Bunsen the Berner and a retriever named BEAKER are the not-so-secret ingredients behind a social media science experiment that has gotten a lot of tails ... er, tongues ... wagging.
It all started when Jason Zackowski, a chemistry teacher at Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High School in Red Deer, Alta., added a Bernese mountain dog to his family.
Zackowski named the puppy Bunsen, a playful nod to the breed's nickname as Berners (bunsen burners are a type of gas burner commonly used in lab experiments). Then he started sharing photos of Bunsen on Twitter and Instagram.
"Because of his name, and because I'm a science teacher and I'm a science communicator, I would send, every couple of days, a little science fact," said Zackowski. "And that really caught on."
The social media accounts quickly grew into popular feeds that featured science communication through the eyes of a dog.
Then, like so many other people during the pandemic, Zackowski brought home a new pup.
And the accounts grew again.
"We added a little golden retriever," he said. "She's a COVID puppy and of course we named her BEAKER. So we have Bunsen and BEAKER, they are the science dogs on Twitter."
Zackowski said BEAKER's all-caps name plays out in her all-caps messages, which distinguish her tweets from Bunsen's. The pup herself explained it on Twitter: "HI IM BEAKER THE GOLDEN AND I TWEET IN ALL CAPS BECAUSE OMG THERE IS A CHICKEN OUT OF THE COOP TIME FOR LUNC…"
As science experiments go, the Bunsen and Beaker pairing has created quite a reaction. The dogs have more than 112,000 Twitter followers (including big-name medical professionals, authors and health communicators such as Timothy Caulfield and Dr. Jennifer Gunter), and another 22,000 followers on Instagram.
"It is a juggernaut, it just blows my mind," Zackowski said.
The formula is simple.
"We promote science, of course. But also being kind, and cuteness," he said. "So we get people with the cute pictures, and they learn science along the way."
'Always work in a pet story'
Zackowski has created an accompanying podcast — The Science Pawdcast — which is going into its fourth season with a mix of science and pet news.
Every week, the show hosts a guest, including renowned scientists from every discipline imaginable, from astrophysics and ocean science to meteorology and nuclear energy. The episodes almost always include going for a little walk.
"They come on and we chat in a very wholesome way about what they study and exciting things they're working on, but we always work in a pet story," Zackowski said.
"So these scientists that study dark matter, black holes, bees, ecology — they talk about their pets. And that's really heartwarming."
The show always wraps up with an update on his own dogs.
"People really love Bunsen and BEAKER," Zackowski said. "They're the famous ones, I'm nothing compared to them."
That fame has even led to an invite from the Calgary Telus Spark Science Centre to rub noses with another four-legged superstar — a Boston Dynamics robot dog.
"I was like, 'What kind of universe am I living in here?'" Zackowski said about the out-from-the-blue invite.
The teacher has been showing videos and discussing the evolution of the company's robots with his students for years, so he was thrilled.
His dogs were less impressed.
"Our Bernese Mountain dog is a rock star so he was not unnerved by the thing at all," he said. "Our golden retriever is a little younger and she was very curious about it. She tried to sniff its butt a few times and was perplexed because it didn't smell like a dog."