Javier Santaolalla, science communicator: "I am a reborn for science, young people should aspire to surpass us"


Solid training, spontaneity, passion and self-confidence are some of the ingredients of the formula used by Javier Santaolalla, telecommunications engineer and doctor in Physics, who accumulates hundreds of thousands of followers in his social networks

The scientific youtuber Javier Santaolalla (from the Canary Islands, born in Burgos, 1982), one of the world's most important disseminators in the Spanish language, gave a talk organized by the Institute of Molecular Science (ICMol-UV) on June 16 at the Marie Curie Auditorium of the University of Valencia Science Park (PCUV), which was well attended by physics and chemistry students, aspiring engineers, professors and people involved in research.

It was not a conference with the usual format. It did not have a title or a specific subject. This absence of a predefined script allowed Santaolalla to explain science, but also all kinds of details about his career, which he defines as that of a very good student, almost obsessive, who got carried away by his "madness" and his "impulsiveness" to end up abandoning his career as a researcher.

Santaolalla defines his career as that of "a very good student, almost obsessive, who got carried away by his madness and impulsiveness to end up abandoning his career as a researcher"

The event began with a relaxed chat between the well-known particle physicist and José Jaime Baldoví, PhD in Chemistry and distinguished researcher of the Gen-T Plan of the Generalitat de Catalunya at ICMol. Baldoví and Santaolalla shared reflections on how education should "communicate" with students. Or about the "social" role of scientific dissemination. And this exchange of ideas gave way to a lively discussion with the audience in which Santaolalla's comments were provoking interventions from the audience full of curiosity. The discussion lasted more than an hour and a half. "We carry curiosity in our veins, it is what makes us feel human, but at the same time it encourages us to be scientists," he said.

Fotos visita Javier Santaolalla (1)Javier Santaolalla, accompanied by José Jaime Baldoví during the colloquium of the disseminator in the Marie Curie Auditorium of the PCUV. Photo: FPCUV

Disseminator and "artist"

Santaolalla defines himself as a disseminator and "artist". And he often says that his vocation to bring science to society came to him after reading the book History of Time, by Stephen Hawking. Asked about the emotion he brings to his interventions, Santaolalla compared his work to that of a child "for whom everything is new" or that of a superhero "who tries to go beyond his own senses". And everyone, he said, can be a superhero in their own way. 

During one of his speeches, the physicist tried to sum it up: "I feel reborn for science, but I also feel that the new generations have the challenge to surpass us," he said. "At the very least, they should aspire to surpass us." Santaolalla signed after the talk more than a dozen copies of some of his 7 books, which were carried under his arm by his eager fans. The last one bears one of those titles that make it almost irresistible for young people and laymen: "What's a 'bosson' like you doing in a big bang like this?"

"I feel reborn for science, but I also feel that the new generations have the challenge of surpassing us," he said. "At least, they should aspire to surpass us," said Javier Santaolalla, physicist and science disseminator

Among the issues that were part of the lively debate was the challenge of motivation in high school and university classrooms. Santaolalla, a collaborator in projects such as "Big Van Science", told of his personal obsession to learn about and work at CERN after reading the studies of Peter Higgs - the scientist who gave his name to the so-called 'Goddam particle' - and learning about the project to build the particle accelerator when he was training to be a physicist. "I made it on the third time, after being rejected twice at CERN, and it turns out that I arrived at the right time, at a historic moment".

Santaolalla admitted to having been (and still being) an "almost obsessive" student, but explained that his "transformation" into a "study machine" came from curiosity. "I was and am curious about many things and what academia drinks to do is to foster in students that same curiosity."  However, at one point in his life, with two degrees - Physics and Telecommunications - and a PhD, he decided to change course. "I still remember the day I told my mother, 'Mom, I'm going to bars,'" he recalled to another general laugh. 

"To be a good communicator you have to be able to synthesize. Not so much memory, not so much mental speed, but being able to get to the key elements of the ideas"

The disseminator began his career in the so-called stand up, telling jokes in nightclubs and today he is a true celebrity in countries such as Chile, Argentina and Mexico. Also in Spain. "I have always had an extravagant, crazy, impulsive point, but I prefer to think that I like to look for new ways and new challenges". Experimentation in social networks came into his life during a sabbatical year in which he dedicated himself to traveling the world. "I was a very shy person, I started to let loose in Geneva, but suddenly I found myself on a stage in front of 500 people," he explained when questioned about his "tricks" to control stage fright. "I have learned to control my fears and anyone can get it too if they work at it."

Among the qualities Santaolalla cited to be a good communicator is the ability to "synthesize ideas". Not so much memory, nor mental speed. "I am able to get to the key elements of ideas and that is very interesting," he replied when asked about the skills needed to dedicate himself to explaining science. Finally, Santaolalla received a very special gift from ICMol, a medal with a "nanomessage" engraved by gold evaporation on a substrate in the laboratories of the center, which specializes in training and research in Nanoscience and Nanotechnology from a molecular approach. Using a laser lithography technique, the medal was engraved with a reference to his presence at ICMol and, more deeply, with one of his favorite slogans: "Science bitch."