Tag Archives: chemistry

Beautiful Chemistry trailer

This is something I’ve wanted to do for many years, which we discussed when I was at the Royal Institution but never quite got around to: careful macrophotography of chemical phenomena and reactions.

The Institute of Advanced Technology at the University of Science and Technology of China and Tsinghua University Press have teamed up with photographer and science visualisation specialist Yan Liang to film a series of reactions, and from the looks of this trailer they’ve made a really good job of it. There’s a ‘Beautiful Chemistry’ project website and blog, and I suspect I’ll be posting again when the main project goes live next month.

Chemistry Champions Challenge

One for our US readers: the American Chemical Society is launching a “Chemistry Champions” search for chemists who excel at performance and communication.

I’ve a bunch of concerns about the competition (judging by number of YouTube views? Really?). Also, their suggested two minutes to talk about your research is an extremely awkward duration – 2:30 is a great length, but 2:00 is on a difficult cusp. My advice to anyone entering would be: write something stellar that’s 90 seconds long. Two minutes will encourage you to try for too many ideas which you won’t, in the end, be able to cram in, so do one thing well, even if it’s shorter.

Anyway, this launch video is terrific. Endearingly low production values show that a great performance shines through regardless, which is exactly the message of the competition. It’s very well judged.

More details and rules on the ACS website. Deadline for submissions is 6th June. #chemchamps

The gloves conundrum

UCL chemist and demonstrator extraordinaire Andrea Sella, on his blog:

the wearing of gloves in the lab may, counter-intuitively, put us, our students, and our fellow lab workers at greater risk than riding their flasks bearback.

Do read the rest of his post, and likely the rest of his blog too.

I should talk to CLEAPSS about this sometime – Andrea’s comments on gloves make a lot of sense to me, but I’ve no idea what the standing advice for schools is. Ah, the simple life of not actually being a teacher.

The thrill of the audience response

My name is Paul. I’m a reaction junkie.

Like many science communicators who present demonstrations, I admit to getting a thrill from being able to provoke and orchestrate extreme emotional reactions from my audiences about my subject. The problem is, however, that like any addict, I am driven to want a larger and larger fix. The buzz is intoxicating.

This drive can unconsciously fool us into only valuing the most visible and audible emotional responses from the audience.

Take chemistry shows, for example. Chemistry demos are the shock jocks of the science demonstration airwaves. They viscerally grab attention with their flashes and bangs, but most don’t lead to any meaningful insight into the underlying concepts. Chemistry demos are bewitching to a reaction junkie.

The irony is that I genuinely believe that some of the most powerful audience reactions to live science demonstrations can be the least obvious – e.g. curiosity, wonder, and an intellectual joy of understanding. I’ve spent years of my life researching just this conviction. Yet the overt reaction drug still pulls. That is its danger.

They say admitting it is the first step to overcoming the addiction.

I am a reaction junkie.

But I’m trying to do something about it.

Chip pan fire

No other film in this series provoked more discussion and argument than this. Mostly from me. It’s a classic demo and was highly-requested in the nomination stage of Get Set Demonstrate, yet I argued against filming it.

For many years I made essentially all the science programmes that went out during the UK’s teatime ‘children’s television’ window, and there were only a few demonstrations I flat-out refused to show. This was one of them. You can show a safe method, you can treat the science with due respect… but with video you have precious little knowledge of your audience. You can’t tell when their attention has drifted away and they’ve maybe missed a crucial detail, you can’t be 100% certain of the message they take home, and most importantly you can’t guess what they might be tempted to try for themselves.

In person, the heat from the fireball is impressive: on video, it’s the size of your TV, or a YouTube window, or your phone. And it’s cold.

Film-makers can’t be responsible for the behaviour of their audience (discuss, 20 marks), but in this case the risk is very, very high. If 100,000 children saw the demo in our show, and 1 in 1,000 tried it themselves, and 1 in 100 set the curtains alight… that’s not something I ever wanted on my conscience. It’s not that the demo is too dangerous, it’s that it’s too easy. It’s trivial to perform it yourself in a kitchen, and the results can (and will) be catastrophic. So I never filmed the demo. Until now.

Others on the team eventually convinced me, using effectively the same argument applied backwards. The demo is straightforward to reproduce, and reproducing it is dangerous. Knowing that – understanding how and why oil fires are dangerous – might just save someone’s life, and for that reason alone, the team argued, this demo should be known and used in schools, and hence we should make this film.

I’m glad we did.

Three quick notes:

  1. In a UK school, follow the CLEAPSS guidance (Scotland: SSERC). As a teacher or technician you should consult CLEAPSS as a matter of routine before attempting hazardous activities, and where they issue standard guidance (as here): follow it. ScienceDemo.org doesn’t have access to the CLEAPSS archive so we can’t link directly to the resource, sorry, but you’ll find it easily enough.
  2. The formal government advice on how to react to a chip pan fire in the home is: get out, stay out, and call 999. It’s no longer considered appropriate to attempt the ‘damp tea-towel’ remedy yourself: the casualty rate is too high. We should have mentioned this in the film.
  3. In person, our fires were a little underwhelming, with the water often putting the flame out quickly. We’ve cut around that for the film, but speaking to other demonstrators subsequently it seems we were probably more assiduous than strictly necessary about turning the gas off the instant the flame caught. Give it a few more seconds and you’ll get a more satisfying fireball, we’re told. Do see Bob Worley’s comment below about one-upmanship, however!

Get Set Demonstrate logoThis film was produced for the Get Set Demonstrate project. Click through for teaching notes, and take the pledge to perform a demonstration to your students on Demo Day, 20th March 2014.

Magic in the classroom: The Iodine Clock

As well as being a science geek, I’m a magic geek. I’m not sure if anyone’s done the research on this, but I suspect those are two groups of people where there’s a significant overlap. I’ve got an entire live science show I do based around my love of magic and my somewhat lame attempts to become a magician and I include this demonstration as a highlight in the show. Like many of the demonstrations we’ve filmed, I don’t think video can do justice to how amazing it is to see in real life – it appears to be genuinely magical and always gets an “ooh” from the audience.

I’ve used the iodine clock in class purely for the effect it has of enthralling my students, but, as I hope the video shows, it can be used to achieve particular learning objectives. Mind you, I hope it’s clear that we at sciencedemo.org think “enthusing students” can be a sufficient justification for using a particular demo, if you’re going to take that enthusiasm and use it to help students get more out of your science lessons in general.


Get Set Demonstrate logoThis film was produced for the Get Set Demonstrate project. Click through for teaching notes, and take the pledge to perform a demonstration to your students on Demo Day, 20th March 2014.

Universal indicator-a-go-go

Spotted on Twitter:

Fantastic. Emma later noted that it’s absolutely as simple as it looks: a condenser tube filled with universal indicator solution, with acid added at one end and base at the other. Then you “wait ages” – ie. a couple of weeks.

Mighty pretty.

Flame colours

A scary article in the NY Times last Friday about a chemistry demo they refer to as “the rainbow”:

“With about 30 students watching from their desks, a snakelike flame tore through the air, missing the students closest to the teacher’s desk, but enveloping Alonzo Yanes, 16, searing and melting the skin on his face and body, according to witnesses. He was in critical condition on Friday[…]”

Just weeks ago, the article relates, the demo was the focus of a safety bulletin from the US Chemical Safety Board, and this film:

Here in the UK, I think we’d more commonly refer to the demo as “Flame colours”, and at the head of this post is a photo I took of it a few years ago. As best I can tell, the cause of the accidents in the US has been demonstrators topping up the flame straight from the methanol bottle, leading to the ignition of a large volume of fuel vapour.

Now, I’d hope most people reading this blog will be wincing right now. It was drilled into us (in school) that you never open a bottle of fuel near a naked flame, and that the correct procedure here is to ensure the watch glasses are cold before adding a small amount of fuel (typically with a pipette), then sealing the fuel bottle and removing it to a safe distance, before lighting the mixture in the watch glasses.

That would be standard lab practice, and it’s near-inconceivable that a teacher would pour meths from a bottle directly onto a flame. However, one thing we learned from SciCast is that we’re into the second generation of science teachers who’ve never really ‘done’ practical science. Recent science graduates don’t necessarily know how to handle flammable materials; they may never have been taught.

That generational knowledge gap was one impetus behind the demonstration films Alom and I have been making for the National STEM Centre and others, and also for this website. So pass this on, please, and let’s not make assumptions.

Oh, and if you’re a teacher in the UK, the version of this demo you should do is probably the one with ethanol spray bottles. That’s the version the Royal Society of Chemistry and Nuffield promote, but – as ever – check with CLEAPSS for their standing advice.

[EDIT 9/1/2014 – The RSC’s Education in Chemistry blog has picked up the story. Their post includes a quote from Steve Jones, Director of CLEAPSS.]

[EDIT 2 15/1/2014 – I somehow missed the NY Times’ follow-up story about the school involved in the incident above being inspected by the Fire Department, and being given notices to improve on a range of issues. Also, for the UK audience I should note that the Scottish equivalent of CLEAPSS is SSERC.]

“Blowing stuff up” in chemistry

The i-Biology blog writes a terrific response and meditation on the film in our previous post, and also includes this wonderful rant about chemistry demonstrations:

I think chemists have it tough when it comes to demos. Tougher than physicists, but in an odd way tougher than biologists too. Sure, there are precious few well-known biology demos (a subject for future posts, I’m sure), but chemistry is… hmm.

Look, I did a year of degree-level chemistry. I loved IR spectrometers. The only proper research paper to which I contributed was in computational chemistry. But I never really “got” chemistry. I never found that the practical work I did gave me confidence in the models I’d been taught, in part because of the bizarre ‘atomic model of the week’ strategy of late-80s A-levels. You know, the one where you’d just got comfortable with one particular version of How The World Works, only to have it pulled out from under your feet and replaced with something even more implausible. I found my eventual introduction to quantum mechanics a blessed relief, but then I’m weird.

My point is: I love chemistry demonstrations as theatre, but I’m squarely in the camp of not being able to remember any of the chemistry involved. What I think of as a ‘good’ physics demo reinforces or challenges my understanding of the principle behind it, but I rarely find the same sense of satisfaction in chemistry demos.

Is that because I’m a physicist; because chemistry demos are often used inappropriately; or because chemistry is somehow different?

Answers on the back of a £50 note to the usual address. Oh, and do check out the post at iBiology.

How not to do the methane bubbles demo

Funnily enough, only today Paul and I were discussing the importance of jeopardy in demos, and how the ‘best’ moments (particularly for children’s audiences) are often when things ‘go wrong.’ This isn’t quite what we had in mind.

What I don’t understand is why the bubbles are being lit on the ceiling. Typically, the methane bubble demo is done with a volunteer’s hands well wetted with the soap solution, and the bubbles lit on their hands. The perceived jeopardy is very much to the volunteer. It’s a lovely routine for building trust and establishing the purpose of exploring science (you get to do things to the world that are worth doing, and nobody dies). Setting up the demo in the way shown here is, I think, less impressive and less useful.

Still, at least the fire suppression works.

(via io9.org)