Content warning: mentions of bodily fluids
In October of 2021, I declared a major in chemistry, even though I don’t have a masochistic pre-med track in my sights or even a slight interest in a career as an industry chemist. If I could have my way, my post-academia life would be spent in the confines of a personalized science dungeon, fitted with fume hoods and blow torches and a pantry of chemicals. I know that isn’t likely, but while I come to terms with the impracticality of this dream, I can experience it through NileRed, career YouTuber-slash-scientist.
My first encounter with Nigel Braun, who posts under the Youtube channel NileRed, was in a 2017 video titled “Extracting urea from my own pee.” The thumbnail contained a vat of the honey-golden liquid, appropriately labeled “MY PEE.” I watched it in its entirety and subsequently watched the next video in the series, “Turning my own pee into an artificial sweetener.” With the added solidarity of my best friend, I did exactly what you should do when you find a grown man who boils his pee for science: I showed NileRed to my high school chemistry teacher. After a long day of being heckled by unruly sophomores, she was understandably not thrilled, but she did laugh.
What drew me to Braun was the shocking title, but what kept me there was the excellent educational quality and inadvertent humor in his content. In “Extracting urea from my own pee,” Braun boils his own pee and makes what he calls “nice and appetizing pee foam,” but he also exhibits a comprehensive understanding of the chemistry behind what he is doing. The video, like all of his content, is just as professional and academic as it is entertaining. Braun explains step by step what he is doing and why; he breaks down every chemical reaction and explains the nature of each reagent without being too difficult to understand for most audiences.
Of course, not everything Braun does in the lab involves pee. He delves into materials science and engineering when he makes aerogel, and inorganic chemistry when he makes (a really excellent) ferrofluid. In fact, for most of his channel’s longevity, Braun’s ambition has outpaced the means available to him — one of his earliest projects involved synthesizing elemental bromine, a highly toxic liquid, in his parents’ garage. Braun acknowledges the endless list of dangerous hypotheticals, but caves in “because it’s just a cool element” and it looks “pretty scary.” Sounds like a good enough reason to me.
As Braun has gained more traction on YouTube and Patreon, he has since upgraded to a more well-equipped setup. Now, he rents a lab sufficiently stocked with the incredible amount of equipment required to minimize the risk of explosions. In “Making superconductors,” Braun takes full advantage of the resources at hand, as making a superconductor is a lengthy and intensive process that requires a lot of specialized equipment. For example, Braun bought a $2,000 furnace from Alibaba for the project — although it was marked down from the full price of $8,000, the purchase probably wouldn’t have been possible without increased support from his online following.
While Braun has more than enough means to prevent injury or disaster, he doesn’t always use them. A recent video on Braun’s second channel, NileBlue, finds him synthesizing a nasty organic compound called “U.S. Government Standard Bathroom Malodor.” As the name suggests, the government-made compound is meant to induce fear and panic. Braun makes the substance by mixing a chemical called “skatole” with a series of similar-smelling liquids under a half-open fume hood. He proceeds without wearing a gas mask and eventually leaves the concoction to “stinkify” before he uncaps the finalized military-grade fart juice and takes a whiff. His minimal reaction is impressive, but I wonder if his nostrils have just been burned off after years of exposure to smelly chemicals.
In a video uploaded in January of 2021, Braun ditches the safety of his lab to return to his parents’ garage and recreate his early bromine experiment. He encourages his parents to share their thoughts on his long-standing interest — his mom had some anxieties about slow and gradual poisoning, and his dad acknowledges that the average outsider would suspect a meth lab — but they were never afraid.
To the dismay of my Graduate Student Instructors and professors in the lab, Braun has contributed to my attitude towards chemistry at the University of Michigan. It’s not that I disregard the long list of very important safety precautions, but I’m not exactly scared of what might happen if I do. After Braun spilled concentrated corrosive acid on his hand for kicks, and his skin didn’t fall off, how could I be scared? In practice, saying “can I eat that?” about every soup of toxic chemicals just because it looks yummy will not earn laughs from your lead GSI — I’ve tried. I never saw anything wrong with a little joke, though.
More importantly, though, Braun’s channel has embellished my relationship with the natural sciences. Chemistry doesn’t have to be a means to medical school, or the least exciting class you took in high school. It’s the art of using one foundation of knowledge to answer questions about the world around you. Nobody has ever asked for caffeine-free Redbull, but if you really wanted to, chemistry would let you make it. You could also turn your old jewelry into bars of gold, cotton balls into cotton candy or toilet paper into moonshine.
As long as I have a pervading fascination with the science that does magic, I can grit my teeth through molecular orbital diagrams and Fourier transforms for the time being. Because of NileRed, that love is continually nurtured.
Digital Culture Beat Editor Laine Brotherton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.