Something in the air

There’s definitely a chill in the air. I’ve felt it since the weekend. That sharp edge to the breeze, despite the sun beaming down and illuminating the changing tree canopies.

Autumn is here, accompanied by the annual grumbling of several of my family and friends about the nights drawing in and winter approaching. The familiar whirring of the central heating pump and doors closing to keep the heat in.
Autumn park trees
For me, however, there is a sense of anticipation and excitement. It is a feeling that I get every year. The sight of the leaves turning golden and falling to the floor, reflecting the autumn sun. The earlier setting of the sun and the cool air chilling my nostrils. It means one thing to me: Bonfire Night is approaching.

This dates back to the days when my father used to take me to see the annual bonfire and firework display at the Miners’ Welfare park in Bedworth. We’d trudge through the leaves amongst the volunteers shaking their charity buckets. Once inside, I’d be the annoying five year old trying to sit on his shoulders to see over the crowds, or insist that we work our way to the front by the safety barrier. He’d remind me that the fireworks would be going up into the air and that I’d be able to see wherever we stood, but this fell on deaf ears.

Come on!

Firework display rig in SouthportI didn’t want to know what was going on in the air. I wanted to know how they got in the air and who was letting them off. I wanted to be the first to arrive to give me plenty of time to look at the firing site. What did the rig look like and could I guess what was going to happen? Yes, I know, total child geekorama and I am not ashamed to admit it.

My curiosity was fed further by being allowed to walk onto the firing site shortly after firing to have a look at the smouldering remains of the fireworks. Everyone did it back then. The idea of a child doing that now fills me with horror, having witnessed hang-fires (the delayed firing of a smouldering firework) and ground units exploding.

Little did I know that, years later, I would be one of those people working to make a display happen. What’s more, I would never have dreamed that I would be called in at short notice to work on a competition-winning firework display.

I guess it goes to show that an early interest in a subject as a child, no matter how niche or mainstream, could pave the way for something much bigger later in life. That’s why I believe in stimulating curiosity in children’s minds and allowing them to explore ideas. Discovery and learning then follow, almost self-driven, and who knows where it will take them? I’m still on my journey and am enjoying the ride.

And so my shameless, childlike excitement continues to emerge annually, triggered by those changing colours of autumn. I sincerely hope that I never grow out of this.

A quick word of thanks and congratulations should go to Steve Martin and crew at SMArt Pyrotechnics. It was great working with you all!

Bangs for the sake of bangs?

I was prompted to write this article in response to a number of comments on social media channels in the past 24 hours about pyrotechnics and explosions in chemistry outreach and science communication activities.

In case you’ve just arrived from an external site, I’ll declare my interest at the outset: I am a pyrotechnician as well as a science presenter. I am a physics graduate, not a chemistry graduate, but I use chemistry and rely on it in a lot of my work. I should also add that I broadly agree with the arguments against explosions for the sake of explosions – chemistry is far more elegant and a much broader subject and one shouldn’t attempt to represent it by a single type of demonstration… or a demonstration at all, as some may argue.

I do not wish to reduce the debate to “are pyrotechnics and explosions per se good or bad?” A little of everything in moderation and used appropriately, works well. By appropriate, I mean not including a bang just for a cheap audience thrill and “getting them on side”. I’ve seen so-called “whizz-bang” lectures that are a cluttered collection of exothermic, brightly-flashing, smokey reactions with little or no structure and, quite frankly, they bore me. I’ve also been fortunate to see some very clever lecturers and teachers build suspense, with even some of the quietest of demonstrations (the first time I saw Nylon being made springs to mind).

The challenge of a presenter or lecturer is to present a broad range of demonstrations representing different aspects of the subject. This is true for many subjects and not just chemistry.

However, I am concerned at some of the paraphrased comments and questions I’ve seen flying around on social media networks today about how pyrotechnics could be perceived as a “terrible tool for chemistry outreach”.

Pyrotechnics and pyrotechnic-type demonstrations (including explosions and stoichiometry demonstrations) cannot and should not be used as standalone representations of chemistry. It’s far too narrow an application. I think most people would agree on that. But let’s not forget that they do indeed represent valid and real applications of chemistry. I know post-doc chemists who have worked in pyrotechnics R&D and I spend a lot of time in muddy fields using their products.

Pyrotechnic devices (as we call them in the industry) are tools. Any tools or devices can be used correctly, but they can also be misused. Misuse could be downright dangerous or irresponsible use (e.g as a weapon). It could also be including a bang or flash in a lecture for the sake of it because it’s chemistry and that’s what the audience expects to see. Overuse is a misuse.

Audiences expect it because over the years we’ve allowed the bangs to become the main stars of our demonstrations and have hence allowed the perception to develop.

I am regularly asked to present lectures about the science behind professional firework displays and stage effects. My area of interest is how both chemistry and physics underpin the range of visual and aural effects, not to mention how we make it all happen with technology, engineering and maths. I’m absolutely clear from the outset that I’m presenting a very specific application of the sciences. The main aim is to highlight how Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) play important roles in the creative and entertainment industries – pyrotechnics being just one aspect of this broader industry.

Matthew Tosh demonstrating an application of chemistry

© Matthew Lord 2013 |

In most of my lectures, I only include one actual explosion and its primary purpose is to demonstrate a physical principle; i.e. that of a supersonic shockwave. Yes, it’s loud and the maximum pressure is selected to match the size of the venue and age of the audience. I won’t lie; it’s a great demonstration and I really enjoy doing it. It usually features in a series of demonstrations relating to reaction rates and rates of energy release. However, if I’m not doing anything about shockwaves, then I rarely include an explosion.

The colour chemistry can get very detailed, depending on the age of the audience I’m talking to. It’s a great way of demonstrating aspects of physical chemistry, electron energy levels and competing emission spectra. Pyrotechnic whistles are fascinating, but bizarrely illustrate more physics than actual chemistry.

I’m trying not to sound too defensive. I am obviously biased towards pyrotechnics as I’ve been working with them for over seven years. My passion for them is driven by the fact that there is a wealth of chemistry and physics at play behind the scenes.

Chemistry cannot be communicated with pyrotechnics alone, but to badge them broadly as a terrible tool for chemistry outreach is misleading.

If deploying carefully selected pyrotechnic effects and demonstrations helps open a young person’s mind to some of the possibilities and wider applications of the STEM subjects and why it is important to get a good GCSE grade (or equivalent) in these subjects, then I will have achieved my aim as a science presenter.

A terrible tool? I’d argue that it is the operator who is at fault, not the tool.