Behind the bangs: in defence of Chemistry

The subject's detractors accuse it of being all sound and fury, signifying nothing. How wrong they are

February 13, 2015
The chemist Andrea Sella's rambunctious shows excite people about science. © Royal Society/Debbie Rowe
The chemist Andrea Sella's rambunctious shows excite people about science. © Royal Society/Debbie Rowe

Is chemistry more than bangs, flashes and stinks? The question should be absurd, yet the discipline still brings these things immediately to mind for those unfamiliar with it, not to say wary of it. The “chemistry demonstration lecture” can offer spectacle with which physics, biology, the earth sciences, mathematics and other scientific topics can’t hope to compete. But is that a good thing? Or does it mean that all we ever see of the public face of chemistry is superficial entertainment and sensory cheesecake, rather than any sense of the questions and ideas that lie behind it?

That was the question raised by chemist Andrea Sella of University College London in his lecture at the Royal Society on 9th February for receipt of the Michael Faraday Prize for communicating science. If you watch even a little science on TV, there’s a good chance you will have seen Sella: he is the go-to man for chemical demonstrations, regularly assisting the likes of Brian Cox, Jim Al-Khalili and Mark Miodownik when they need a particularly whizzy, difficult or dangerous chemical reaction. In standard-issue lab coat and safety specs, Sella’s quick banter and evident glee at making his presenters’ jaws drop at the sights and smells he conjures up conceal a deep knowledge of practical chemical lore and a profound aesthetic appreciation of its attractions. Sella is part of a tradition of “science as spectacle” going back to the educators of Victorian England, such as John Henry Pepper of the Royal Polytechnic Institute, and indeed to the fathers of the field, Humphry Davy and Faraday himself at the Royal Institution. The Christmas lectures for children, which Faraday instituted in 1825, are still a highlight of the Royal Institution’s programme, and seem every year to up the ante with their eye-popping demonstrations.

This tradition always had an explicitly theatrical aspect—it was as much a part of the flourishing of stage magic in the Victorian era, developed by the likes of John Nevil Maskelyne at the Egyptian Hall in London, as it was an attempt to educate the public. The stage magicians were, all the same, often debunkers of pseudoscience and fraud: Maskelyne attacked the shenanigans of the Spiritualist mediums with the same vigour that contemporary magician James Randi brought to the exposure of “psychics” like Uri Geller.

But even being a part of this robust lineage has not saved Sella, a professor of chemistry who researches the properties of rare-earth metals, from misgivings about whether his wonderful smoke-and-light shows, always a big hit at the Cheltenham Science Festival, are doing justice to chemistry. Do they run the risk of sending audiences home convinced that, while physics ponders the origins of the universe and biology tells us who and why we are, chemistry is short of intellectual content and profound mysteries and perhaps is intent merely on blowing us up or gassing us?

Certainly it fails to secure much glamour. When chemistry is defended against detractors—whether those who see it as the source of all the poisons in our food, air and water, or those who would snobbishly dismiss it as messy manual graft—it is often on the basis of its practical utility: antibiotics and other life-saving pharmaceuticals, plastics and synthetic fibres, paper and cement. In the disdain of applied science, whether it is chemical or any other form of engineering, Peter Medawar once observed, there is a supposed distinction “between polite and rude learning, between the laudably useless and the vulgarly applied, the free and the intellectually compromised, the poetic and the mundane.” And Medawar was surely right to read distinctions of class here, adding that “all this is terrible, terribly English.”

But why, Sella asked, do we not see that how life began, or how the world is patterned into forms of great beauty from butterfly wings to banded onyx, are at root chemical problems? The intellectual feat of harnessing the abstract principles of quantum physics to explain how enzymes and genes work and plants grow is as remarkable as anything in string theory or evolutionary biology—and it’s all basically chemistry. Yet he has occasionally found that TV producers will only recognise science as chemistry if there are bangs and smells involved.

This appeal for chemistry to be afforded intellectual parity is timely and valid, but it will perhaps always struggle with the fact that for many of us who were drawn to study the subject, it was the sensual aspects that captured us: the filter papers soaked in touch-sensitive explosive, the gas jars sheared in half by the blast of a reaction, the other-worldly sensation of plunging our hand into a bucket of mercury (something I rather doubt any school child now has the chance to experience, although they would never forget it). Indeed, chemistry draws much of its inspiration from the sensuous, as the Nobel laureate Robert Woodward attested:

"I love crystals, the beauty of their form—and their formation; liquids, dormant, distilling, sloshing; swirling, the fumes; the odors—good and bad; the rainbow of colors; the gleaming vessels of every size, shape, and purpose"

It was, therefore, doubtless reassuring for many of Sella’s fans (including me) that he could not resist by ending with his party piece: the “barking dog,” a blinding blue flash unleashed within a four-foot test tube wrapped in clingfilm to avoid the kind of accident that once showered European royalty in glass. Just as Tom Stoppard, whose plays never lack for mental nutrition, believes a play can never have too many jokes, perhaps a rewarding chemical lecture need not be shy of having too many bangs.