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A tradition for bringing together knowledge

The vice-president of the Royal Society, Martyn Poliakoff, praises Brazilian scientists and FAPESP, but regrets the academics` lack of knowledge of English

Joanna Hopkins / Royal SocietyMartyn Poliakoff: “When I was in Brazil, for the first time I felt I was a world citizen and not from any particular country”Joanna Hopkins / Royal Society

Before the interview begins, chemist Martyn Poliakoff, still not confirmed as the person to carry out the analysis of the powder discovered by the Brazilian researchers Ana Goldfarb and Márcia Ferraz (see page 18), preferred to maintain his British reserve when he said that “he’d not been informed” of the subject and that he was not an “expert in these questions.” Vice-president of the Royal Society, he is also its foreign secretary, a position that the institution is proud to have “invented” in 1723, beating by six decades the creation of the same position in the British government. In “retaliation” for his silence, no question was asked, as is common in the media, about his famous hairstyle, which he says he maintains like this “because that way everyone knows me.” Friends of the scientist wrote the planet’s smallest periodic table on a hair from his head. Poliakoff has a passion for periodic tables, which are the theme of his Periodic table of videos ( series on YouTube. These short films about the elements have already been viewed by almost half a million people in 200 countries, including Brazil, which Poliakoff has just visited.

After taking part in the 34th meeting of the Brazilian Chemistry Society in Florianopolis in May, he left for Rio, where he filmed in the Botanical Garden (on the chemistry of Brazilian trees), on the Corcovado mountain [Christ statue] (about soap stone) and on Copacabana beach (about sand). “I was devastated when I visited an important Brazilian university and discovered that they were unable to use some research equipment because it was missing a really trivial component, some screw or another. Something needs to be done quickly so that things like this don’t happen,” he says. “It’s important to identify areas in countries that have a unique contribution to make, such as Brazilian vegetation, for example. Some plants have chemical components that have great medicinal potential and require simple equipment for extracting them,” he advises.

Is it a surprise to discover alchemy in the Royal Society?
No. There are some modern chemists who try mixtures made from urine and similar things, which is almost alchemy. When scientists go from one line of thinking to another, you need to take into consideration the starting point. If you think about the intellectual point from which Newton started out, he didn’t begin in a vacuum, but took knowledge that already existed and developed it from there. Likewise, modern scientists don’t start their position in science with the same religious views that were current in the seventeenth century. One of the great revolutions we celebrate in the Royal Society is that it developed peer critique, i.e., when someone suggests something you use the opinion of others to see if they can destroy that person’s idea. Scientific debate is created. People were prepared to accept what they’d learned from the past, whether they were writings from the Bible or Aristotle or the writings of the ancient alchemists. The revolution in thinking was that they decided they could do their own experiments and interpret the results they could see, instead of saying: “Aristotle said that this is going down because something is pushing it down” or things like that. If people hadn’t been observing the planets and their movements for hundreds of years, Newton wouldn’t have had any information to start from. And it doesn’t matter if they were doing this to understand the Universe or to read people’s fortunes, or whatever it was. Provided their observations were reasonable, why they did it doesn’t matter. There’s a very good modern analogy, that of people using samples from natural history museums to study things like DNA and genetics and all sorts of things like that. They even use samples that were collected before we knew of the existence of DNA. When the Royal Society was founded there were very few people interested in these issues and they had to talk to people in Germany, or in Holland or any other place, because there was only a half dozen people in England who were interested in matters of science; perhaps even fewer.

There are many who reject this past.
That’s a problem, because I’m certain that in a hundred years’ time people are going to consider things we do today in science as foolishness. My grandparents were born at a time when women didn’t vote. That seems absurd today, but at the time it was normal. Even for me it’s difficult to understand how people from that time could have had such deep-seated beliefs, because I have a head of my time. 

These people saw science as a way of improving everyone’s life. And now?
I think we’re still after that. We follow different paths to produce fertilizers, food, to supply clothes and most of the building materials we need, and with the increase in the world population these things are more and more necessary. What I strongly believe is that with this population growth and particularly because of the fact that there are a lot of poor people we need to find ways of providing mankind with more benefits from the same quantity of minerals, plutonium and so on, so we can satisfy these needs. That’s what’s good about academic work, which seems to be like the work of journalists, who get all enthusiastic about a story and then when they move on to another story they get even more excited. The only way of doing research is  to always maintain this enthusiasm.

How do you see the science that is being carried out in Brazil and how could the country form partnerships with the Royal Society?
I’m quite touched by the enthusiasm of Brazilian scientists, but I’m equally struck by the low level of their proficiency in English, which makes our dialogue with academics in your country difficult. But this passion for science is undeniable, particularly when it receives good government support from organizations like FAPESP. There’s very positive engagement in São Paulo State compared with what’s done in many other countries, and this is important given the fantastic opportunities you have with your biodiversity and natural resources, with which new science can be created. I think the Royal Society can catalyze interaction between Brazilians and the English. Scientifically speaking Brazil is a young country, despite being one of the oldest in the New World, historically. But we can show the young people that come from recent institutions how we do science here, so they can use a similar approach, but one that focuses on new problems in Brazilian science. The Royal Society finds itself in the unique position of bringing people together to discuss the problems being faced by our society. We have the tradition and status to bring people together that perhaps would not meet otherwise. So we can gather the best minds in the world to discuss what’s important, the problems of our time. I know that not only are we going to continue doing it, but we’ll do it more efficiently in future. I arrived in Brazil a week before Rio+20 and during the discussions with Brazilians I really had the feeling of being a world citizen for the first time, and not from any particular country.

What’s your “green chemistry” group?
I started studying super-critical fluids, which can be used as cleaner solvents in chemical reactions long before people started talking about “green chemistry,” in the 1980s, and I saw a great window of opportunity. I believe that Brazil is a perfect field for this. The emphasis is on the creation of a “cleaner” form of chemistry, which doesn’t cause the same environmental problems, so that the environment is preserved. At the same time, it examines how biomass and these “clean” materials can be used to generate chemical substances. We have a good example in Braskem. Chemistry has a very bad image, especially in developed countries like the UK. It’s possible to show that there’s chemistry that can benefit everyone. I have the impression that even though science has maintained a progressive vision over the last 350 years, this doesn’t keep people from repeating what’s been done for thousands of years: older people say that things were better in their childhood. On the other hand, I think that the prospects for science are far better. We have to be optimistic, because if we fail there’s no future for mankind.