Film-makers at The University of Nottingham trekked to Everest base camp… to boil a kettle.
Brady Haran used a trip to Nepal to produce the latest hit for the University’s award-winning Periodic Table of Videos, a series of imaginative short films which aim to bring science to a wider audience.
The Periodic Table of Videos has attracted tens of millions of YouTube viewers around the world. Many of the films feature the University’s Research Professor in Chemistry, Martyn Poliakoff, whose enthusiasm and quirky delivery have turned him into a cult figure.
The latest video — Water Boiling at Everest — sees Brady use the stunning backdrop of the Himalayas to illustrate how water boils at lower temperatures as altitude increases.
The Periodic Table of Videosexamines all 118 chemical elements. Previous films have used Sydney’s Bondi Beach as a location to examine ozone and recorded the etching of the Queen’s portrait onto a diamond to mark the Jubilee. A video of a rare descent into the vaults of the Bank of England, where Professor Poliakoff muses on the nature of gold, is alone nearing 2.5m YouTube hits.
For the Everest video, Brady bought a kerosene stove, large kettle and a thermometer — “admittedly quite a ropey one” — in Kathmandu and roped in Sherpas Buddhi Rai and Chandra Rai to perform the boiling experiments.
At sea level, water boils at 100ºC. At the Nepalese village of Monjo (2850m), Buddhi tellers viewers the water boiled at 95ºC. By the time the team reach Everest base camp at 5365m, the boiling temperature has fallen to 79ºC.
On the way, Brady discovers mountain trekkers use different methods to heat water and cook — from solar cookers (giant reflective dishes in which cooking pots sit, absorbing the sun’s heat) to the more traditional burning of dried yak dung for fuel.
Brady admits his methods — while making an entertaining and informative film — perhaps didn’t meet the highest standards of scientific rigour.
He says: “Since returning I have subjected the kettle and thermometer to scrutiny by the team in the University’s School of Chemistry. They have, in the friendliest terms, pointed out a few deficiencies with the equipment and methods.
“That in itself made a nice sequel video.”
In the companion video, Professor Poliakoff looks at the science behind the Everest film and concludes: “Brady’s experiment was great in principle but could have been better in detail.”
Tests back in Nottingham revealed the thermometer was “slightly dodgy”, while the kettle was a little grubby inside — water impurities can affect boiling temperature. Professor Poliakoff also points out that the Sherpas may have inadvertently skewed results by inserting the thermometer at inconsistent depths in the water.
The Professor concedes, however, that Brady’s film is an excellent introduction to the principle that decreasing pressure at altitude — the “thinner air’’ that causes breathlessness in mountaineers — means it takes less energy to heat water, because its molecules are under less pressure and easier to agitate.
Professor Poliakoff adds: “The readings may not have been completely consistent. But Is having said all that, if I’d been doing the experiment and it had been cold and windy I probably wouldn’t have done it any better.”
Professor Poliakoff’s work on the Periodic Table of Videos has made him a familiar face to millions of YouTube followers around the world. In 2012 he was awarded the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Nyholm Prize for Education for bringing chemistry to a wider audience.
The Periodic Table of Videos, which were launched in 2008, was the brainchild of BBC-trained journalist Brady Haran. The films have garnered a clutch of communications and science education awards and has seen the team land a spot in the Guinness World Records 2012 for producing the world’s smallest Periodic Table, engraved on a single strand of Professor Poliakoff’s hair.
Last year, the Periodic Table of Videos beat shortlisted rivals such as Getty Images Music, Discovery Communications and Yahoo! to bag the gong in the reality online film category of the Webby Awards, regarded as the internet’s Oscars.
The team behind the Periodic Table of Videos have long since completed the series of films for each element but add new films of more exciting experiments to further bring chemistry to life.
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