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Local youngster finds the show to be magic.
A local youngster appreciates the magic.

Holiday Magic Show Helps Make the Season Merry and Bright

December 18, 2013

Area folks who attended this year's edition of the Holiday Magic Chemistry Demonstration Show discovered that learning about chemistry can not only be fun, but festive, a little loud, and quite bright. In fact, enjoying themselves as much as the rest of the audience were a couple of firemen—invited, no doubt, because of the pyrotechnic nature of many of the demos (and the slightly pyromaniacal tendencies of the performers).

Because of the show's ever-increasing popularity, the last couple of years had resulted in standing-room-only crowds being ushered into an overflow room with a video display. To ensure that everyone got the best experience possible, a third show was added this year, with shows on Wednedsday evening, December 11th and Saturday and Sunday afternoon, December 14th and 15th. In addition to the magic show itself, some of Chemistry's REACT students did chemistry demos in the hallways before the performance and handed out refreshments afterwards.

Gretchen Adams, Don Decoste, and Christian Ray "ooh" and "ah" during a demo about "fireworks."
Gretchen Adams, Don Decoste, and Christian Ray "ooh" and "ah" during a "fireworks" demo.

The usual suspects were there to perform: Chemistry's three amigos, Jesse Miller, Gretchen Adams, and Don Decoste. All three can be found on- and off-campus year-round performing their outrageous, unique brand of high-energy chemistry outreach, an entertaining hybrid that is part magic show, part slapstick, and part chemistry lesson, with enough chemistry thrown in that spectators who pay attention can actually learn something while being entertained.

Christian Ray drops dry ice into a beaker  of green liquid to set the ambiance for the show.
Christian Ray creates a festive, yet chemistry-related, ambiance prior to the show by dropping dry ice into a beaker of green-tinted water.

Miller says the show was the idea of a former Head of the School of Chemical Sciences, Dr. Rauchfus. Evidently, many years ago, a previous Director of General Chemistry, Gil Haight, used to do a Christmas lecture that was quite popular with the students.

"Dr. Rauchfus asked me if we could start doing them again," reports Miller, who invited Decoste and Adams, and some others, to participate. "It was a success," recalls Miller, "and we've been doing it every year since."

Holiday Magic troupe performs "We Wish You a Merry Christmas."
The Holiday Magic troupe performs their opening number, "We Wish You a Merry Christmas."

Joining the three this year were Tina Huang, Christian Ray, and John Overcash. This allowed the troupe to do some big production numbers.

For example, all six performed the opening song, a rendition of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," sung in voices either above their normal register, á la the Three Chipmunks (due to inhaling gas from Helium-filled balloons), or booming out below their normal register with Darth Vadaresque quality (achieved by imbibing from Sulfur-Hexafluoride-filled balloons).

The company passes a ball of fire down the line.
The company "passes" a ball of fire down the line as the handful of bubbled methane gas each is holding ignites.

Another show-stopping demo required five performers. After bubbling methane gas (which is flammable) into a sudsy soap solution, each performer grabbed a handful. Then Jesse Miller ignited the suds in his hand and literally passed a ball of fire down the lineup of his comrades. Having covered quite a few chemistry shows to date, this reporter was delighted by the addition of some of these never-before-seen (by me, at least) show-stoppers.

Gretchen Adams displays her "Christmas Tree."
Gretchen Adams displays her chemical "Christmas Tree."

In another demo, which the performers announced they had never tried before in such a large container, the audience was delighted, thinking that Gretchen Adams was as clueless as the rest of us how it was going to turn out.

"We did know what was going to happen," Adams qualifies. "We just didn't know to what extent!"

It turned out splendidly. After Adams combined hydrogen peroxide, soap, and dark green-colored potassium iodide, a volcano of green foam, sort of a chemical Christmas tree, belched out of a beaker non-stop.

The company also performed a few of the classics: the "glowing pickle," and the obligatory igniting of gas-filled balloons and their accompanying explosions of ever-increasing volume and fireball.

And two of the rookies, Christian Ray and John Overcash, had evidently drawn the short straws, or, by virtue of their lower positions on the totem pole, had been assigned the big finale. This demo involved pouring liquid nitrogen into a container primed with a generous amount of liquid dish soap, which resulted in a geyser of soap suds which liberally covered Ray's lab coat and face.

Youngsters cover their ears in anticipation of a balloon full of gas exploding.
Youngsters at the show cover their ears in anticipation of a balloon full of gas being ignited.

As for why so many demos involve fire or an explosion, Jesse Miller shares an anecdote which possibly explains it. It's about the very first chemistry show he ever did, when his daughter was in second grade.

"It was her birthday, and you know how you bring cupcakes?" shares Miller. "Instead, I asked her teacher, 'Do you mind if a do a little thing?' And she's like, 'Sure, that would be fine.'"

Miller discovered that they were studying states of matter (solids, liquid, and gases) and crafted a show. Since it was close to Halloween, one demo involved a Styrofoam cup made to look like a witch, which, when placed into a dish of acetone, melted away.

Jesse Miller prepares to douse a flaming snowman.
Jesse Miller prepares to douse a flaming snowman.

"So I had this dish of acetone," Miller recollects, "and some sodium metal; I had a tiny chunk. I asked, 'So what do we put fire out with?' They said, 'Water.' So I said, 'What if I showed you that you can start a fire with water?'

So Miller squirted water into the dish of sodium, and, like it was supposed to, it burst into flames.

"Which is really cool," admits Miller. "But a little piece popped off and, of course, landed right in the acetone. So the acetone dish is on fire, and I didn't have anything to put it out with…But I had some liquid nitrogen, and I thought, 'I'll just smother it.' And, of course, that was dumb, because now it spread the acetone all over the table. So the table is on fire." Miller finally used asbestos gloves to put the fire out.

"You know how kids always draw pictures, thank-you cards?" he continues. "Well, they all did that for me, and of course every single one of them had me in a lab coat with a goatee, flames everywhere. So I was like, 'Ok. So I know what kids really want to see!'"

Since that first outreach demo, Miller has become an old hand at chemistry outreach. The Holiday Magic show is just one of many outreach events he regularly performs throughout the year, both singlehandedly, such as in the Chemist Corner tv segment on WCIA's "Morning Show"; with his two amigos, Adams and Decoste; or with the REACT team, for which he is the faculty advisor. Why does he do it?

"I think it's important, and it's worthwhile, and that's what I get out of it. I'm doing something worthwhile. I also like the students because they're all excited...but as far as reward goes, I can't put my finger on it. It's just something that I think is worthwhile to do. So I get satisfaction out of the fact that I'm doing something that I think is worthwhile for the community."

Tina Huang
Tina Huang exhibits a flask she "turned silver" by shaking the contents together.

But Miller isn't the only one who likes to give back to the community...or with a flair for the dramatic. Chemistry lecturer Tina Huang fits right in, obviously having the three amigos' propensity for spectacular demos. While Huang says she participated in the shows simply because she loves to teach: "I enjoy teaching, regardless if it's an opportunity to teach college students or the community at large," she then shamelessly discloses her penchant for pyrotechnics and explosions: "Besides who can pass up the opportunity to blow things up, light things on fire, and not get in trouble!"

Huang, ever the educator, relishes the chance to teach, even during an "entertainment" event: "I think it shows the kids who are there to think about and observe what they see. They all know that it's not "magic." So by asking the question "Why?," I hope that we can instill scientific inquiry process fairly early. I answered several questions from kids who came up to me afterwards to ask about specific demos."

Regarding one of the spoofs about the sun being made not of Cheetos, but of Sun Chips, which then gave Decoste and company the opportunity to ignite the chips so they blazed like the sun, Huang reports, "I had a little girl who didn't believe the sun is made of Sun Chips. So I asked her what it's made of. She thought about it, and told me that she read in a book that it's probably some type of hot gas. That just made me really happy."

Though December is a pretty busy time, and the dates of the shows coincided with the end of the semester/beginning of finals, this didn't deter Christian Ray, the Director of General Chemistry, from signing up to participate. "It's a lot of fun putting these shows on!" he admits.

Ray acknowledges that the show is pure entertainment—and not just for the audience: "A lot of the value of the show is just entertainment for the people putting on the show and the people watching the show. I'm lucky to have great colleagues, so working at this show is a blast!"

Christian Ray
Holding a beacker of liquid nitrogen, Christian Ray prepares for the final demo, in which he gets doused in suds.

But besides having a good time himself, Ray admits that he, like the other performers in the show, see the demonstrations as a flashy vehicle through which they can pass on their love of Chemistry to the youngsters.

"I hope that we get kids excited about science. I am an educator today because I had a crazy chemistry professor who blew a lot of stuff up and showed me his excitement for the science. If I can get even one kid (young or old) interested in science, that would be pretty cool."

Story and photographs by Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative.
More: Chemistry, K-12 Outreach, REACT, 2013

For additional I-STEM articles about Chemistry's outreach, see:

REACT: Reaching and Educating Tomorrow's Chemists Today

Campers Experience Ooey-Gooey Science

Local Scouts Discover Chemistry is Fun!

Audience enjoys the show.
The audience enjoying the Holiday Magic show.
Jesse Miller performs a card trick with the help of a young volunteer.
During the show, Jesse Miller performs a card trick with the help of a young volunteer.