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Pupils Wowed by The Flash Bang Show

Thursday, 04 December 2014

Over a thousand pupils from twenty-three schools in the north-west travelled to Bolton School for the Royal Society of Chemistry’s annual Christmas lecture, The Flash Bang Show, which this year was held in the Boys’ Division Great Hall. Dr Yates, the Boys’ Division head of science, welcomed pupils from the local area, including Girls' and Boys’ Division pupils, as well as those from as far afield as Lancaster, Bradford and Chester.

Dr Frank Mair from the University of Manchester helped to set up the lecture and gave a short introduction before handing over to his colleague, Dr Sarah Heath, for The Flash Bang Show itself. She told her audience that she had decided to theme the lecture around the idea of ‘Why I became a chemist’ – because she liked making coloured compounds, burning things and exploding things. This set the scene for an exciting and also education experience.

Dr Heath began by creating several differently coloured solutions, rousing ‘oo’s and ‘ah’s from the audience as clear liquids became brightly coloured, reactions changed the hue of solutions over time, and one clear solution turned bright blue just by being shaken up!

She said, “If I was a magician, I would say to you, ‘That’s magic’, but it isn’t – it’s science.”

She therefore explained the specific chemicals and indicators used in each of these examples and why the colour changes happened.

The lecture moved on to look at various gasses, with particular focus on oxygen and carbon dioxide. She spoke about how these can be produced or used to create certain results, with each section of the talk accompanied by another experiment. This led neatly to hydrogen – and the ‘Flash Bang’ section of the show.

Dr Heath took great delight in creating various explosions, rockets, coloured fires and fireworks for a very appreciative audience. She went on to perform the dramatic ‘Whoosh Bottle’ and ‘Barking Dog’ experiments, which use chemical reaction to create sounds. She followed these with the hottest of them all: the thermite reaction, which resulted in two steel bars being welded together live on stage!

After showing pupils the hottest reaction she possibly could, Dr Heath decided to show them the coolest and demonstrated the properties of liquid nitrogen and liquid oxygen. Appropriately for December, she even managed to make it snow. She finished the show with a bang in the form of two final explosions, showing pupils the difference that can be made by mixing hydrogen with other gasses.

Dr Heath was careful throughout to explain the science behind each of the experiments performed, what is needed to produce these results, how the materials react and what exactly is produced. This made the lecture not only entertaining, but also very informative and useful for students of chemistry.

At the end of the lecture, Dr Mair commented, “I hope that this has showed you the excitement and wonder in chemistry.”

That certainly seemed to be the case: the audience was completely captivated by the Flash Bang Show, excited by the experiments and fascinated by the science behind them. It was a fantastic opportunity for them to watch, learn and be inspired about chemistry.

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The dramatic Thermite reaction

The dramatic Thermite reaction

Discussing the chemistry of colour-changing solutions

Discussing the chemistry of colour-changing solutions

Dr Heath showed the audience experiments with liquid nitrogen

Dr Heath showed the audience experiments with liquid nitrogen