Volume 86 Issue 37 | pp. 42-43
Issue Date: September 15, 2008

Elements Achieve Internet Stardom

Video clips featuring the periodic table of the elements strike a chord with YouTube fans
Department: Education
Web star
Poliakoff serves as the front man for most of the University of Nottingham's video clips about the elements.
Credit: Brady Haran
Web star
Poliakoff serves as the front man for most of the University of Nottingham's video clips about the elements.
Credit: Brady Haran

THE PERIODIC TABLE of the elements has become a sudden and unexpected star on the YouTube video-sharing website. From hydrogen to ununoctium (element 118), the Periodic Table of Videos created by a team of chemists at the University of Nottingham, in England, appears to be the first comprehensive set of videos made about the chemistry of the elements. The novel idea is sparking a renewed interest in the fundamental building blocks of the universe.

The videos, each just a few minutes long, debuted on July 17 on a special YouTube channel (www.youtube.com/periodicvideos). The videos also can be viewed via a separate website (www.periodicvideos.com), which provides an option for schools and institutions that block access to YouTube.

Best described as a cross between a documentary film and reality TV, most of the videos begin with Nottingham chemistry professor Martyn Poliakoff sitting at his desk introducing an element and describing its properties and uses. The videos periodically cut away from Poliakoff to his Nottingham colleagues, who perform chemistry demonstrations and show examples of the elements.

The first thing one notices in most of the videos is Poliakoff's professorial hair: a salt-and-pepper mane reminiscent of Einstein or the stereotypical mad scientist. For those seeing Poliakoff for the first time through the videos, they might think he has made up his hair that way on purpose. But it is distinctively Poliakoff's coiffure, a style he has worn for many years.

No doubt it is the combination of the hair, Poliakoff's mild-mannered enthusiasm for chemistry, and the occasional craziness during the demonstrations that have made the videos so successful. The clips have already been viewed more than 2 million times.

Praise for the videos has been flooding the YouTube site from Nobel Laureates, chemistry professors, and the general public, Poliakoff says. Teachers, students, and parents reveal that they are excited to have such a unique learning resource available at their fingertips. Others recall the periodic table as a giant wall chart hanging in a classroom that once upon a time fired their imaginations.

"Perhaps the most pleasing result has been that the website has stimulated a dynamic scientific dialogue between bloggers, with one person asking a chemical question and others answering," Poliakoff says. "It's really gratifying that we have struck such a chord right across the whole Internet community."

Chemistry Nobel Laureate Roald Hoffmann of Cornell University says he loves the video collection. "The various episodes are like the best reality show I've ever seen—the universe revealing itself, element by element. Poliakoff and his able codemonstrators make the periodic table come alive with the best understated British humor—they are real nerdy-sexy. It's not just Poliakoff's hair."

Nottingham lecturers Licence (from left), Kays, and Liddle provided action for videographer Haran (with camera) in the making of the Periodic Table of Videos.
Credit: University of Nottingham
Nottingham lecturers Licence (from left), Kays, and Liddle provided action for videographer Haran (with camera) in the making of the Periodic Table of Videos.
Credit: University of Nottingham

THE VIDEOS were produced by Brady Haran, a professional video journalist who also works for the British Broadcasting Corp. The Periodic Table of Videos is an offshoot of the Test Tube Project (www.test-tube.org.uk), an online video showcase produced by Haran that features the university's scientific research in the words of the scientists themselves.

"I have always been passionate about science and had a fascination with the periodic table since I was in school," Haran says. "I think it's a great idea to tap into the enthusiasm that University of Nottingham scientists have for their subject through the periodic table, which is one aspect of chemistry that is familiar to most people."

The 118 element videos, plus introduction and trailer videos, were all shot unscripted during a remarkably short period of five weeks in June and July. Poliakoff had no knowledge of what the demonstrators were setting up for each element, and the demonstrators had no knowledge about what Poliakoff was saying about the elements. That disconnect gives the videos a raw quality that makes them attractive for the YouTube audience. Poliakoff further credits Haran's professional editing skills for perfecting the videos.

Although Poliakoff is a little distressed at the attention given to his hair and his newfound Internet cult celebrity status, he is thrilled that the videos are making chemistry accessible to the public. "With a few hours of work, I have lectured to more students than I have reached in my entire career," he says. "It's fantastic."

Many of the demonstrations are carried out by lecturer Peter Licence—who is known for his chemical demonstrations—and his straight man, technician Neil Barnes. Starting at the beginning with hydrogen, Licence fills a balloon with the gas and during his friendly banter explains that hydrogen is lighter than air. No sooner said than done, he bobbles the balloon and it sails away to skitter across the lab ceiling. Licence issues a giddy schoolboy laugh, one that is repeated often in other videos. Sometimes the stoic Barnes gives a chuckle, and the viewer can't help but giggle along. Other video clips include Royal Society research fellow Stephen T. Liddle and lecturer Deborah L. Kays.

THE VIDEOS are cross-referenced to one another to show how the properties of the elements differ. For example, when Barnes touches a lit match to the hydrogen-filled balloon, it bursts into a ball of fire. During the same experiment in the helium video, the balloon lost to the ceiling pops, but there are no flames because the gas is inert. And for xenon, the balloon sinks to the floor because the gas is heavier than air.

"Emblematic of chemistry, the periodic table illustrates recurring trends in the properties of the elements," observes Richard N. Zare, a professor and chair of the department of chemistry at Stanford University. "Martyn Poliakoff brings this topic to life in these captivating video clips. I believe that he Nottingham chemists have done the teaching of introductory chemistry a huge service by this labor of love. I commend the viewing of these videos to every chemist."

"These videos provide marvelous ways to start a chemical conversation," adds Catherine H. Middlecamp, director of the Chemistry Learning Center at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. "It is a great addition to the collection of Web-based periodic tables. I am sending my students to visit this site."

If there is a downside to the Nottingham videos, it's that some of the experiments are dangerous, even for trained chemists. In these cases, the Nottingham team gives an appropriate safety warning. In fact, the only negative comments about the videos have been about safety, with some chemists expressing concern that people might try to repeat the experiments and get hurt or blow up their kitchen or garage.

For example, demonstrations with the alkali metals lithium through cesium include dropping small pieces of the metal into water. That usually causes a violent oxidation reaction in which hydrogen is liberated and the alkali-metal hydroxide forms. If the reaction is hot enough, the hydrogen can catch fire. And if a large enough piece of metal is used, an explosive display is possible.

In the Nottingham videos, relatively small pieces of metal are used, leading to some fizzing and popping, but the experiments are carried out in a fume hood or outdoors under controlled conditions. Even so, in the sodium video, pieces of the metal sail up and out of the ceramic, water-filled dog-food bowl in which they have been reacting, with one bit landing on the video camera.

A benefit of the online format is that it makes the Periodic Table of Videos a living project, Poliakoff points out. For one thing, the Nottingham chemists aren't infallible and did slip up and make a couple of mistakes in the original takes. The ability to reshoot allows the team to revise the videos as needed, plus update them with new information and ever better demonstrations. The xenon video is a case in point.

Xenon and the other noble gases initially were thought to be chemically inert and not able to form compounds. But in 1962, chemistry professor Neil Bartlett at the University of British Columbia discovered that platinum hexafluoride gas is powerful enough to oxidize xenon. The result was the first known compound of a noble gas, xenon hexafluoroplatinate. Since then, many other xenon compounds have been discovered.

Bartlett, who finished his career at the University of California, Berkeley, died on Aug. 5 (C&EN, Sept. 1, page 69). In less than a week, the Nottingham team reworked the xenon video to honor Bartlett by including information about the key experiments leading to his discovery.

The flexible production process also allows videos to be made for special occasions. For example, just in time for the Olympics in August, the Nottingham team developed a special video on the chemistry of gold, silver, and bronze. Bronze is not an element, as Licence explains in the video, but rather is an alloy of copper and tin.

"The Nottingham periodic table project is an excellent example of the flexibility of modern Internet technology in making it easily possible for individuals with imaginative ideas to make science educational material available globally at minimal cost," Chemistry Nobel Laureate Harold W. Kroto of Florida State University says. "It should stimulate a plethora of similar efforts by altruistic, educationally motivated people."

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