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The University of Nottingham's Professor Martyn Poliakoff Chats Knighthoods, YouTube and Trams

21 February 22 interview: George White

A knighthood, a CBE, a Nyholm Prize for Education - it’s safe to say the University of Nottingham’s Professor Martyn Poliakoff, a global leader in the field of green chemistry, is one of the brightest minds to ever settle in our fair land. We chat to the local legend about his favourite Notts spots, his aversion to science-fiction movies, and his YouTube channel Periodic Videos, which now boasts over 1m subscribers…

When did you know you wanted to go into science? 
I guess it was kind of planned for me when I was very small; when I was four or five, my father decided I should be a scientist. He was a physicist, his father was a physicist, but I wasn’t good enough at maths to do physics. I had a terrific memory, though, so I found chemistry easy. When I was first studying chemistry, memory was very important - now it’s slightly less so.

Who were your inspirations?
I definitely looked up to my PhD supervisor, Jim Turner, who is long retired but is still working away at chemistry. Another of my heroes was Colonel BD Shaw, who did explosives lectures in Nottingham from 1928 right up to 1990, when he was 92 years old. There is a blue plaque in his honour on the house where he lived on Queen’s Road in Beeston. He inspired me when it came to doing experiments in public. 

Your YouTube channel was created to explore the periodic table. Which was the most fun element to look into? 
The most exciting thing was to discover that no part of the periodic table is boring, as you find that elements you thought were really dull actually have quite a fascinating backstory - because of who discovered them, the story of the discovery and so on. All of the elements have been great to explore.

What are some of the most interesting developments taking place in science right now? 
There is some really exciting progress being made in artificial intelligence. A paper was recently published where AI was used to work out the structure of thousands of proteins by applying machine learning, which promises to open up huge areas of biology.

I’ve never been big on science-fiction. I suppose I’m too down to earth on it and say, ‘Well, this couldn’t happen.’

Are you scared that robots are going to take over the world? 
No, but it is quite worrying that when you’re on the internet, the likes of YouTube or Amazon know so much about you, suggesting books or films you might like and so on. I think that we definitely need to find ways to live with AI in a responsible way. 

What is your favourite science-fiction movie? 
I haven’t watched many sci-fi movies. I’ve never been big on science-fiction, to be honest. Until COVID we did go to Broadway fairly regularly - I’ve even done a chemistry lecture there in the big auditorium, which is quite mad when you think about it - but my wife mainly chose the films. I prefer foreign movies. I definitely don’t like films with a lot of violence in them, nothing like James Bond. 

What stops you from watching sci-fi? 
I think that I very often feel disbelief on the scientific basis of it. I suppose I’m too down to earth on it and say, ‘Well, this couldn’t happen.’ There is some science-fiction I’ve read like Slaughterhouse-Five and Brave New World, but I don’t tend to watch anything from that genre. 

What’s your favourite Notts spot? 
I’m not a native of Nottingham but I’ve lived in Beeston for the longest part of my life, and during the pandemic I got to know the town even better than I could have imagined, walking around all the streets and exploring the place. In the city, I like the Lace Market and Hockley, the Theatre Royal, and the Arboretum, which has a great atmosphere. I also love the strange tunnel from Derby Road to the Park. I like that about Nottingham - there are so many unexpected places to stumble upon. 

More people in Nottingham have congratulated me for getting a tram named after me than they have for getting a knighthood

You recently had a tram named after you. How did that feel?
It was great fun to see that unveiled. I wasn’t allowed to drive the tram, but I did get to sit in the driver’s seat. I have been promised the opportunity of driving the simulator, though, which I’m really looking forward to. I never used to pay much attention to the name on trams, now I get excited every time I hear one coming - I always look to see if it’s mine.  

You’ve received a countless number of accolades and awards over the years, including a knighthood and a CBE. Which has been your favourite? 
I’d actually put the naming of the tram quite high up there. More people in Nottingham have congratulated me on that than they have the knighthood! The latter, while it is an enormous honour, isn’t very useful - and it feels a bit pretentious to go around calling yourself Sir Martyn, so I don’t use it very often. But it is nice for my efforts to be recognised. 

What’s your greatest achievement outside of honours and titles? 
I guess my greatest achievement is to still be going at my age, rather than to be dead… In all seriousness, I’m so grateful to be doing something that I really care about, because there are so many people who are doing jobs that they don’t enjoy. And I’m very proud of my family, of course. Overall, though, it is up to other people to decide what your greatest achievement is, otherwise you’d be terribly self-indulgent. 

How is your 2022 looking?
I’m very excited about this year. I’m getting involved with promoting Beeston and the message of ‘Beeston for All’. I think the town has a very good future - we even have our own cinema now!

Periodic Videos YouTube Channel

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