Science Honors Ultra-Popular Chemistry Videos With SPORE Award

There’s more than a bit of playful mischief in the chemistry-themed videos produced by University of Nottingham professor Martyn Poliakoff, journalist Brady Haran, and the rest of their merry cast of characters. The videos—which are available on YouTube and started by featuring each of the elements in the periodic table—involve chemical reactions to please any video-watching wise guy, science geek or not. One shows what happens to a cheeseburger after it has been lowered halfway into a beaker of hydrochloric acid and left for a few hours. Another explains the active ingredient in Viagra. A third shows sodium reacting with water in a dog bowl full of water—with a piece of the metal shooting out of the bowl and landing on the video camera.

“Sometimes they’re a bit naughty, aren’t they?” said Haran, a BBC-trained video journalist.

The home page of the Periodic Table of Videos

The home page of the Periodic Table of Videos

Enormously popular because of their naughtiness and perhaps because of their creators’ sincere love of science, the Periodic Table of Videos has been chosen to receive the Science Prize for Online Resources in Education.

“The videos are an entertaining mix of experiments and anecdotes and are aimed at anyone with a curiosity for chemistry—no prior knowledge on the part of the viewer is needed,” said Science editorial fellow Melissa McCartney.

Science magazine developed the Science Prize for Online Resources in Education (SPORE) to promote the best online materials in science education. The acronym SPORE suggests a reproductive element adapted to develop, often in less-than-ideal conditions, into something new. In the same way, these winning projects can be the seed of progress in science education, despite considerable challenges to educational innovation. Each month, Science publishes an article by a recipient of the award, which explains the winning project. The article about the Periodic Table of Videos will be published on 27 May.

“We want to recognize innovators in science education,” said Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science. “At the same time, this competition will promote those Web sites with the most potential to benefit science students and teachers. The publication of an article in Science on each winning site will help guide everyone to important online resources, thereby promoting science literacy.”

While serious and accomplished as adults—Poliakoff was just nominated for the prestigious post of Foreign Secretary of the Royal Society—Haran and Poliakoff bring their inner children to their video enterprise. Haran said that as a boy, he was “interested in that science-y and space-y stuff, and I never grew out of it.” For Poliakoff’s part, he looks back fondly on his early scientific education, remarking, “I was allowed to do any experiments I liked.” He added ruefully that, because he plays the role of the talking-head newscaster in the videos, rather than being one of the adventurous experimenters, “I am never allowed out of my office.”

Professor Martyn Poliakoff

Professor Martyn Poliakoff

Nonetheless, Poliakoff seems to enjoy telling stories as he explains each of the elements in the periodic table. His wry delivery, ever-changing chemistry-themed neckties, and a hairdo that provoked at least one third-grader to ask whether he might be Albert Einstein have made him an Internet sensation.

The Periodic Table of Videos was conceived of in 2008 after Haran taped Poliakoff as part of another series of videos called the Test Tube Project, which features the University of Nottingham’s scientific research in the scientists’ own words. Haran suggested they make the Periodic Table of Videos (PTOV), and because of fiscal-calendar funding concerns and Haran’s vacation schedule, he, Poliakoff, chemists Pete License, Steve Liddle, and Debbie Kays, and lab technician Neil Barnes set to work. Within about five weeks, the videos for all 118 elements had been uploaded to YouTube, and had already attracted a strong subscriber base, which has continued to grow.

“Scientists everywhere can unite in celebration that chemistry has a new image,” said McCartney. “Not only does the number of subscribers to the PTOV YouTube channel surpass that of the number of subscribers to Britain’s Royal Family channel, but the scientists featured in PTOV videos report a growing legion of students sending e-mails declaring themselves fans and even requesting autographs.”

It’s important to point out that Poliakoff has been engaging the public in science since the early 1970s, when his little sister asked him to come speak at her high school. After receiving a grant in 2004 from the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council, Poliakoff helped set up the University of Nottingham’s first science communicator in the post of “public awareness scientist.”

“We rather went ahead of the game with this,” said Poliakoff, whose research specialty is green chemistry and the application of supercritical fluids.

Video journalist Brady Haran

Video journalist Brady Haran

Now, Poliakoff and his team are viewed in 200 countries, and people stop him in airports because they recognize him. PTOV’s audience is on the young side, at least partly because the videos can be viewed on YouTube. They may also be viewed at periodicvideos.com, which is helpful at schools where YouTube is blocked. According to the producers, the PTOV audience has included Nobel laureates, as well as young children.

The comments the many videos attract are numerous, wide-ranging in terms of their science import, and in some cases poignant.

“My name is David,” one viewer wrote. “I am a senior in high school. I have been watching your videos for quite some time. The videos are so interesting and have inspired me to be a chemistry major in college. Because of the inspiration you and your team created through the videos, many kids from around my area have also decided to take the interesting and complex journey to becoming chemists as well.”

PTOV continues to grow, with videos about chemistry topics beyond the elements, such as segments that play off of the news, including a video produced after an earthquake and tsunami in Japan provoked radiation leaks at a nuclear plant. The site now hosts more than 300 videos.

Poliakoff said he hopes that publication of an essay in the journal Science will further expand the videos’ audience. “I hope it will make more people watch.”

Watch The Periodic Table of Videos, the winner of this month’s SPORE award from the journal Science.

Read the essay, “The Periodic Table of Videos,” by Brady Haran and Martyn Poliakoff.