As the RI Christmas lecturer, Tony Ryan brought polymers to the nation's TV screens. Emma Davies caught up with him.

As the RI Christmas lecturer, Tony Ryan brought polymers to the nation’s TV screens. Emma Davies caught up with him.

As a 16-year-old in the late 1970s, Tony Ryan harboured a fervent desire to be a revolutionary communist. He little imagined that more than 20 years later he would be spreading the word to a television audience of over a million people on a subject close to his heart - not communism but chemistry, and in particular, polymers. 

Ryan’s career in polymer research has risen rapidly - in 1997, at the age of 35, he was appointed as professor at Sheffield University (he is now the ICI professor of physical chemistry), and two years later became head of Sheffield’s chemistry department. 

Now, Ryan has achieved celebrity status in the science world with his 2002 Royal Institution Christmas lectures. The series of five lectures, recorded live in front of an audience at the RI and broadcast on Channel 4 over the Christmas period, has become a national institution. Last year, Channel 4’s educational arm, Schools in 4 Learning, and the RI broke from the traditional system of appointing the Christmas lecturer and advertised openly for an ’eminent scientist’ to give the 2002 lectures. 

Watching the Christmas lectures on TV had been a tradition for Ryan from an early age and so he decided to send in an application. ’Faint heart never won a fair lady’, he says, and Ryan certainly doesn’t have a faint heart. He knew that he could lecture well and that it wasn’t ridiculous for him to apply, but he ’never expected to get there’. 

Polymeric pathway 
As a teenager in Leeds, Ryan’s dreams of revolutionary communism soon faded when his school’s timetable restrictions prevented him from taking his favoured A-level options: psychology, economics and maths. The school steered him towards science subjects instead. An inspirational chemistry teacher arranged for his A-level students to go on a summer residential course and this sparked off Ryan’s fascination with polymers. Freshly inspired, he decided to study for a degree in polymer science and technology at UMIST. From then on, Ryan was hooked on polymer research. 

Unsurprisingly, therefore, polymers were the theme of the lecture proposal that Ryan sent in with his application to the RI and Channel 4. 

The members of the selection team were swamped with over 100 applications from which they assessed the candidates’ written lecture proposals and watched video recordings of selected lecturers in action. Ryan was relatively lucky because he had given a lecture at the RI in the previous year that had been recorded, and which he was able to submit. He made it to the shortlist of eight and, before he had time to catch his breath, he was in the final four and travelling down to London for the final interview. 

Ryan heard in March 2002, on his 40th birthday, that he was the winning candidate. The celebrations were barely over before the hard work began. Ryan’s proposed lecture series was entitled Fantastic plastic. But the Channel 4 team was concerned that it would be tough to get people to tune in for five hours on plastics. So Ryan and the production team broadened the scope of the lectures, finally coming up with five lectures with an underlying polymer theme and called Smart stuff: 

  • The spider that spun a suspension bridge; 
  • The trainer that ran over the world; 
  • The phone that shrank the planet; 
  • The plaster that stretches life and; 
  • The ice cream that will freeze granny.  

Designing demos 
Practical demonstrations are at the heart of the Christmas lectures, helping to explain complicated principles to children and adults, many of whom may have no science background. Ryan came up with a whole host of demonstration ideas around which the script for his lectures could be written. Duncan Bulling, the assistant producer of the Christmas lectures, helped Ryan to compose the lectures. With his science background, Bulling was very good at taking out the detail, Ryan recalls. ’When I wanted to put graphs and structures and equations in, he was very good at moving me away from that. We’d have a dialogue and I’d have to explain things to him and then we’d come up with some really good analogies from me having to explain it to him - that worked really well and he came up with some great ideas.’ 

The lecture team met fairly frequently in April, May and June. Then there was a happy pause in the proceedings: ’My timing was atrocious. My wife had a baby at the end of August, so we had a bit of a hiatus in August and September’. By the end of October, the team had compiled enough material for about 10 lectures. Throughout November and December, Ryan was working full-time on the lectures, along with his able assistant, Annie Abbott, who is currently finishing her PhD. Meanwhile, his colleagues back at Sheffield willingly took up the slack for him, aided by Ryan’s senior media fellowship from EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council), which helped to fund a replacement lecturer. 

In designing his demonstrations, Ryan took inspiration from different periods of his life. As a schoolboy, for example, he remembered being shown a particular demo by a visitor to his school from Leeds University’s colour chemistry department. The demo involves dipping a piece of white fabric composed of different sections into a dye mixture. As if by magic, the material emerges as a resplendent Union Jack, showing how fabrics can be designed to attract dyes selectively. Sure enough, the demonstration appeared in one of the final televised lectures. 

Ryan set up some of the demos through his research contacts in industry and he also had ’lots of help from the chemistry, physics and material science communities’. 

Performing live 
Despite Ryan’s extensive lecturing experience, making the TV programmes was no mean feat. ’No matter how much previous lecturers tell you how difficult it is and how stressful it is, you won’t believe them until you’ve been through it yourself’, says Ryan. Although the lectures are recorded a week or so before they’re shown at Christmas, very little editing goes on. Ryan had to get to grips with all the demos and perform the lectures to a set time, in front of a live audience. There was very little room for error. 

Ryan tries to pinpoint exactly what was most daunting about giving the lectures: ’There’s 300 kids in the audience - there’s nothing terrifying about that. It’s just that everything has to be right for five o’clock on a certain day... There’s a big difference between a lecture for a live TV audience and a TV programme. Making a lecture for a live audience into a TV programme has a lot of tensions and sometimes those tensions go unresolved and that’s the hard part’. 

Personal approach 
With his strong Yorkshire accent, straightforward manner and mischievous sense of humour, Ryan brought a breath of fresh air to the usually tedious Christmas TV schedule. His vivacious personality and boundless energy came out strongly in the lectures. He is a keen mountain climber and put his climbing skills to good use in the first lecture, abseiling from the ceiling of the RI’s 200-year-old lecture theatre. As if abseiling wasn’t enough, as he descended, Ryan addressed the audience with the opening words: ’Have you ever stopped and looked around and wondered where all the material that you use comes from, and how it is made?’. 

Ryan put a lot of himself into the lectures, quite literally in one case, going so far as to have a patch of skin removed from his leg to demonstrate the wonders of tissue engineering. The audience was shown a slide of ’a friendly scientist in Sheffield’ taking a biopsy of Ryan’s skin. ’Can you see the thing that looks like a cheese plane and that little flap on it’, he asked the awestruck children. ’Well, that’s a piece of my skin ... it’s still quite sore actually’. The skin had been transferred to a Petri dish modified by plasma polymerisation to create patterns of hydrophilic areas which the skin cells were attracted to. 

Ryan is also a keen cyclist and frequently cycles to work, braving Sheffield’s busy roads. As he told the Christmas audience, eight weeks before the lectures started, Ryan fell off his bike, injuring his knee. Viewers and the audience were treated to a slide of a gory wound on Ryan’s knee before Ryan rolled up his trouser leg to reveal a much improved knee, asking the question: ’Why doesn’t it look like something out of a horror movie any more?’. Ryan then went on to explain the chemistry of plasters and bandages. 

Because it’s worth it 
Ryan’s enjoyment of the lectures was masked somewhat by the pressure that he was under. Only after it was all over did he realise how much he had enjoyed the experience. He even goes so far as to say that he’d do it again - ’My wife will kill me for saying that - but I’d do it again because it is a fantastic thing to do’. Just as well, because the Christmas lecture experience isn’t quite over for Ryan. In July, he will travel to Japan and Korea to repeat the lectures, which will be broadcast on Japanese and Korean TV. Channel 4 will also be showing a repeat of the original lectures, starting this month (see below). 

Ryan has learnt an awful lot about himself during the lectures ’as you do if you put yourself under stress. I learnt some rather unpleasant things about me actually. I discovered that I could have tantrums, and people had to suffer "I ordered those poodles in cerise’’ type of prima donna behaviour’. 

Chemistry education 
With life almost back to normal in Sheffield, Ryan can concentrate once again on his academic life. He has strong opinions on a number of education issues. One of his bugbears is that children are not taught to appreciate fully the role that chemistry plays in their lives, partly because of a general perception of the word chemistry. ’All the things that kids are interested in - how they look, how they smell, how people perceive them - all come down to molecules, but we never tell them that. If we told more people that, I think there would be more people interested in this science called chemistry’. He thinks that ’it would be easy to explain the molecules of the atoms that are involved in a DVD player or in going to the cinema if what we did wasn’t called chemistry’. 

He is less than complimentary about the national curriculum, which he says ’sucks’ because everything is so prescribed that there is no space for teachers to be inspirational. ’For lots of kids it is things exploding that gets them interested. If all of the explosions have been taken out of the national curriculum, which they may or may not have been, that’s sad’. 

Another of Ryan’s hobby horses is league tables and assessment. ’Why have we become obsessed with league tables?’, he grumbles. ’We spend an inordinate amount of time and effort in making sure we’re in the right place in the league table rather than getting on with being excellent. We spend a lot of time filling in bits of paper and putting in procedures just to know that we’re not bad. And that’s really crazy’. He quotes his grandfather as saying ’You don’t fatten a pig by weighing it’, adding: ’And I think that’s what’s happening in education - we get weighed and we get assessed so often that we’re not growing’. 

When it comes to tuition fees, Ryan is in two minds. He doesn’t necessarily agree with the UK government’s objective of having 50 per cent of the population in higher education but says that ’if that’s what we have to do, then top-up fees, however they’re paid for, are the only way’. He thinks that ’if the fees are organised such that the economic cost of doing the degree defines the fee and chemistry ends up being 10 times more expensive to do than arts subjects, then it is going to have a really bad effect. But if top-up fees are used to do social engineering, for example to make it more expensive to do high-demand subjects, such as history or English, than to do chemistry then we could actually encourage people to do chemistry’. He adds: ’We certainly have no plans here in Sheffield to charge more to do a science and engineering degree than to do an arts degree - we would see that as a retrograde step’. 

Cool chemistry 
Ryan wants to tell everybody about the power of chemistry: ’The link between molecules and what they can do is something that chemistry needs to get across. All of the things that you enjoy are down to molecules’. Ryan couldn’t have found a better way to spread the word to everyone than through TV. ’It’s nice to see chemistry making a bigger splash’, Ryan says. Let’s hope that the splash gets even bigger. 

Christmas lectures

  • Channel 4 and the RI are currently advertising for a scientist to give the 2004 Christmas lectures on a life or earth sciences topic. For more information, visit the The Royal Institution of Great Britain website.
  • The Channel 4 website has full transcripts of the 2002 lectures.
  • Tony Ryan’s 2002 Christmas lectures will be repeated on Channel 4 at 9.30am on 16 and 23 May 2003, and on 6, 13 and 20 June 2003.

Source: Chemistry in Britain

Ryan’s research 

Polymers underpin all of the work being carried out by members of Tony Ryan’s research group at Sheffield University’s chemistry department. His research covers a wide area and pinning him down to talk about which projects excite him most is virtually impossible. He is reluctant to pick favourites - fearful of causing offence to those PhD students that he might fail to mention. 

Ryan’s research team is split into a number of smaller groups working: on polymer crystallisation; block copolymers and polyurethane foam; self-assembled polymer structures for the opto-electronic industry; and tissue engineering. 

Ryan doesn’t adopt the post-mortem approach favoured by many polymer scientists, but prefers to look at what happens to polymers in real time, especially during processing. One of his favourite ways to do this is with X-ray scattering, and his group has developed equipment to allow it to follow what happens to polymers during extrusion. 

One exciting application of the technique is to study what is happening during the manufacture of the polymer films that are used in packaging. The finished texture of such films depends very much on the manufacturing process. Most of the process steps involve extrusion, which straightens the polymer molecules and makes them more likely to crystallise. Understanding exactly how the polymers crystallise as they flow is essential to predicting the outcome of the process. As part of a large international collaboration, Ryan and his team have used X-ray scattering to elucidate for the first time the nucleation mechanism for the primary crystallisation of polymers. 

Ryan says he would also love to do more research on biological topics such as signalling pathways and ion channels in membranes, but that he currently ’finds the jargon completely impenetrable’.