A PopSci Christmas: Holiday Lights and... Explosions (Of Course!)

Christmas chemistry show provides a chance for otherwise sensible faculty members to mix dangerous chemicals and light them in front of an audience

For chemistry aficionados (that would be me!) one of the great pleasures in life is a really good Christmas chemistry show. Most of your finer research universities put on a show like this every year, because it's a chance for otherwise sensible faculty members to mix dangerous chemicals and light them in front of an audience. Some professors become better known for their shows than for their research, though this is not considered a good thing.

There are a few standards that should be part of any chemistry magic show. Lighting soap bubbles filled with hydrogen gas, magnesium burning in a block of dry ice, and of course dumping liquid nitrogen into a bucket of hot soapy water. But every professors adds his or her own special touches, maybe it's juggling flaming tennis balls, or using a Pringles can filled with hydrogen to scare the living daylights out of the audience. (See all but the last one in this video.)

Back in the early '80s I had the privilege of seeing a show put on by a 90-year-old professor from another university who had come to Illinois at Christmas time just to perform this show. Sadly, I don't recall his name now, but I do recall the palpable excitement in my professor's voice when he announced that this particular man was coming. The show lived up to its advance billing and then some. Loud, smoky, at times teetering on the edge of too dangerous to seriously do with people sitting just a few feet away, it's something I'll never forget. I don't think there's anyone doing a show quite this edgy anymore, but you can still see some very fine chemistry going on around this time of year.

The University of Illinois' show was put on this year by Prof. Don DeCoste, who kindly allowed me to bring a couple of cameras and film the show. (Photography geeks will be interested to know that this was the first time my assistant Nick and I got to use our Canon 5D Mark II, an incredible new stills and HD video camera. The quality of its low-light photography is remarkable, especially when you compare it to the occasional audience reaction shots you'll see in the video, which were shot with a $9000 piece of junk XL H1 broadcast HD camera.)

The show was packed, standing room only in a lecture hall that seats several hundred, and a lot of the audience was kids. That's really what these shows are about, getting kids interested in science, showing them that there really is a difference between chemistry and accountancy as a career choice.