If this were a radio show, I’d cue “Rocket Man” by Elton John or maybe David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.”
Then I’d launch into the narrative of a brilliant Marin teen promising millions of people around the world, “I’ll make you love space,” and in about 60 seconds, he actually does.
Bayanni Rivera, 18, has a knack for breaking down complicated astronomy concepts and creating stellar videos to share the science scoop on social media, allowing average folks like me to relate to the universe. A recent video by Rivera explaining the rare blue supermoon garnered almost 30 million views on TikTok—and he knows exactly why.
“It’s the difference between being a science nerd and a science communicator,” Rivera told me during a lengthy conversation about astronomy, rockets and earning a place in the final round of the Breakthrough Junior Challenge, a prestigious international science competition.
It certainly doesn’t come as a surprise to those who know Rivera that he’s one of 15 finalists in the contest that seems tailor-made to his unique skills.
This year, more than 2,400 high school students entered the Breakthrough Junior Challenge by submitting an original video on a complex science theory, with the goal of making the idea easy for everyone to understand. Sound familiar?
While Rivera’s video, “The Crisis in Cosmology,” is vying for the $400,000 grand prize, he sounded remarkably calm when we spoke about the competition. But the Greenbrae native couldn’t contain his excitement when describing this cosmology crisis, which is about two different methods for calculating how fast the universe is expanding—with conflicting results. And this probably isn’t anything to worry about right now, but will the universe expand to infinity? Could it reverse or even stop? Yep, I caught Rivera’s contagious enthusiasm on the topic.
To make it to the finals in the extremely competitive Breakthrough Junior Challenge, Rivera’s affinity for astronomy and effective communication weren’t quite enough—he also had to polish his video-making skills. He spent 90 hours producing “The Crisis in Cosmology,” which is just two minutes long. Rivera used animation in his video and found the learning curve a bit rocky.
“Animating things is very time-consuming,” Rivera said. “The first animation that I made for the Challenge lasts 15 seconds and took me eight hours to produce. It’s harder than it looks.”
Rivera finds the painstaking attention to detail worth the effort because he thoroughly enjoys sharing astronomy info with others. He credits Elise Rubio, his science teacher at Redwood High School, with inspiring him. Rubio brought an upbeat energy to her teaching, especially in astronomy class, according to Rivera.
Rubio, however, sees the beginning of Rivera’s fascination with astronomy somewhat differently. During astronomy class, Rubio said Rivera constantly remained engaged, worked hard and asked good questions, even during COVID, when many students were challenged by the online-only curriculum.
“Kids like Bayanni tend to think that someone else is responsible for sparking their interest in a subject,” Rubio told me. “Really, it was inside him all the time. The astronomy course gave him the platform he needed to study the thing he loved.”
And Rivera’s passion for astronomy has grown over the years. In 2021, during his junior year, Rivera founded Redwood High’s astronomy club, with Rubio as the advisor.
Last year, Rivera began posting his imaginative astronomy videos to TikTok. He came up with the idea when he wanted to learn more about astronomy and searched the internet for videos less than 10 minutes long. There weren’t any.
“I wished there were more condensed videos, to learn science essentials on the go,” Rivera said. “At the time, a lot of people thought TikTok was just a place to be entertained. But I thought maybe people would want to learn some cool science in 30 seconds to a minute. I decided to do it.”
Of course, Rivera was right. His TikTok videos, delivered with flair and humor, have already amassed over 100 million views. Followers can learn about phenomena including black holes, wormholes and a dark matter star with the mass of a million suns.
However, Rivera is no longer producing his videos from Marin County. Since September, the astronomy devotee has been contemplating all things science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he’s now a freshman.
“Getting into MIT was a goal that was long in the making,” Rivera said. “In my freshman year at Redwood [High School], we wrote a letter to our senior selves. I wrote that my dream school is MIT. There you go. I got it.”
The TikTok science star is currently deciding whether to focus his undergraduate studies on aerospace engineering or physics. Perhaps Rivera’s leaning on the aerospace side since he just joined the MIT rocket team. The group will be building a rocket, called Prometheus, eventually entering rocket launching competitions against other schools.
With Rivera’s full schedule, somehow, he manages to carve out time for his other interests. Last week, in time for Halloween, he posted a spooky new astronomy video to TikTok about three stars that mysteriously disappeared from the sky in 1952.
Rivera is also a talented musician. While he’s given up the French horn for now, he’s still playing the piano and composing classical music. Some of his compositions are posted on YouTube.
As my conversation with Rivera was winding down, he admitted that he is a tad nervous about the Breakthrough Junior Challenge. The $400,000 prize includes a $250,000 scholarship, a $100,000 science lab for the winner’s school and $50,000 for the science teacher.
The champ will be chosen by a committee of prominent scientists, professors and teachers from around the globe; however, the competition hasn’t yet determined a date to announce the winner. That’s leaving me on pins and needles, too.
It’s clear that Rivera is a winner in every sense of the word. I asked Rubio, the Redwood High teacher, what propels Rivera to succeed. She didn’t hesitate for a minute with her answer.
“Bayanni needs no nudging to get out there and learn, find opportunities or just explore,” Rubio said. “He has this internal drive that is otherworldly. Bayanni craves learning and craves human interaction. It’s a gift that he has. He loves his friends, his family, his teachers and his community. Bayanni’s a once-in-a-lifetime kid.”