Poliakoff's big brother is new star of science
Saturday 11 June 2011
The voluminous hair, thick glasses and halting voice of the Nottingham chemist Martyn Poliakoff have made him a YouTube sensation.
Now the Professor, who insists his nutty persona is the real deal, is set to become Britain's ambassador for science.
Professor Poliakoff, 63, the older brother of the acclaimed playwright Stephen Poliakoff, has been appointed the Royal Society's foreign secretary, essentially a "worldwide figurehead" for his profession.
Professor Poliakoff, of the University of Nottingham, has appeared in a series of online videos in which he explains science using every-day props such as cups of tea and flowers, winning him millions of loyal followers online. He believes his online impact has been more profound than the Royal Family and Chelsea Football Club.
"I think it is my misfortune to look like a stereotypical scientist," he said. "Some of my collaborators believe that the success of my YouTube videos depends on the fact that I look like a mad professor. So people are pleasantly surprised when I talk reasonable sense. But I don't behave like the mad scientists which you see on films."
Professor Poliakoff has been contacted by people who accuse him of playing up to his scatty image, something he finds "irritating" rather than "offensive". He studied for his undergraduate science degree and chemistry PhD at Cambridge University and comes from a long line of high achievers. His Russian-Jewish father, Alexander, fled Russia for London in 1924 to become an electronics inventor who designed hearing aids worn by Winston Churchill. Stephen Poliakoff is among the country's best-known scriptwriters, directors and playwrights. Professor Poliakoff's children are Ellen, a psychology lecturer at the University of Manchester, and Simon, a physics teacher.
The Professor said his appointment to the role was "very pleasing and very humbling". He said: "I want to try to present the message that British science is as strong as ever.
"And I hope by the time I finish, it will be stronger than when I started. There are considerable threats to science at the moment which need to be addressed. When science in Russia was under threat during Perestroika, there was a saying that the country would 'grind to a halt but in 10 years' time'. The same is true for science in the UK if it is not properly supported."
Professor Poliakoff has won acclaim since 2007, when he began starring in a series of films about the Periodic Table's elements. These clips have now been viewed 16 million times. Topics he has explored include the science of snow and the chemistry of tea.
He is particularly popular among students for his use of a squeaky tetrahedral children's toy called a "Wiggly Giggly", which he uses to represent the molecular structure of methane.
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