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YouTube: the perfect ice-breaker

- Wits University

Sir Martyn Poliakoff explains why he loves making videos of chemistry.

It looks as if he walked into the barber and said: “Give me an Einstein … and make it wild!”

There are many intellectual comments on Sir Martyn Poliakoff’s YouTube channel, Periodic Videos, but the one above is one of his favourites.

Where scientists are concerned, Sir Martyn Poliakoff is rated one of the best. He regularly rubs shoulders with Nobel Prize winners and has been knighted as a Commander of the British Empire, for his contribution to science. He is the foreign secretary of the Royal Society and has a job description that originates from 1663. It states: “To enjoy mutual intelligence and affairs with all manner of strangers and foreigners”.

Poliakoff, however, has shortened this to: “sort of an ambassador for science”. He also has awarded himself the title of “Research Professor”. However, he willingly admits, “it means nothing. I just made it up.”

But what Poliakoff is most famous for – except for the fact that he holds a Guinness World Record for having the smallest Periodic Table in the world engraved on one of his hair – is for his YouTube videos on the Periodic Table.

Together with video journalist, Brady Haran, Poliakoff has made a series of 180 videos on each element of the Periodic Table (one for each of the 118 elements, as well as an introductory video and a trailer). These videos have 718 274 subscribers on YouTube, and have made him a major star among young and old, from all walks of life, and have inspired a large number of people into following science as a career.

“I got an email from a Brazilian, who said that he was a physics graduate, but now working in finance and that he had realised that this was a big mistake and that he would like to come and do a Ph.D. at Nottingham.”

Poliakoff forwarded this message on to the university’s physics department, and not long afterwards ran into the ex-banker in the canteen.

“He came up to me, and said ‘look, I’m here, doing a Ph.D.’,” said Poliakoff. 

In a different message, a janitor at a high school in the US contacted Poliakoff and said that while he had never taken chemistry at school, he had liked Poliakoff’s videos so much, that he has given it to his school’s science department, and told them to use it.

“This is one of my favourite comments,” said Poliakoff. “I feel that if the janitor is telling the science teachers what to do, then it is good.”

Poliakoff however, is foremost a scientist, and academic and a teacher. His research is mainly on Green Chemistry, which are cleaner approaches to making chemicals and materials, and he works on finding cleaner solvents.

However, he feels that it is important to share his love for science, and found that YouTube is a great medium for it.

“I think it (his science work and YouTube videos) compliments each other. We make some videos about our research papers, and we sometimes get questions from high school pupils about our research papers,” he says.

“It (producing the YouTube videos) doesn’t really take that much of my time, from doing research, and it is enormously useful in my role as foreign secretary of the royal society. It often helps as an ice breaker with sometimes rather serious scientists from around the world.”

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