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 Background of the Chemistry Show

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Chemistry Show


A Chemistry Show without the Magic

Geoff Rayner-Canham

The name most closely associated with the founding of popular chemistry presentations is that of Joseph Priestley [1]. Priestley, in the closing decades of the eighteenth century, endeavoured to show the advances in chemistry to the citizenry by means of public lecture-demonstrations in many of the major British cities. Some of these performances were held at the famous Royal Institution, London, where the demonstrations of Priestley’s successor, Sir Humphry Davy, have been immortalized in an engraving that shows a deranged-looking Sir Humphry dispensing laughing gas to a somewhat raucous audience. And this is the popular perception of a chemistry show: a performance designed to bring entertainment to the masses. Such shows have continued to be popular into the twenty-first century [2] and will, no doubt, continue to be popular for decades (and centuries) to come.

Chemistry as Entertainment

It may be argued that there is a place for chemistry as pure entertainment. Unfortunately, chemistry as amusement, or "chemical magic" as it is sometimes called, carries with it a message that can be very counter-productive to the image of science. Magic involves purposeful illusion and deception while science, on the other hand, provides a serious attempt to explain reality [3]. Thus the term "chemical magic" itself suggests that chemistry is a supernatural phenomenon. Series of demonstrations without explanation, such as the generation of pretty colours, of fires, and of the occasional explosion, blur the distinction between science and pseudo-science. To the lay person, there is not much of a philosophical difference between the alchemical-style conversion of a copper penny to "silver" and then to "gold" and the apparent bending of spoons by mental powers. As well, by watching these shows, members of the public identify chemistry as a superficial activity rather than as one of the leading contributors to our current civilization. Is there any other human endeavour where the public image is so dissociated from reality [4]?

It is also the image of chemists that is affected by these types of shows. The audience perception of the chemist-showman/woman is that of a rather frivolous, eccentric individual (especially if the presentation is replete with frequent explosions and flames) — a member of an elite, rather like a real magician or a traditional alchemist, whose knowledge enables the chemist-presenter to "turn water into wine" among other "tricks," but who keeps the secret of his/her skills within the the ranks of those known as chemists.

It is possible to present interesting chemistry in a more positive manner. For example, though there are significant shortcomings in their presentations, the various North American science television shows for children tend to present chemistry in a realistic light [5]. In Montreal, the team of Fenster, Schwartz and Harpp have offered a program of evening public lectures in which demonstrations were used to illustrate socially-important applications of chemistry [6]. Nevertheless, the perception of chemistry as "bangs and smells" produced by somewhat demented individuals is still alive and well.

The Contrast of the High School Experience

At the other end of the spectrum, high school chemistry programs strongly emphasize chemical principles over chemical applications. The mole calculation becomes the focus of the chemistry courses (as it is at the college/university level [7]) and hence students obtain the perception that chemistry is an endless purgatory of mole conversions. In this way, students dismiss chemistry as a boring, mathematical-focussed subject that is totally irrelevant to their lives. This viewpoint is probably less widespead in urban areas where student groups can visit local science centres. However, in remote areas, such as the west coast of Newfoundland, the possibility of students seeing "chemistry in action" is minimal. A less-than-ideal substitute for seeing chemistry is to read about chemistry, yet here too, rural students are at a disadvantage, with the science section (if it exists) in the local bookstore (if there is one) containing books on the excitement of astronomy, biology, geology, and so on, but rarely even one tome expounding the fascination of chemistry [8].

Activities at Grenfell College

For many years I have been dismayed by the students’ belief that chemistry only exists in chemistry labs [9] and I have been determined to combat this viewpoint. By means of the Chemistry and Everyday Life Presentation, I believe that, in western Newfoundland, I have helped open the students’ minds to the relevance of chemistry.

Chemistry is a very visual science, and it is with images as well as with words that we describe chemical processes and changes. Unfortunately, with the pressure of teaching commitments, few high school science teachers have the time, facilities, or knowledge-base to provide illustrations or demonstrations that make chemistry more than an abstract subject. As a result, students do not obtain an appreciation of how the principles covered in their high school courses can be illustrated in a very visual manner and that the principles do, in fact, have applications to their everyday lives. The Chemistry and Everyday Life Show is designed to fill this very important gap.


The presentations would not have been feasible without the enormous amount of preparation performed by the chemistry technicians, particularly Ms. Wanda Ellsworth and Mr. Wade Goulding. Mr. Dale Power is thanked for operating the lighting and sound facilities in the Theatre.


Dr. Rayner-Canham is the recipient of the 1996 F.A. Aldrich Award of Memorial University of Newfoundland for his contributions to science education (including the Chemistry Presentation) in the province.


1. Golinski, J., Science as Public Culture: Chemistry and Enlightenment in Britain, 1760-1820, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1992.

2. Bailey, P.S., Bailey, C.A., Anderson, J., Koski, P.G. and Rechsteiner, C., Producing a Chemical Magic Show, J. Chem. Educ., 52:524-525, 1975.

3. Sagan, C., The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Random House, New York, 1996.

4. Rayner Canham, G.W., Public Chemophobia - A Canadian Perspective, Chem13 News, 3-4, October 1984.

5. Long, M., and Steinke, J., The Thrill of Everyday Science: Images of Science and Scientists on Children’s Educational Science Programmes in the United States, Public Understand. Sci., 5:101-119, 1996.

6. Fenster, A.E., Schwartz, J.A., and Harpp, D.N., Chemistry for the Public: Part II. Evening Public Lectures. J. Chem. Educ., 70:771-772, 1993.

7. Mahaffy, P.G., Chemistry in Context: How is Chemistry Portrayed in the Introductory Curriculum? J. Chem. Educ., 69:52-56, 1992.

8. Rayner-Canham, G.W., Chemistry is a Different Science!, Chem13 News, 1, May 1994.

9. Rayner Canham, G.W., Should Chemistry Students be Taught More Applications?, Can. Chem. Educ., 9:7, 1975.

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