Interview with Joe Hanson from ‘It’s Okay To Be Smart’


It’s Okay To Be Smart is a YouTube show and a blog about science. Joe wants to talk about science as more than just facts, how it can be a creative process and how knowledge can be exciting for everyone. The show aims to tell people how amazing science can be, and how it impacts our everyday lives. Or, in this case, how it impacts even fictional life.

Last month Joe Hanson published a video tackling the Science of Game of Thrones, which you can see below. Who hasn’t wondered about the seasons in Westeros, or if it was actually possible for dragons to exist? Of course we have to consider magic is at play too, but it’s still interesting to examine everything through a more scientific lens.

1 – Tell us a bit about yourself and how you got here. What started your interest in science?

I’ve always been a passionately curious person. When I was a kid, it was probably more like “annoyingly curious”. I was lucky to have a family and teachers that fed that fire, letting me be do summer science programs at museums, family nature excursions, seeing museums in places like Washington DC, even getting lucky enough to do actual research in a university setting before I was even out of high school. Since those days, I’ve always been that kind of friend that wants to tell you about this really cool article I just read. Everyone should have a friend like that.

2 – To those who don’t know, what is your channel? How did it start?

It’s Okay To Be Smart is a YouTube series produced by PBS Digital Studios that aims to educate people about science by using mind-blowing stories, pop culture, stunning visuals, and humor (at least I TRY to be funny, no telling if it works!). It began as a blog that I kept in grad school where I would share not only science, but also all of science’s intersections with art and culture and everyday life.

3 – How much research do you put into your videos?

That really depends on the video! Some videos come together in a couple days, but some I might be working on little by little for months, trying to find an interesting angle on a science lesson, or how best to translate something visually. The Game of Thrones video, for instance, took about three weeks to research since it touched on everything from geology to astronomy.

4 – Do you have a plan of what you’re going to speak about weeks in advance, or do you improvise sometimes, when you see something that interests you?

I’m usually a few weeks ahead when it comes to knowing what I’m going to talk about. I am constantly searching for ideas, pretty much every minute of my day I am observing and questioning and reading and saying “hmmmm” and playing around with ideas in my head. Some videos come from a book I read, or a question someone sent in, but others are more combinatorial. I have hundreds of little notes and tidbits of information and questions floating around on my computer, tagged and organized. Sometimes a few of them just fall into place around a certain topic and then bam, there’s the skeleton of a video!

5 – Do you think fantasy books are better if they mix some science in their world building? Should magic just be magic, or does it depend on the case?

I think people connect to the story better when the fantasy maintains some roots in reality. Should every fantasy story obey every scientific principle of our own world? No. But I think stories like Game of Thrones work so well because as strange and magical and deadly as that universe is, it’s really not TOO different from our own, when you think about it. Same goes for magic, for me at least. I do not believe in magic, not in real life. So for me to get into a story with magical leanings, I like it to have roots in the natural world, to obey some laws of science. Arthur C. Clarke said that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” which to me means that a lot of what we call “magic” in our stories could really just be science that we don’t understand.

6 – How did you go about doing the research just for the Game of Thrones episode? Are there a lot of articles and speculation about it?

There are thousands of people out there trying to crack the nut that is George R.R. Martin’s brain. There is an incredible amount of deep, intelligent, very creative analysis of his universe and how it might work. I especially owe a debt to my friends at the Generation Anthropocene blog, who did all the hard work on the geologic history of Westeros.

7 – Is there some interaction with your channel’s followers? Does each episode spark a conversation between the community and yourself, or do you think it’s a more one sided conversation?

For a video like the GoT one, there’s a great amount of discussion that goes on after the video as people try to come up with alternative theories and explanations, and debate their own interpretations of how that universe might work. Other videos, notably some that I’ve done about evolution, have been highly discussed because some people find them controversial (which they really shouldn’t be as that’s very mainstream science). But whatever gets people talking about science, I think that’s a good thing. We need more passion around STEM.

8 – What are some examples (books or shows) where you think this mixture between fantasy and science has been done well, besides Game of Thrones?

I see a lot in the science fiction realm, which despite being a different genre at the book store, I kinda see as a form of fantasy. Star Trek really set the example when it came to blending science with fantasy elements in the sci-fi world. That show’s writers and creators worked hard with actual scientists to make things that were at least plausible or logically sound, even if they weren’t likely. Star Wars, as much as I love it, was much less scientifically sound, to say the least. Battlestar Galactica also took care to obey the laws of physics in space battles, which is something we’re working on for a future video!


Thank you for answering our questions, Joe!

And here’s the video to The Science of Game of Thrones:


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