A video for every element
Sir Martyn Poliakoff is an iconic figure in the world of chemistry – perhaps most recognisable from his role in the YouTube phenomenon The Periodic Table of Videos. We caught up with him about the creation of the series, his early life, and the people who have inspired him.
Sir Martyn Poliakoff says he never decided to be a scientist.
"My father decided I would be a scientist, so I had no choice. My father and grandfather were physicists, so I thought I would be a physicist too. It turns out my maths wasn't good enough, but I had a very good memory, so I became a chemist."
"I knew I was going to be a scientist from when I was really quite small, but if I hadn’t been I would have liked to have made TV adverts, which in a way I sort of have!"
He is referring to his Periodic Table of Videos – a set of YouTube videos describing every single element in turn (plus many more videos about chemistry). He appeared in the original set of videos in 2008, and has been featuring in them ever since.
He became involved in the project as a result of the University of Nottingham’s work with a talented video maker, Brady Haran. They hired Brady to make YouTube videos about scientists at work, and the channel – Nottingham Science – is still going strong today.
"After Nottingham Science had been going for not quite a year, I went to a meeting organised by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council at Nottingham, and I was told to attend a session called ‘corporate communication’ where they showed the trailer of Brady’s videos. I got really excited and wrote to lots of people how wonderful the videos were. The upshot was that I was asked to make some videos with Brady."
They made videos, on topics such as supercritical fluids and green chemistry. "It was a very bad day for me! It was in May just before the exams so I’d had five hours of teaching, and at the end of the day I was videoed for another two hours and we made eight videos."
A bonkers idea
Despite this gruelling experience, Martyn and Brady hit it off, and a few weeks later Brady came to Martyn with a new idea.
"He thought it would be really good to make one video about each of the elements in the periodic table. I told him he was bonkers."
"It’s easy to make a video about sodium or hydrogen – they do exciting things like explode – but, at that time, element 117 had not been synthesised – there wasn't even a single atom – so how could you make a video about that? Brady eventually persuaded me, and I found some money – but the money was time-limited. So we began the first video on 8 June 2008 and, with the help of three colleagues and our technician Neil Barnes, we had made 120 videos by 17 July (all 118 elements plus trailer and introduction).
"Because there isn't much news in the summer, we attracted really quite a lot of press excitement. By modern standards it wasn't very much – I think we got a total of about half a million views, which is still small. But we got press coverage from the BBC Turkish service, from newspapers in Russia, in Israel, all sorts of places.
"We thought we'd finished, but the viewers wanted us to continue and ten years and 650 videos on we're still going."
The team’s main focus at the moment is remaking some of the original videos, since they were done at such speed. In the original series, Martyn spoke ad lib. This led to some entertaining results.
"Because we were in such a hurry, I made a hugely arrogant decision that there wasn’t time to look anything up. When I got to element 108 – Hassium – I was videoed without my knowledge saying 'I don’t know anything about element 108, should we make something up?' It made it into the final cut and has become one of my favourite videos.
"There is no script, and there are no lesson plans or educational objectives. The first time I see most videos is when they appear on YouTube."
Iconic image of chemistry
Martyn reflects that there is no definitive 'correct' form of the periodic table.
"Obviously the elements have to be in the right order and so on, but there are various unconventional versions that have sprung up, such as spiral ones. I've got a tetrahedral one in my office. I've even got one shaped like a Christmas tree from Canada. The point is that none of these are the correct periodic table in the sense that they're all equally valid for different purposes. I think the new EuChemS version of the periodic table is a really good use of Mendeleev's fundamental idea, but with a strong message around the idea of sustainability.
"Mendeleev invented something which is scientifically incredible, but it’s also the most incredible marketing tool. Did you see how many books were for sale last Christmas on the periodic table of wine or football and so on? It's a very good way of classifying things, and also it's the iconic image of chemistry."
His favourite element is sodium, with the chemical symbol Na. A soft, silvery metal, many people will remember sodium as something that creates an exciting explosion when added to water. Martyn’s reasons however are entirely personal and not what you might expect.
"My mother’s first name was Ina. As a little girl she used to abbreviate it to ‘Na, and when our children were born and she became a grandmother she decided that her grandchildren should call her ‘Na. So now every time I see a chemical formula with a sodium salt I get a sort of warm motherly feeling."
Martyn has several role models, including the American chemist George Pimentel, who invented the chemical laser and recorded one of the first infrared spectra of Mars, and the late Alec Campbell who rose from technician to academic at Newcastle and taught the entire foundation year including lab demonstrating. But perhaps his earliest role model was his school chemistry teacher.
"Like most chemists I had a very good chemistry teacher. My original chemistry teacher took two years sabbatical, so I had a very young replacement teacher called Tony Roberts, who I think was only 5 years older than me, or perhaps slightly more, but he really inspired me. I think I was the pupil from hell, because I had a very good memory and I read a lot of chemistry books.
"I've always been an obsessive buyer of second hand books – even at that age – so I bought a lot of second hand chemistry books and read them too. So I would talk all the time in class but could answer any question. Except one – I forget what the question was – which I failed to answer and I've never seen anybody looking so happy as Tony did. I’m still in touch with him and we’ve appeared in a YouTube video together."
Challenges and proud moments
Martyn attended King’s College Cambridge as an undergraduate, but he did badly in his final exams. "I got very worried before the exams and, in those days, the way to treat worried students was to dose them with Valium – which was really effective! I felt happy, I could see disaster looming. But I didn't care!"
Fortunately the college went on to pay for him to do his PhD, after which he went on to Newcastle University. In 1979 he was appointed a lecturer at the University of Nottingham, where he has remained ever since. In 1991 he was promoted to professor, and in 2015 he was knighted in the New Year Honours for services to the chemical sciences.
Martyn is now 71 years old, and still working at the University of Nottingham as a researcher and teacher, an achievement of which he is proud. His daughter, Ellen Poliakoff, is a senior lecturer in psychology at The University of Manchester and his son, Simon, is head of physics at Dame Alice Owen's School.
"I think in the end the thing that many people are most proud of is their children and grandchildren. When my youngest grandson was four, we were having lunch and I asked him what his chips were made of, and he answered 'molecules'. I hadn't taught him that, but it was a gratifying moment."
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