Where is Physics Girl?

In today’s digital world, social media platforms like YouTube play a key role in breaking boundaries and spreading knowledge globally. Some social media science hosts are so popular that they have amassed millions of followers, making them extremely influential in the field of education. In this article, we talk about Dianna Cowern, host of the popular YouTube channel Physics Girl, and her debilitating illness.

Diana Cowern is, in her own words, “the always enthusiastic, ever curious,” creator and host of the highly successful YouTube channel Physics Girl. She is a science communicator with a penchant for making physics accessible and fun for everyone.  Dianna has amassed over 400 million views and three million subscribers with her content, covering diverse topics such as self-locomoting rocks in geology and antimatter at CERN in physics.

Dianna also has an impressive academic background. Having obtained her Bachelor’s degree in Physics at MIT, she spent some years researching dark matter and stars. After a brief stint at General Electric, she shifted to science communication as a career. She launched her YouTube channel in 2011, and partnered with PBS (an American media network) for about five years, after which she made her videos under her own banner. 

It would be an understatement to say that Dianna and other science content creators are the reason for my degree in physics. Back in my JEE times, one of the main reasons I became interested in physics was her interesting and unconventional videos: from breaking wine glasses using sound to quantum phenomena to ferrofluids, Dianna covered the whole spectrum (pun intended) in such an engaging and thought-provoking way that it inspired a 17 year old like myself to pursue a physics degree. Even in college, I continued to watch her videos – like those on clean energy using hydrogen cars and quasicrystals.

During the lockdown, many educational content creators geared up and started conducting lessons on various science topics. Dianna was one of them, uploading videos on physics topics intended for AP Physics students in their senior year. Starting with the famed laws of motion, she went all the way up to collisions and waves: topics that have stumped high schoolers for decades. The videos are fun, easy to understand, and explain how to solve problems in an intuitive way, something that traditional education severely lacks.

This AP series lasted from August 2020 until January 2021, exactly during my twelfth grade JEE times. Back then, I found the topic of rotational motion to be very abstract and obscure – a topic which I couldn’t quite grasp at that time. Her videos on rotation, torque, and angular motion, along with many interesting demonstrations, had a profound impact on my understanding of physics. I distinctly remember her using square cow figurines while explaining problems – a nod to physicists and their extreme approximations. In my tenure as the head of the Mathematics Club, I have always tried to incorporate ample problems and demonstrations – one of my favourite things about her videos. Needless to say, Dianna has had a profound impact on my educational journey.

Scrolling through her channel tells us that her last science video was uploaded in 2022. This is because, unfortunately, Dianna has been suffering from long COVID and related illnesses since July 2022, and she’s still bedridden. Dianna’s passion for her work shines clear in every post she makes, and it’s quite obvious to her long-term followers that this forced break from her work is affecting her just as much as us.

Long COVID is an umbrella term for various symptoms that occur post COVID infection. WHO defines long COVID to be “the continuation or development of new symptoms 3 months after the initial SARS-CoV-2 infection, with these symptoms lasting for at least 2 months with no other explanation.” Around 10% of all COVID patients (~6.5 crore people) have some form of long COVID.

Long COVID includes not just the regular COVID symptoms – the familiar headaches, the loss of taste and smell, and the sleep difficulties – but also more unfamiliar symptoms including dizziness, nausea, and a host of neurological illnesses. What makes this disease very potent is that the neurological symptoms might worsen, leading some physicians to even think of COVID as a neurological disease as much as it is a pulmonary disease.

In some rare cases, the symptoms worsen to Myalgic Encephalomyelitis / Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, (shortened to ME/CFS), as in the case of Dianna. Patients face extreme fatigue, and even the most minor of exertions can cause them to “crash” (doctors call this PEM: post-exertional malaise). Dianna herself has been through several such “crashes”. ME/CFS is very common: about 1 in 150 humans have some form of the disease (albeit usually a milder and temporary version). The most severe forms of this disease are still difficult to treat in the long run.

In updates by fellow YouTubers Simone Giertz and Destin Sandlin (from SmarterEveryDay), we get a glimpse into the problems that Dianna faces every single day due to ME/CFS. Dianna is bedridden, unable to move, and usually too weak to talk or read anything; there are days when she has to communicate by writing on a whiteboard. Her husband Kyle has been a pillar of support for her through these tough times. Her sister started a GoFundMe for her medical bills, which has collected close to $250,000 to date.

Till this day, we know very little about long COVID and ME/CFS. All we know is that as long as the prevalence of COVID is reduced, the chances of us contracting long COVID are also lowered, for which vaccines seem to be the way to go. Although we have known about ME/CFS for many decades now, its funding is still relatively low compared to diseases of similar potency, such as multiple sclerosis, which receives twenty times the funding of ME/CFS. 

Considering the lack of awareness outlined above, Dianna and her husband are live streaming a day in her life to share her experience and raise awareness about long COVID and ME/CFS. The stream will happen on her YouTube channel from 7:15 pm IST on Saturday until 6:30 AM IST on Sunday, along with a Q&A. Long COVID patients face difficulty in being diagnosed correctly and face a lack of sympathy from employers, and this stream is likely to alleviate the same. The link for the stream is here.

Dianna’s sense of humour is still impeccable: when told her current subscriber count recently, she rejoiced that she had had exactly Pi million subscribers. We wish her and other people suffering from this disease a speedy recovery.

Edited by Shreya Ramanujam

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