Professor Sir Martyn Poliakoff is a YouTube Sensation

Interview: Ali Emm
Illustrations: Mark Leary
Monday 19 March 2018
reading time: min, words

Nottingham is crazy about science, with a grand history of making leaps and bounds in innovation and research. The University of Nottingham has a large part to play in this, and for those who get a kick out of seeing what happens when you mix up chemicals, set a flame to gases, and the behaviour of volatile substances, their Research Professor of Chemistry, Professor Sir Martyn Poliakoff, has made a series called The Periodic Table of Videos to satiate the inner nerds in us.


Professor Sir Martyn Poliakoff
Subscribers: 1M
Most popular video: Cheeseburger in Hydrochloric Acid

Science experiment videos are all over YouTube, which is great, but what a lot of them lack is a decent explanation that a layman can understand. With his distinctive shock of white hair and calm manner, Martyn Poliakoff isn’t your typical YouTube star, but he and his team have won over audiences around the globe. After ten years of educating and entertaining the masses, we thought it was high time to chat to the man with an unrivalled passion for chemistry and periodic table-themed ties…

How did The Periodic Table of Videos first come about?
The filmmaker, Brady Haran, was making a series of videos for the University of Nottingham called Test Tube, and he had the idea of making a YouTube series of each element of the periodic table. I told him he was mad. It’s easy to make videos about sodium and hydrogen, which explode, but what do you do about element 117, of which in 2008 – when we started – not even an atom had been discovered. But he persuaded me, and we made 120 videos in five weeks.

Five weeks?! That sounds intense.
It was the summer; Brady was still working at BBC East Midlands at the time and there isn’t much news in the summer, so we packed it all in. After that, our fans wanted us to keep going. It was more stressful for Brady than me because he was working all hours of the day and night. But it was fun. Not that I would want to do that every year.

You’ll have been making the series for ten years this summer and you’ve covered all 118 elements, some a few times over, and branched out into molecules. Did you anticipate the response that you’ve received, and is that what’s driven you to continue for so long?
There were messages such as, “I don’t care what you do, but keep making the videos.” How could we refuse? We’ve got over a million subscribers, our most popular video has more than 19 million views, and we have about eighteen videos that have over a million views each. It's quite pleasing.

How do you go about structuring the ideas for each video?
We try and do a combination of things. My colleagues take part too, and we don’t have any scripts; if I say something boring, Brady cuts it out.

I like that you still show the ones that haven’t quite gone to plan…
It can produce interesting results. It’s what is known as serendipity. We do try and make them go to plan, obviously.

Do you have any particular favourites from the series?
My all-time favourite is Hassium, which is a synthetic chemical element, number 108. In the original video I was recorded without my knowledge in what is known in the trade as a pre-credit sequence saying, “I know nothing about Hassium, should we make something up?” We then visited the institute in Hesse, Germany, where it’s made.

Have you had a good response to the videos from the scientific community?
Yes. I’ve probably become better known for my videos than I have for my contributions to science because of my funny hair. I think I might be the most recognisable chemist in the world.

You’ve had a long career in science. How old were you when it struck that chemistry was what you wanted to dedicate yourself to?
My father and grandfather were physicists, and my father decided when I was very young that I was going to be a scientist, so I didn’t really have any choice. I thought I’d become a physicist too, but my maths wasn’t good enough.

So it wasn’t a rebellion?
I had an exceptionally good memory when I was young – it isn’t bad now but it’s not as good as it used to be – so I found remembering the facts in chemistry very easy.

In one of your videos you say that you used to do “chemical conjuring” at your children’s birthday parties, which is a lovely thought. Magic and science can sometimes be perceived as indistinguishable…
Science and magic are rather different, but some of the changes you see in chemistry do look like magic. Apparently scientists are some of the easiest people for conjurers to fool because we’re trained to observe nature and we don’t expect nature to cheat, so we get really taken in by it.   

I guess the sense of wonder that videos like yours provoke is part of the reason that the series is so popular. It's nice that you and your colleagues still get excited by what you’re seeing and doing.
I must say that some of the simple reactions we film give me great pleasure and I see things that I've never seen before. It may be fifty years since I've tried doing a reaction, and then I just do it quickly in the test tube.

You received the Royal Society of Chemistry Nyholm Prize for Education for taking chemistry to a wider audience. As an educator, that must have been quite an accolade to receive. Was it for the video work alone or your larger research?
I think it was partly for the videos, partly for being a general champion of chemistry, and I suppose partly for my research. There’s a book called Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman! about the Nobel prize-winner Richard Feynman, who said that the only justification for people doing research is that they also teach.

The Table of Periodic Videos has, on the whole, an unusually positive YouTube comments section; there’s a lot of excitement, asking for more, and debating what they’ve seen. What advice would you give to someone who might want to move into the field of science?
I get very nice emails from all over the world, and we get nice comments on the videos. Regarding advice, first is to encourage people because the training in chemistry opens up a huge number of careers, not just being a research chemist. But also, people should read as much as they can, watch videos, listen to their teachers and lecturers at college, and most of all, enjoy their science.

One exciting thing that’s happening is that 2019 has been declared the International Year of the Periodic Table to mark the 150th anniversary of Mendeleev’s first presentation of it. I think this will be a great opportunity for chemistry, and a great opportunity for us to celebrate things in Nottingham as well. I'm a member of the global steering committee for the year, and we're trying to coordinate events in Nottingham with other events around the world.

Professor Martyn Poliakoff, whose research interests are focused on supercritical fluids, continuous reactions and their applications to Green Chemistry, can be seen on YouTube and the University of Nottingham website. If physics or computing is also your thing, then he highly recommends the University of Nottingham’s other channels, Sixty Symbols and Computerphiles.

Periodic Videos website


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