How the EPSRC helped me celebrate Mendeleev

Posted by Professor Sir Martyn Poliakoff on 08 February 2019

A life-changing moment in my career

Have you ever had a life-changing moment in your career? Did you see it coming? I certainly didn't. In April 2008, I was asked to attend a session on Corporate Communication as part of an official EPSRC visit to my university. Like you, I always hope that EPSRC visits will tell me how to win bigger, better grants but a request from senior management is best not ignored. So I went to the Corporate Communication session.

The university was showcasing a YouTube channel about science at Nottingham, made by Brady Haran, a freelance video-maker. I was blown over! The videos were wonderful and I spent the rest of the day telling people about them. Inevitably, I was invited to be videoed by Brady. How could I refuse?

He came late one afternoon. I talked about teaching, my research in supercritical fluids, and Green Chemistry - eight videos in all. And that, I thought, was that.

A Periodic Table of Videos

A few weeks later, Brady was back. Why not make a separate video for each of the chemical elements - a Periodic Table of Videos? It was mad - how could you make a video about elements like No 117, where no one had succeeded in synthesising even a single atom?

But he was very persuasive. I had a large EPSRC project with some money for outreach and the School of Chemistry contributed a bit more: just about enough to give the project a try. The downside was that the money had to be spent before the end of the financial year. So it all began.

With my colleagues, Debbie Kays, Pete Licence, Steve Liddle and our tireless technician Neil Barnes, Brady recorded, edited and uploaded 120 videos in five weeks! The total run time was four hours and seven minutes. No script - just whatever came into our heads and experiments with whatever chemicals and samples we could lay our hands on.

'Silly season'

But the summer is 'silly season'; there isn't much news for the media. So these crazy scientists releasing a torrent of amusing videos about chemistry really caught the public's imagination, with what - in those early days of YouTube - seemed a lot of views. And our viewers wanted more.

Ten years on, we are still making videos, with more than 192 million views and 1.13 million YouTube subscribers. Our colleagues in Physics and Computer Science have started their own channels and Brady has become one of the world's leading communicators of science on YouTube.

An ongoing adventure

It has been a wonderful ongoing adventure. I visit places that I would never otherwise have seen: the bullion vault of the Bank of England, a platinum metals refinery, the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, Russia, and many more. I see wonderful things. Liquid fluorine, the first sample of Ruthenium, and plutonium salts in solution - who would have thought that they would have such a beautiful colour?

I am amazed to find people of all ages who are enthusiastic about chemistry. Emails and letters arrive from across the world. I have a whole range of regular correspondents: a schoolteacher in Japan who is continually devising new forms of the periodic table, a teenage schoolboy in San Diego who wants to study chemistry, and the mother of a three-year-old girl in Malaysia who can recite the periodic table and has decided that she will discover a new element! And they ask me lots of questions, ranging from What is your favourite element? (Sodium) to What should I do? I have swallowed one of the new five pound notes (follow your doctor's advice).

The International Year of the Periodic Table

In 2016, I had an idea! I suggested to Natalia Tarasova, then President of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, that we should celebrate the 150th anniversary of Mendeleev's first publication of the periodic table by making 2019 the International Year of the Periodic Table (IYPT). With hard work by Natalia and others, the IYPT has become a reality. And as I write Brady and I are off to Paris for the opening ceremony.

So what are my take home messages? First, you can never tell where things may lead - so seize opportunities wherever they come from. Second, think how you can help celebrate the IYPT. Third and most important, you are probably a scientist or engineer because you love what you do; try to communicate that passion to younger generations in whatever ways you can.

Author

In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Professor Martyn Poliakoff sitting at a desk
Name: Professor Sir Martyn Poliakoff
Job title: Research Professor
Department: Chemistry
Organisation: University of Nottingham

Sir Martyn Poliakoff CBE FREng FRS is a Research Professor of Chemistry at the University of Nottingham. He is currently a co-investigator on the EPSRC Programme Grant Photo-Electro: Transforming Chemical Synthesis, Discovery and Manufacture.