Marketing for Scientists

Interview with Science Rapper Kate McAlpine


The summer before the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) came online, a key LHC press officer (Dr. Katie Yurkewicz) went on maternity leave. Kate McAlpine, who was then a science communication intern half a year out of college, stepped in to help.  Her main duties were to arrange visits for U.S. journalists to the collider and to accompany the journalists on their visits.

Science Rapper Kate McAlpine
Science Rapper Kate McAlpine

McAlpine also borrowed Yurkewicz’s video camera and, in her spare time, made a short video about the Large Hardon Collider—a video similar to one she had made the previous year about neural programming.  In the LHC video, science communication interns break-danced next to the collider’s giant magnets, while McAlpine rapped about the beginning of the universe and what we would learn when the collider turned on.

McAlpine returned the video camera, left the position and went to work for another project.  Then she posted the video on youtube in July, a month and half before the collider was scheduled to begin operations.   With its fast-paced, catchy music, the video became a phenomenon.  It quickly garnered about three million views, and lots of good publicity for the collider and for particle physics in general.

By now, video has had about six million views, more than many rap videos from major record labels. I’m pretty sure you’ve seen it by now—if not, here’s the link.

Large Hadron Rap on Youtube 

I interviewed Kate McAlpine on the phone a few weeks ago to find out how she did it, and get her take on the future of marketing science using videos on the internet  She was home visiting family when I called her, but she was able to take some time away to answer my questions.   I hope you enjoy the interview—it’s below.




MK:  Kate, how did you get started making science rap videos?

KM:   My fist video was the Neurochip Rap.  I did my own beats at that point. You can tell a big difference when Will Barras stepped in and did the beats for the Large Hadron rap.  [Will Barras is a friend of Kate’s and a recent linguistics Ph.D.]. You have to write a melody if you’re going to do another genre of music.  And I’m not confident in my ability to write a melody.

MK: What tools did you use to make the video?

KM: We used a basic handi-cam video camera, the kind you use for family home videos.  And Windows Movie Maker, which comes free with Windows.

The video sat on my computer for a while.  Windows Movie Maker had a tendency to crash after I had a minute’s worth of video edited.  I had to edit in minute long chunks and tie them together at the end.  The audio was done on a Mac.  [Will said he used Logic Studio with beat loops like audio clip art. Kate now recommends the free software audacity on her website.]

MK: How long did it take to do the project?

KM:  That’s a difficult question because I did it in my spare time.  I think if you added it all up with Will’s work too, it would come out to about 60 hours.  That includes the time editing out the obscenities.  Originally it said “I’m going to drop some nuclear physics on your ass.”

MK: Tell me more about the day the video came out!

KM: I was mostly worried because the sound wasn’t working.  The sound was fading in and out…  …Youtube actually fixed that sometime after the second or third week.

But Adam Yurkewicz, Katie’s husband, found the video and put it on the [LHC] blog before I’d told anyone about it.   A journalist with the New York Times [Dennis Overbye] was watching the LHC blog, and had and interview request by the end of the first day.  Suddenly we were getting all these hits.

It was exciting, but I had put it up on youtube the last thing before I went to visit my family for vacation, so I had intended to be relaxing with family at the time.  Then I started getting emails through other media—or they would youtube message me.  I really don’t like youtube’s message interface.

I had actually left my position at the LHC before it went online and moved on to work with the Atlas project.   I wasn’t expecting the response the Large Hadron Rap got.  We only got about 600 views for the Neurochip rap in its first year.

MK: How did the serious particle physicists at the LHC react to the video?

KM: Mostly they were really happy with it.  You got the occasional person who thought it was improper or dumbing things down too much.

I got one email message from a physicist that was all in German.  I put it through Google translator and it said “This is dirt.”

MK:  How did making this video help your career, and the LHC?

KM: For my career, it certainly gives me something interesting to put on my CV.  In science communication there are so many people vying for the top jobs that I’m sure it helped me get my interviews with both Nature and New Scientist.

For the LHC, I like to think that it helps more people feel that they can relate to what the scientists are doing a little more, and realize that it’s not completely beyond their grasp.  I like to read the comments on youtube. My favorite ones are like “wow this suddenly makes sense” and “my teacher showed this to us in class”.

My press coverage when the video went viral was also coverage for the LHC. They had been trying to get press coverage because September 10 was the big startup day for the LHC.  Over in the U.K., they were calling it big bang day.  I like to think that the extra hook of the video going out there helped to get more press for them on startup day.

MK: What do you think is the next big thing in new media marketing for science?

KM: I know a lot of outreach groups do videos.   But I think what people are just catching on to is that it’s really all about interaction.  If you want to get followers and keep them, you have to talk with them and get back to them when they talk to you. A lot of people are just putting stuff out there and hoping someone will find it.  I was lucky like that.  But if you want to build something, you need to talk back.

MK: Like some scientists do on facebook?

KM:  Yes, though I’m not personally good at it.  I have conflicting emotions about Facebook because it started out as a place to make inane comments with friends.   Now it’s become something else where you also have a professional life on it.

MK:  So do you think the science rap video is played out?

KM:  I don’t think so.  There are other people out there rapping about science and people who are enjoying these videos.  As long as you make something that’s a little bit catchy that can also tell you something that’s interesting.  I think there’s even a place for the stuff that makes you cringe too—like my first video or perhaps all my videos.  Because it’s just people goofing off and enjoying their science.


Kate has now created a webpage about science rappers at