A not-so-nutty professor brings science to the masses on YouTube
Professor Martyn Poliakoff isn't a mad scientist — he's just crazy about teaching chemistry. A Q&A with the man behind the Periodic Table of Videos.
Sun, Aug 14 2011 at 8:02 AM
IT'S ELEMENTAL: Nottingham University's Martyn Poliakoff aims "to inform people and at the same time to try to interest them in chemistry, and also to entertain them." (Photo: periodicvideos.com)
Martyn Poliakoff, a professor of chemistry at the University of Nottingham, may first appear like a mad scientist in his popular series of YouTube videos in which he leads viewers on a tour of the world of chemistry, but it’s not an act. His white crinkly hair explodes from his head forming an Einstein-esque helmet. He wears “unfashionable” glasses with thick frames and large lenses. In one of the early YouTube videos, he admits that drunken Nottingham hooligans occasionally call out “Hello Einstein!” to him in the street. “I have no idea what a stereotypical scientist is, but I know that I look like one,” he says.
The video series — a collaboration with video journalist Brady Haran and dubbed the Periodic Table of Videos — has elevated Poliakoff, whose area of study is green chemistry, to the ranks of Internet celebrity. The videos have also allowed Poliakoff, with his easy-to-understand explanations of chemistry, to reach would-be scientists around the world.
“One of the things I find very pleasing is that there’s a much greater enthusiasm for science in the world than one might expect,” Poliakoff says. “Therefore, it’s very encouraging for us who are scientists to realize what we’re doing interests so many people.”
Poliakoff will soon have another avenue to reach out to scientists around the world. The U.K.-based Royal Society, which was founded in 1660 and claims to be the oldest scientific society in the world, recently nominated Poliakoff to be the next foreign secretary, essentially an ambassador for British scientists to the rest of the world. MNN sat down with Poliakoff to discuss green chemistry, its applications, his new role at the Royal Society, and what he thinks about being called a mad scientist.
MNN: What is green chemistry?
Martyn Poliakoff: Green chemistry is a branch of chemistry devoted to cleaner ways of making chemicals and devising environmentally more acceptable chemical processes.
The population of the world is expanding. More and more people require the products of the chemical industry, though they often don’t realize it. So the chemical industry is faced with the task of producing ever greater quantities of chemicals with either the same, or preferably a reduced, environmental impact compared to what is being done at the moment.
Given the expanding population, a finite amount of resources and other current issues like rising energy prices, climate change, etc., what is the future role of this field? What is your vision for this field?
I think the aim of green chemists is quite ambitious. It’s really to try and transform how chemicals are made and used. And I don’t think it’s a question of what the future is of this — it’s perhaps what would happen if we don’t adopt this? And if we don’t adopt this, I think it will be very difficult to sustain society in its present form. That sounds a little dramatic, but I believe that.
The average person doesn’t know very much about chemistry. What is one of the most important things the average person should know about chemistry, but doesn’t?
That’s a very interesting question. I suppose — although it doesn’t sound very exciting, I think it is quite important — they should be aware that they use and benefit from using chemicals. So all the pharmaceutical products that people use are chemical-based. All the personal care products they use — shampoos, toothpaste, hand creams, and so on — are all based on chemicals and most people really don’t realize this.
You’re saying people are interacting with products of the chemical manufacturing industry every day and take it for granted?
The Royal Society of Chemistry has, and I believe it still has, a standing prize of a million pounds — that’s $1.5 million dollars — for anybody who can produce an amount of material that you can hold in your hand that does not contain atoms and chemicals.
It is impossible, but most people don’t realize it is.
You’re the narrator of a popular series of videos called the Periodic Table of Videos that is posted on YouTube and on your own website. What prompted this project and what is your goal?
What prompted it was a collaboration with a video journalist here in Nottingham called Brady Haran who had the idea and who is a professional video maker. He persuaded me it was a good idea to make the Periodic Table of Videos. We did it very quickly. In five weeks, we made 120 videos. And after that people were so excited we realized they wanted us to continue. We now make one or two videos every week. Our most recent videos were made in Brazil when I was there for a conference.
Our aim is to inform people and at the same time to try to interest them in chemistry, and also to entertain them. And we enjoy doing it, so I think what we’re trying to do is share our enjoyment of chemistry.
I have to ask about your persona, the hair reminiscent of Einstein and the mad scientist. What do you say to people who think it’s a part of your act?
I get a bit irritated because that’s what I look like normally. We have a video which you can find called “Hello Einstein," which is talking about drunk people in the street yelling “Hello Einstein” to me. My collaborator Brady Haran says that he thinks people like our videos because they can see I look mad, but then when they actually hear me speaking, I’m speaking quite a lot of sense. And they find it a strange contrast.
You were recently nominated as foreign secretary of the Royal Society. What is the Royal Society and the significance of this position?
The Royal Society is one of the oldest scientific societies in the world. We believe it’s the oldest, but some people try and argue about this. It was founded 351 years ago in the reign of Charles II and most of the famous scientists people learn about have been fellows of the Royal Society. The Royal Society right from the beginning has interacted with scientists outside the U.K., and since 1723 they have had a so-called foreign secretary whose job it is to head up and coordinate interactions with other scientific societies. And I have been fortunate to be nominated to be the next foreign secretary. I will take over on the 30th of November, after the so-called anniversary day celebrations, which celebrate the founding of the Royal Society.
The YouTube videos made you something of an ambassador of science, and now you have an official role as ambassador. Do you find the videos helped you prepare for this new role?
I think that YouTube has been quite helpful because it’s been a certain degree of media training and helped me talk to people like you, for example, and also made me less frightened of television cameras. And it’s also helped me understand some of the scientific questions and problems that worry the general public because many people put comments on our videos and I read most of them. So I feel I’ve engaged rather more with the public than I had expected before.