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Prof Andrea Sella


Andrea Sella is a Professor of Chemistry at University College London with interests in rare earth elements and the synthesis of materials.  Andrea is extremely active in the promotion of chemistry on radio, TV and at a wide range of festivals and shows including the Cheltenham Science Festival, the Royal Institution and Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People.

We, as chemists, go out there and what we will do is flashy and bangy things and that’s exactly what people are expecting.

On getting interested in science

I think my interest in science really started when I was a very small child – that must’ve been in primary school – and it was partly because my father…my father trained as a doctor but actually quit and then got a job first in medical research and then in, kind of, scientific analysis, let’s say.  But my father was an absolutely inveterate book reader and insomniac and so we just had science books and science books and science books and science books and I have this childhood memory of my father showing me pictures of radio telescopes in an astronomy book and, you know, it was one of those things where, you know, at four you’re considered to be either a genius or an idiot savant because I knew the names of these radio telescopes.  And, funnily enough, the name of Jodrell Bank stayed with me and just a few weeks ago I took the train to go up to Manchester for something I was doing, and the train took a funny detour that I don’t remember it taking and suddenly out of the mist appeared the radio telescope at Jodrell Bank and it just, kind of, took me back to my childhood.  But it was definitely back in primary school and I think my father was really the main inspiration.

On science role models

To select a single science hero or icon I think is almost impossible, um, because it would be a little bit like saying, you know, ‘who first invented chemistry?’ or something and, I mean, there’s so many contributors.  But in terms of heroes, you know, I think one of the people whom I hold in highest regard is probably the great Italian biologist, Spallanzani.  And Spallanzani was an extraordinary experimenter and a very, very acute observer and one of the things he was very interested in was the whole question of reproduction, spontaneous generation and so on.  And he did some amazing experiments where, in order to understand how it was that frogs actually reproduce, he actually sewed himself some little breeches, which he put onto male frogs so that they couldn’t inseminate the females.  But although that’s sort of part of the story, um, one of the reasons I like Spallanzani a great deal was that he was a subject of real intrigue: there were a lot of people who hated him because he was so brilliant and he was so successful.  And while he was away on a trip, there was a conspiracy that was made to try and suggest that some of the samples that he had in his cabinet of curiosities had been stolen from the university’s museum cabinet of curiosities.  And when Spallanzani got back, he realised there was a scandal which was spreading all the way across Europe that had been started by one of his colleagues.  And Spallanzani didn’t take this lying down.  He actually constructed…he sort of assembled a fictitious organism that was a bit of this and a bit of that and he left it to be discovered by his nemesis who got hugely excited…was taken in by this extraordinary prank.  And then Spallanzani pulled the rug out from beneath the man’s feet, whose career was destroyed and, you know, the truth prevailed.  Now, I’m not a huge fan of destroying people’s careers or anything, but there’s something about, you know, his purity of thought, and the sense that the truth was supreme with him and that, you know, there was stuff out there to be discovered no matter what the cost was.  Spallanzani for me really is special and I first heard his name, I think, through my father because my father first showed me an atlas of the moon and there is a crater on the moon called Spallanzani. 

On the joy of science

Well, this is always such a difficult question; in some ways, I think it’s a very British question because it goes back to…you know that man CP Snow who, with the best of intentions, put his finger on something of a dichotomy and thereby actually magnified it hugely.  I think there was a time – or I’d like to think there was a time – when actually it wasn’t quite so obvious, where you had these people who were extraordinary polymaths, you know, who played the harpsichord or the viola as well as doing science in their spare time, and actually in real life nothing has changed…you know, I have a friend, a colleague, who is an expert on interfaces, she also plays baroque flute.  And when you start digging around and you start asking scientists what it is that they do in their spare time there’s all kind of sort of fascinating, often very artistic, things that they do.  So the joy of science for me is finding stuff out but also the idea that as you grope towards understanding and you think you start to understand a little bit more, that hugely enriches the experience for you.  And, for me, one of the things that I have always loved – and perhaps this is because I’m a cyclist, and cyclists have one advantage over motorists and over especially people who travel by tube and that is that we can see the sky and we can look up at the sky and we can see the clouds – and the thing that I love more than anything else are halos and those strange lights that you see in the sky sometimes called sundogs.  And to me the idea that sundogs are associated with ice crystals, ice crystals of specific shapes, of specific orientations and that you know you can use this, in a sense the simple science of refraction is not quite that simple actually, you know, you’ve gotta do some real maths to make the predictions.  But, nevertheless, the idea that you can connect up some beautiful phenomenon that you see in the sky back to some everyday physics or whatever, to me that just deepens the pleasure enormously.

On the increasing popularity of science

I think there’s an extraordinary paradox at the moment because the very moment in which there are substantial areas of science which have become highly controversial, highly politicised, where scientists are singled out for abuse, lawsuits, you know, get very, very rough treatment from certain segments of society.  At the same time there is clearly a hunger out there for sort of returning to those, in a sense, simple joys of learning about stuff and trying to gain understanding.  I think, for many of us, our days in school are very happy ones because that’s when we’re sponges and we’re picking stuff up.  And I think the people who have been out there doing science television are people who are able to reconnect many, many others with their inner child, right with that real delight in discovery and when you see the kind of wide-eyed excitement that comes from people like, you know, amazing presenters like Alice Roberts, for example, you know, I think that just reminds you of a time where almost anything was possible.  And I think lots of people really relate to that and what I hope is that, that actually that, that sense of joy, also of respect for the depth of learning and the depth of understanding you have will in the end win over the forces of obscurantism.  And some of these are religious-based, but I’ll put those to one side, but the others of course are driven by other much more kind of commercially-driven ideology and to me those are almost scarier than the religious ones.

I think there is an interesting thing certainly within the scientific community…is that for a long time scientists or academics who stepped out and, you know, related to the media a lot were seen in some way as second class or selling themselves or being tarts or something like that, you know, the phrase ‘media tart’ comes up a lot.  And, on the one hand, yes, I mean, I think there is an element that one might be able to argue that some of these people are actually pandering to a certain vanity of sorts.  But, on the other hand, one of the things that they are doing is that they’re really bringing some of the basic and also some of the deeper scientific ideas right out there before the public, and so there is much more of a sense of transparency in a way. You know, we deal hugely in jargon, we speak a language which is unbelievably dense and difficult to follow and it’s incredibly important that there be people out there who are able to somehow bridge the gap between the two.  The thing which I find very, very thrilling is that although there are the Alice Robertses, the Brian Coxs, the Jim Al Khalilis and the Marcus Du Sautoys who are, you know, the sort of superstars of this, the thing I find most exciting is to see how undergraduates and graduate students are going out there and they’re, they’re talking about the stuff they love…they’re no longer quite as embarrassed to be geeks and this accusation that, you know, we can’t hold our own at a cocktail party, that, you know if you say, ‘I’m a chemist’ you know that people will shut down.  Well, you know, I’m sorry, if somebody tells me they’re an estate agent, I mean, what am I gonna do?  Say, ‘Urgh’?  No, of course not, you know, there is common ground to be found, and the interesting thing is, I think that the more scientists go out there and explain what it is they’re doing, why and why it’s important, they may be attacked but they now have much stronger weapons with which to defend themselves.

On getting the general public to relate to science

One of the things that I’ve worried about for a long time as a chemist  – and, you know, chemists have long been doing science, let’s say, or science shows in public –  is that we as chemists go out there and what we will do is flashy and bangy things, that’s exactly what people are expecting and, you know, sure enough, guess what, there I was upstairs doing precisely the kind of chemical porn or chemical boonga boonga, whatever you want to call it, that in fact I have criticised.  [I think you could do with a description here of what he was doing and at what event]  And, you know, the reason I’ve chosen this this evening is because, you know, we’re in the run up to…well I won’t say the word, let’s call it Montal, right, the winter solstice, the winter festival or something.  But actually, you know, what I’ve done is not science, right, what I’ve done is a brilliant party trick, I’ve done a demonstration.  And, of course, there is a huge difference between an experiment and a demonstration, in that an experiment is actually an interrogation of the world where you don’t know what the answer is.  And so the process of science is that process of formulating the question, and in order to formulate the question you’ve got to have an idea of how you think the world works, then what you do is you put it to the test and then you’ve got the real problem scratching your head and saying, ‘What the hell does this mean?’  Right?  Because the answers are often not very clear cut.  And, you know, we can see this in the case of the Higgs Boson, where the Boson has taken a long time for the statistics to get high enough, of course in the case of climate change, the real signal is steadily coming out of the noise but there’s still enough noise there to allow people to, to rail and to cry against it.  

But, you know, what I do on stage in a sense is not science and what you see on television is not science, and the word experiment is used I think too loosely in many cases, you know, on stage you can’t do an experiment because you can’t do something where you really have no idea what the outcome is, you’ve got to have a reasonable expectation of where you’re going to end up.  So, in a sense, yes, there is a problem but what we can do is to show the results and the results are often exciting, spectacular and, above all, illuminating.

On the importance of being curious

For me, the most important thing is that science no longer be ghettoised.  And in some countries – and I think the UK is a good example, and North America as well – the idea of being intellectual is something which has for a long time held a certain stigma in some circles, that, you know, the idea of being clever was actually a pejorative term: you could damn someone with faint praise.  And what I think is fantastic is the way in which in the last few years, you know, the idea of reading about ideas has seen this tremendous resurgence and it’s not just philosophy, it’s not just history, you know, it’s about all of the quantitative subjects and that to me is really exciting.  And I hope that what this leads to is something very, very important and that is a shift in which the way we govern our society is that we move away from the kind of knee-jerk, ‘I believe this’ sort of bollocks that you get from certain commentators, say on the Telegraph blogs – whom we won’t mention by name because otherwise this person might sue us but I’ll leave Robin Ince to say the name – to something which is actually based in evidence, right?  And, you know, the evidence is accumulating; our ability to take vast amounts of data and extract signals from it is improving all the time.  And, who knows?  Maybe it’s a utopia, but we live in hope.

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