never underestimate your audience is the first thing, but always figure out how your reader or viewer can get to where you are from very basic knowledge. And that’s the thing. You’ve got to have this A to B to C step that all makes sense. And then of course, show it to somebody and ask them what their questions are,” Manley says. “People are very, very good at following narratives that are well written.”