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Physical Chemistry

YouTube Chemistry

How the Internet has helped excite the public about the periodic table

by Sir Martyn Poliakoff
August 16, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 32

Credit: Shutterstock/C&EN
Illustration of a computer with an angel halo on top.
Credit: Shutterstock/C&EN

Little did I realize that an unexciting e-mail inviting me to a “workshop on corporate communication” would change not only my life but also how chemistry is delivered on the Internet.

Despite some reluctance, I attended the workshop, held in April 2008 at the University of Nottingham where I work. There, I saw innovative videos on a YouTube channel called Test Tube. Video journalist Brady Haran was creating these pieces with researchers at the university to show how real scientists actually do science.

I was hooked—I watched videos all afternoon! Then the inevitable happened. I was asked to record some myself.

Brady had an idea: “Why not make a separate video about each of the 118 elements in the periodic table?”

“You’re mad!” I replied. “What can we say about elements like ununseptium?” It hadn’t yet been synthesized. But I was eventually persuaded. A few days later, on June 8, we shot videos about the first 36 elements in only two hours. But the project was bigger than we anticipated, so we persuaded colleagues Debbie Kays, Steve Liddle, and Pete Licence to join us, as well as our indefatigable technician, Neil Barnes.

With this extended team on board, Brady completed our Periodic Table of Videos (PTOV) in five weeks ( When PTOV was released, interest from the press and from viewers online was intense. PTOV caught everyone’s imagination, from young children to Nobel Laureates. We were inundated with messages such as, “I don’t care what they do, as long as they make more videos.” And we’ve been doing so ever since: We’ve now filmed reactions and phenomena in slow motion, talked about molecules, commented on “chemical” news stories, explained Nobel Prizes on the day that they were announced, and much more.

As of July 2015, PTOV had 559 videos, more than 102 million views on YouTube, and more than 624,000 subscribers. But these statistics don’t even begin to explain PTOV’s influence. My distinctive hair makes me easily recognizable, and I’ve been accosted by random fans in public places worldwide. We get daily e-mails from viewers making suggestions or seeking advice about careers and chemistry projects. Parents even bring children great distances to meet the PTOV team at Nottingham.

The Internet has enabled us to connect with anyone who is hungry for simple, reliable—and fun—information about chemistry. And now we’re extending the fun even further: We’ve collaborated with the online education platform TED-Ed to set up the Periodic Table of Lessons, where teachers can use our videos to create their own customized lessons to fit in with their curriculum and pupils.

PTOV has renewed my faith in humanity. To my delight, it’s revealed that there are thousands of people worldwide who are truly passionate about chemistry: preschool kids building periodic tables, young people thinking about their future, adults rediscovering their love of science, and a host of inspiring teachers. PTOV allows me to talk to them all. I can explain chemistry to more people with one YouTube video than I’ve lectured to at universities during my whole career! Physicist Richard Feynman said that it’s only by teaching that researchers can justify what they do. I’m grateful to Brady (and to YouTube) for enabling me to justify myself.  


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