Science YouTuber Philipp Dettmer: ‘Getting cancer was super-interesting’

Philipp Dettmer's resume will show that he is a highly unlikely candidate to be one of the most respected science communicators in the world. The 35-year old from Munich, Germany dropped out of highschool at the age of 15. After completing a history degree, he only got interested in infographics and science. Kurzgesagt, also known as "In a Nutshell", was his first YouTube science channel. The platform's irreverent, kaleidoscopic videos -- stripped-down guides to everything black holes to Covid-- have over 15 million subscribers and have received almost 1.5bn views.
Dettmer now has a book on the immune system. This topic has been a fascination for him for over a decade. Everybody has a different opinion about their immune system - how good it is or how bad it is - but understanding how it works can be difficult. Dettmer's book Immune: A Journey into The Mysterious System that Keeps You Alive uses simple language and eye-catching graphics to unravel the bizarre, compelling, sometimes even grisly ways our bodies protect us from illness.

Are you a science communicator who is unlikely to be found?

Yeah, totally. While it's all great now, I was terrible at school. I was completely uninterested in school and didn't know any. I did drugs and played video games.

What has changed?

Poor parents sent me to an outside school, where I was placed by concerned parents to obtain any degree. One teacher was an older woman in her 60s. I was terrified of her. I was 17 years old and ready to cause trouble to everyone. Her teaching style was to shout at you. Although she was teaching history, she made it so fascinating! It was clear that I remember being shouted at in her class by her. This made me realize: "Wow! This is so cool!"

How did this lead to Kurzgesagt

Kurzgesagt was like this: "Hey! If you present things differently, it becomes fascinating!" I hope that Kurzgesagt can help me create these moments for as many people possible, this spark moment. To answer your question, I am a highly unlikely science communicator. That is not what I am qualified to do.

YouTube can reach millions of people. Why not write a book?

There are many downsides to books: they can be long and complicated and take up too much of your attention. A common misconception is that YouTube teaches you everything. You might learn something or understand a concept better by watching science videos. But you won't be able to fully grasp a topic from watching videos. Your brain responds differently to a book. You will hopefully have a new understanding of yourself, your body and what it means to be sick if you read the book. And I doubt our videos can do the same for us.

Do you know of any Kurzgesagt topics that will be a hit?

For sure. Videos of black holes will always work. Videos of nuclear weapons always work. There are many stupid videos that we make, but it is important to balance the stupid and the good ones.

It is obvious that the immune system is simpler than the brain. It was a huge challenge to make this subject accessible.

Although I have researched many topics, none are as difficult as immunology. A few months back, I was required to read an immunology paper in order to make a video. It hit me again: I can't read it now, but I read at the speed of first graders. This topic is the subject of my book!

You had cancer at 32. What prompted your interest in immunology after you had been diagnosed with cancer at 32?

It certainly strengthened it. Cancer is in some ways an immune-system breakdown. Although it's strange to say, it was one of the most memorable experiences of my entire life. For example, chemotherapy wasn't working as well as I expected and my immune system was basically dead. After I received some special drugs, my immune system rebounded so much that I was able to get cancer again. It was truly amazing.

Although self-improvement is a popular product, it's not the best. You want to have a stronger immune system.

The book begins by pointing out that our immune system will likely have destroyed any cancer cells within the time we've been studying it. It's a remarkable aspect of biology, isn’t it?

Yes, it does. And what's most fascinating is how it keeps doing its job. It fails quickly, and you can see it. It is not an outside entity that does something for you. It's you! It is you! It's my favorite topic. It's a fascinating topic, and I am curious to see what the future holds in 20 years. It's an exciting field. So much is happening.

It is a shame that you are so dismissive of the idea of boosting your immune system. Why?

Self-improvement is popular in our society. It sells lots of things, but it is flawed. You want to have a "boosted immune system." People believe they can have an immune system like a rugby player, one that can smash heads and all that. But what you really want is a balanced immune, one that knows where to step, where to kick and how hard. Covid is a deadly disease. It can lead to an immune system overreaction, also known as a "cytokine storm". Even if you could "boost” your immune system by buying stuff at the supermarket, which you won't be able to do thank God, you wouldn't want that without consulting a doctor.

Were we able to emerge from the Covid era better able to understand how our bodies fight infection and disease?

To be truthful, I am pessimistic. It has been a hot topic, but conspiracy theorists against vaccines are having a great time. It's difficult to believe that vaccines are a bad idea once you understand what they do.

Is it surprising that anti-vaccine movements are so popular?

It is just so tragic. It's affecting intelligent people too. I'm not going to support anti-vaccine activists. This isn't a movement for idiots. These life-changing discoveries were made possible by science and immunology, but some people don't believe them. It's sad, really.

What's next for Kurzgesagt and you?

There are many exciting projects that we have in the pipeline for next year. I cannot talk about them yet. My favorite thing is, honestly, the YouTube channel. It's a lot of fun and I believe I'm pretty good at it. Then, I might write another. Although I had some ideas, the writing of this book was painful. It was horrible. Tim, never write a book.