It's elementary, my dear Poliakoff! podcast

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New series on Molecules to follow on from the success of the Periodic Table of Videos on YouTube.

EPSRC is supporting a sequel series to the highly successful Periodic Table of Videos, which has attracted more than 8 million hits on YouTube.

The new set of films, on Molecules, is already underway. The University of Nottingham team behind the project are hoping it will inspire a new generation of young chemists.

To watch videos from Professor Poliakoff and his team about their latest venture visit The Periodic Table of Videos website.

Martyn Poliakoff [MP]

At the moment we have about three thousand more subscribers than Chelsea football club which we think is quite good and there have been times when we have been running level with some of the BBC channels. So probably we are the most successful YouTube Channel at the moment that’s devoted solely to chemistry. An Israeli newspaper described me in an article. It took me a long time to have it translated, but when I finally did it said I looked as if I went to the barber and said give me an Einstein and make it wild.

[Narrator]

With his trademark mass of wild hair and eccentric presentation style Professor Martyn Poliakoff, from the University of Nottingham, has caught the imagination of a whole new generation of budding chemists. He’s part of the team that’s put together one of the most successful science attractions on YouTube. The periodic table of videos has attracted millions of hits. Now, with funding from the EPSRC Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, a new set of videos are already underway and this time the subject is molecules. Martyn says they’re very much driven by the feedback they get from their YouTube audience.

[MP]

At this stage we’ve launched a few molecule videos. We’ve done methane, we’ve done carbon dioxide. When I meet our YouTube fans I ask them which molecules would you like to see. And we have quite a range of molecules that we are going to do, some are quite complicated, others really very simple like ammonia. We will probably stretch the definition of molecules so we can look at things like common salts and sodium chloride which is really a salt rather than a molecule because they’re more than just two atoms bonded together. There is so much interesting that you can say about these molecules.

[Narrator]

Martin says the videos seem to appeal to all age groups and help to raise the profile of chemistry.

[MP]

I’ve had messages from school children as young as six and from adults. There was one drunk in New York, or he said he was drunk, who had watched the whole periodic table through twice, which is nearly nine hours of video without a stop, so he must have been really quite drunk. We’ve had quite a few comments posted on YouTube video saying I would like to be a student at Nottingham. So I think it is very positive for universities and very positive for the subject.

[Narrator]

Part of the appeal of the first set of videos is they’re rather explosive nature which is thanks to Pete License a reader in chemistry at the university. His embroidered green lab coat has become his trademark.

Pete Licence [PL]

The green coat just happens to be the coat that organic chemists wear in a laboratory and many years ago I was an organic chemist so I have grown attached to my green coat and that’s where the green coat comes from. But this particular green coat was given to me by our under graduates and they embroidered my name on it and put a Welsh dragon on it because I am from Wales.

[Narrator]

The success of the first set of videos has set a high standard of entertainment which Pete is continuing with the latest subject of molecules. Watch out for the chemistry of carbon dioxide.

[PL]

To ask which has been the one which has taken my breath away the most I suppose, or made me think wow, I guess a recent experiment that we did where we burnt magnesium in a big block of solid CO2 was really good because it generated lots of gas and it went swoosh really loud with lots of light and we had great fun doing that.

[Narrator]

So what does Martyn’s brother, the film director, Steven Poliakoff make of it all?

[MP]

He was quoted in an article in the Daily Telegraph really quite positively towards it and I think he’s quite amused. There is a big difference because Stephen, as far as I am aware, has never appeared in any of his own films, but directs and writes them. In this case I am appearing in these films more as an actor.

[Narrator]

The role of film director is taken by Brady Haran a video journalist who’s passionate about science communication.

Brady Haran

So much of science and so much of what you see in the media is very fake, is very scripted, or it’s very stayed, or it’s very clichéd. We just try and keep everything really real. I never tell the scientist what the other ones are doing. There’s never a script, they never know what I’m going to ask. The university and the scientist never watch back what I have done before it goes on YouTube. The first time they see it is probably after a thousand other people have already watched it. They have no control over it, it never gets sanitised if they make mistakes, if an experiment doesn’t work we keep that in, so I think people watching realise what they are seeing is a real and genuine thing. That means everything is authentic, their passion for the subject is not fake its authentic they know it’s real, because they were really passionate and the experiment went wrong and if we were faking it we wouldn’t show the experiment going wrong.

[Narrator]

Martyn says the first birthday celebration of the videos was a particularly notable occasion.

[MP]

We made two videos. The first one, I suppose the main one, was making a birthday cake. My colleague, Sam, made the cake in the lab using lab equipment and as far as possible using lab chemicals. Sucrose, which is sugar, starch which is available and so on. When it came to the egg it was a bit complicated to try and make a synthetic egg so we said we’ll just use an egg. So the cake was made it was baked in a laboratory oven and it came out smelling gorgeous but because it was made in the lab you can’t eat it so we then thought we will have to destroy it and so we decided that we would try and blow up the cake with liquid oxygen. So we all trouped outside and the cake was laid onto a bed of cotton wool doused with liquid oxygen. It was let off with a long pole that my colleague, Pete, calls match on a stick and there was a huge WHOOSH and the cake shot in the air and then landed again onto the metal plate virtually unharmed, slightly singed. So it was a disaster as an experiment, it didn’t work, but it was very funny. And then eventually by pouring liquid oxygen over the cake we eventually set fire to it.

[Narrator]

Raising the profile of chemistry and satisfying curiosity is all part of the YouTube experience that they’re offering according to team member and public awareness scientist Dr Sam Tang.

Dr Sam Tang

With the molecular videos we have already done some simple molecules like methane and carbon dioxide which has hopefully not only made the public appreciate the molecules more, it’s actually sparked off quite fierce debate. When you look on the YouTube comments they end up talking about climate change a lot which goes to show that something which might seems quite frivolous and financial has a serious side to it, which is brilliant its more than what we expected. Sometimes we will respond to demand from viewer requests, other times it will be a case of this has just broken out in the news and the genius of being able to do a project like this is that we respond to news articles very quickly. Within four hours of the cobernisum being named or discovered we actually had a video up on line on YouTube.

[Narrator]

Another member of the team, Dr Debbie Kays, says the videos really give people a chance to experience chemistry in action.

Dr Debbie Kays

We are showing people that don’t get access to much in the way of experimental chemistry. We are showing people samples of elements and what elements do and now it’s obviously what compounds do and these are compounds that people never hopefully will come across that are of general interest and also help people discover things that they use in everyday life, that they might not know. So actually I think it is quite relevant to people and its also good because people write in and say that they were never allowed to do this in school, but its reignited their interest in chemistry that maybe got killed off in school because that actually happens to some people.

[Narrator]

So with the next set of videos on molecules well underway it looks like Martyn and his team could have the makings of another hit series that will continue to raise the profile of chemistry and delight people of all ages.

[MP]

I think the message we want to get across is that chemistry is fun. And that also it can be a good and satisfying career and so the advantage of having a big range of ages among our presenters that people can see chemists of all sorts of different ages. They can see students at various ages/stages of their career and they can see me as the professor at the end and they can see that we are all still enjoying ourselves. And I suppose one of the nicest messages that we got was from a chemist that I know in America who said that his son, who was about eight or nine, had started watching our videos and told his class at school and now at school. All the children were asking which is your favourite elements and why rather than discussing the latest programme that they had seen on television.

[Narrator]

You can find the videos on YouTube by doing a search on the periodic table of videos and at www.periodicvideos.com.