Science populariser and chemist extraordinaire Andrea Sella will be a keynote speaker at this year’s Lab Innovations. We caught up with him to talk brave graduate students, historical apparatus and taboo chemistry...
You are well known as a science populariser, but of course you still have a thriving academic career… tell us a bit about your research interests
You can never tell how your career will go. I started out as a synthetic rare earth chemist, exploring the structural chemistry and the reactivity of those elements. But about 15 years ago, I applied for a Media Fellowship and that pulled me decisively into public engagement. The result is that I gradually refocused my research to collaborate more with colleagues and the result is that I have much more materials focus.
We’ve recently been putting phosphorus, arsenic and antimony into carbon nanotubes and looking at the structures which go from “P4’s in a pod” to twisted ladders – in essence new allotropes thanks to the confinement. The work has involved using molten white phosphorus as a solvent, and we were lucky to find an enthusiastic graduate student with nerves of steel.
But my other growing area of interest is the history of chemistry, which I’ve been writing about for almost ten years in my column Classic Kit, a project that has turned into a strange obsessive investigative quest to understand the role that apparatus has played in the development of chemistry. In the last year, a fourth year undergraduate student Tali Humphrey and I have been rediscovering and reconstructing a family of 19th century “dephlegmators” – fractionating columns for distillation – that flowered at end of the 19th century only to vanish at the start of the 20th. There are fascinating stories here about how and why we use the particular kit we have in the lab.
So rare-Earth elements were a key area of your research – it seems technology increasingly relies on components made of these elements, is this a case of blue-sky research serendipitously finding a home in applications? Or was the exploration of these elements always a practical pursuit?
Much of the chemical (rather than historical) work that I do is blue skies, curiosity-driven work. Allotropes matter because we’ve seen how changing the dimensionality of carbon can have huge implications for technology – from nanotubes, to graphene sheets, to porous carbons. We’re wondering whether something analogous can be done with phosphorus. And as to applications, the potential is never far away, but you need to map out the materials landscape first.
In classic fashion, your public chemistry demonstrations often involve dramatic explosions – when you think about outreach, what’s more important to you – the science or the entertainment?
It’s funny how everyone assumes that as a communicator of chemistry I must spend my time setting fires and blow things up in public, I’ve grown increasingly worried that to present chemistry that way undersells chemistry. Ultimately, chemistry is an astonishing intellectual quest, one that few people outside of chemistry truly appreciate and how we present chemistry really needs to represent that aspect. My approach has been to actually reduce the number of demonstrations, while using them instead to tell longer, more coherent stories about why chemistry matters, from individual elements and thermodynamics, to the mystery of biological pattern formation.
How has public engagement around science changed during the course of your public work?
I started out doing science outreach with the narrow remit of recruiting students for our degree programmes. Slowly this widened to bringing chemistry to a wider public – both through radio and television but also at music and arts festivals. What has been remarkable over this time is how the variety of public engagement activities and opportunities for them has widened over time.
Above all I’ve realised – perhaps more slowly than others – that public engagement cannot be separated from either teaching or research – in some ways it’s part of the glue that holds our subject together; public engagement activities can help us with self-reflection about our work and our discipline. This has led me and my colleagues at UCL to work to find ways to embed more public engagement activities directly into our under- and postgraduate teaching programmes.
In a time where there is a rise in ‘fake news’ and even anti-scientific viewpoints held by some politicians, are seeing a backlash from the public with a greater demand for fact-based knowledge?
As one who probably spends too much time online, I have watched with dismay the growing polarisation of our communities between different factions. Some of this polarisation is clearly being manufactured by parties with particular interests and agendas and I have found myself embroiled in debates and arguments surrounding all kinds of chemistry-related issues including the increasingly casual use of chemical weapons, concerns about the safety of agro- and other chemicals, worries about air pollution, and above all climate change.
To understand this we have to face the fact that there are taboo subjects that we chemists do not discuss openly with our students. By focusing on facts and theory in our teaching we fail to prepare our students for the profound ethical and moral dilemmas that confront us. Being an adult is having to make decisions in a world of incomplete and nowadays fake information. The challenge is how to prepare people (young and old) to operate effectively in a dangerous and “wicked” world.
Professor Andrea Sella is a synthetic inorganic chemist, teacher of chemistry, and presenter of chemistry in public both live on stage, on radio and television, and through social media.