YouTube star headhunted for science ambassador post

Royal Society role for the internet's favourite chemistry professor. Matthew Reisz writes

June 9, 2011

Credit: Periodic Videos
Top-notch: Professor Poliakoff's communications skills and personal style have won him thousands of followers online

Martyn Poliakoff, a student once told him, has two great assets as a scientist: a funny name and funny hair.

Both should prove useful to the research professor of chemistry at the University of Nottingham, who is soon to take on a new role as foreign secretary of the Royal Society - effectively an ambassador for British science.

His hair, Professor Poliakoff admits, has undoubtedly caused a lot of interest on the internet, where he has become something of a sensation thanks to the science-related videos he regularly posts on YouTube.

"I get quite irritated when people accuse me of dressing up as a mad scientist for the videos and I sometimes post comments saying: 'No, it's me'," he said.

He has always been a keen teacher, making use of unusual props such as a toy for dogs called a Wiggly Giggly, which he "bought at a pet shop and is the same shape as the methane molecule but squeaks when you rotate it". He also uses a furry bone that has the same shape and symmetry as ethylene.

Wider fame came in 2007, when Professor Poliakoff began a collaboration with director Brady Haran to produce a Periodic Table of Videos covering each of the 118 known elements.

Collectively, these clips have now had more than 16 million views on YouTube, and the team still uploads about two new videos a week on topics such as the chemistry of Easter eggs, carbon-dating the Turin Shroud and the 200th anniversary of the birth of Robert Bunsen.

Professor Poliakoff and Mr Haran published an amusing article earlier this year trying to assess the "impact" of their videos from YouTube's own figures, given a retention rate of 90 per cent among their 36,000 subscribers at the time, a number that was then "about half that of the New Scientist channel, slightly larger than that of the UK Royal Family's channel and roughly 10,000 higher than Chelsea Football Club".

Few would dispute that the pair have done a great deal to satisfy what they call the "unrequited love" for chemistry they believe many people suffer from.

Russian roots

If his "funny hair" is one of the trademarks that make Professor Poliakoff such an effective science communicator, the "funny name" reflects an unusual background that his brother, the playwright and director Stephen Poliakoff, has often drawn on in his work.

Their father, Alexander, was Russian, grew up in a flat near Moscow's Red Square and witnessed the 1917 revolution from his bedroom window, before the family escaped to England with a diamond hidden in a shoe.

Alexander helped to set up a company that made hearing aids, for Winston Churchill among others, until MI5 claimed they were bugged.

All this, according to Professor Poliakoff, turned him into "a slight outsider" and gave him the crucial ambassador's ability "to empathise with people from other countries".

He learned Russian at school and spent an hour every evening speaking to his grandmother. He was thus able to draw on his "delightfully archaic, sort of Edwardian, Russian" when he started building academic links with the country in the early 1990s.

This eventually led to an appointment as honorary professor at Moscow State University, an honour he shares with the unlikely duo of Bill Clinton and Fidel Castro.

Professor Poliakoff also has strong links with Ethiopia, ever since his son spent time there working with a development charity.

He firmly believes that "every African country needs a senior Western scientist as a champion" but that the continent's major environmental problems can be solved only "by empowering African scientists and giving them skills".

Linked to this is Professor Poliakoff's passion for "green" chemistry and his research into "replacing the petroleum-based solvents used in chemical reactions, because they are inflammable, or can evaporate and cause atmospheric pollution". It is also likely to be a major theme of his tenure as foreign secretary of the Royal Society.

"I hope to promote UK science as widely as possible," he said, "but those talking about climate change and sustainability often forget about the role of chemistry.

"By promoting chemistry in that context I feel I'm doing a service to everybody and not just trying to plug my own discipline."

At a time of rising oil prices, diminishing resources and increasing demand from developing countries for products the West takes for granted, Professor Poliakoff remains cautiously optimistic that chemistry can help to square the circle.

"We have to make it work," he said. "We can't revert to having wool dyed with the heather on the hillside."

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