Chemistry's Holiday Magic Show Does a Bang-Up Job Saying, “Merry Christmas!”

December 14, 2016

Members of the audience applaud one of the Holiday Magic Show's holiday-themed Chemistry demonstrations..

The standing-room-only crowd crammed into 100 Noyes Lab for the final Holiday Magic Show of the season discovered that even chemistry can be magical around the holidays. And after experiencing some demonstrations by several of Chemistry's top instructors, they learned that Chemistry can not only be merry, but bright…and quite loud!

Two members of the audience pllug their ears in preparaton for a loud noise.

The audience also discovered early on that participation is pretty much a requirement to attend the they did. They hooted with laughter; clapped at the outrageous antics; chanted the show’s, “It’s not magic, it’s science!” mantra (which they were instructed to repeat numerous times during the show); sang along to the carols; like the teacher's pet in school, raised their hands then shouted out the answers; stuck their fingers in their ears in preparation for loud noises; oohed and ahed appropriately during the pyrotechnic events; and during the show’s big finale, ducked to avoid flying soapsuds (which some kids even scrambled to the front afterwards to scoop up.)

Magic Show Performers Gretchen Adams, Jordan Axelson, and Christian Ray appreciate the flame of a Roman candle.

The popularity of the Holiday Magic Show was apparent even before the show started. Performers had to ask members of the audience to point out any empty seats, scoot together, even hold small children on their laps to make more room so some of those standing in the hall to watch could be seated. (To ensure crowd safety, the Fire-Marshall-established rules were that anyone in the auditorium, other than the performers, must be seated.)

From the very beginning, the Holiday Magic performers exposed the appreciative audience to the magic of chemistry. Like a well-oiled machine, the chemistry crew executed one stunt after another, all exhibiting the show’s trademark formula combining high-energy chemistry (emblazoned across the back of their lab coats, lest we forget), slapstick comedy, magic show, and chemistry lesson, all segued together by banter relating each demo to the holiday theme and accompanied by the appropriate holiday music in the background.  

Magic Show Performers Jose Andino, Don Decoste, Christian Ray, Gretchen Adams, Jordan Axelson, and Tina Huang prepare their opening number, "We Wish You a Merry Christmas!"

For instance, they began the show with a rousing chorus of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” for which the singers’ voices had either a “Three Chipmunks-esque” timbre (due to inhaling gas from Helium-filled balloons), or a “Darth-Vadar-esque” quality (achieved by imbibing from Sulfur-Hexafluoride-filled balloons). The grand finale was a huge, fountain-like explosion of soap suds (due in part to the liberal addition of dish soap by Don DeCoste, Chemistry's Education Specialist, despite being "cautioned" not to do so on several occassions), which liberally doused the Director of General Chemistry, Christian Ray, with suds, and even reached some folks in the first couple of rows in what Ray had warned was the "splash zone."

Tina Huang ignites a gas-filled balloon as Don Decoste watches.

And in between, the performers demonstrated the wonders of chemistry—Holiday Magic style: they set snowmen ablaze, ignited gas-filled balloons, electrified a pickle so it glowed (and smoked), ignited gas-bubbled soapsuds, passed fire from hand to hand, and proved logically, according to Decoste, that if potato chips are made from potatoes, and corn chips are made from corn, then sun chips are made from the sun, which he proceeded to demonstrate via an appropriate glow.

One can only imagine the criteria mentioned when enlisting chemistry instructors to perform in the show. To weed out the faint-at-heart,  the job application form most likely specified:

  • Relishes the outrageous!
  • Fearless.
  • Likes loud noises (the louder, the better).
  • Appreciates pyrotechnics
  • Finds bliss in a blaze.
  • Savors blowing things up.

For those of you not sure what pyrotechnic means, according to Wikipedia, it’s the science of producing exothermic chemical reactions for the production of heat, light, gas, smoke, and/or sound—which pretty much sums up the majority of the demonstrations at the Holiday Magic Show.

Don DeCoste and Jose Andino set snowmen ablaze.

Several of the regulars have been doing the show for a number of years. For instance, Chemistry’s dynamic duo of Gretchen Adams, a lecturer and Director of the Chemistry Merit Program and Don Decoste are regulars at so many chemistry outreach events throughout the year that they could probably do them in their sleep.

Magic Show rookie, Jordan Axelson, makes an "ice cycle" during one of the demos.

Magic Show regulars Christian Ray and lecturers Tina Huang and Jose Andino were on hand for the fun, as well as newcomer, Jordan Axelson, also a lecturer in Chemistry.

Also heavily were involved were a number of undergrads, who, while behind the scenes, were integral to keeping the show rolling, as each demo required prep beforehand, then both setup and mopup during the show. Multiply that by the show’s three performances (December 7, 10, and 11, 2016), and participating in the Holiday Magic Show is definitely a time commitment. So why do the performers do the show year after year?

Gretchen Adams enjoys the "Chemis Tree" she made.

Adams indicates that she does it “For the community—to raise awareness about science and chemistry.”

But she says she also does it for the enjoyment of it: “It’s a ton of fun,” she acknowledges. “It’s really fun to interact with little kids all the way up through old people. Everyone can enjoy science, and it’s just a great time to bring the community together.”

In a spoof considering the age-old question of how Santa with his round belly like a bowl full of jelly can get up and down a skinny chimney, Don Decoste has gotten an egg into an old milk bottle and now must get it out.

Like Adams, Decoste says he too does it “Because it’s so much fun!”

Does Decoste think they’re teaching any chemistry? He says it’s hard to tell. “We’re doing this more for entertainment than education. When we do demo shows, that is the first thing we ask. What is our goal for this particular one? This one is much more on the entertainment side. But you never know what someone’s going to find and then years later, say, ‘You know, I saw something at a demo show, and it just got me thinking, or it got me interested in science.’ So if that happens, it’s just icing on the cake.”

Christian Ray says he also does it for the sheer enjoyment of it. “It’s fun. We have a great time. It’s fun to work with the colleagues and then seeing the kids’ reactions. You can’t beat it. It’s just a good time.”

Chemistry’s Holiday Magic show was begun several years ago by the former Head of the School of Chemical Sciences, Dr. Rauchfus. He had suggested that a Christmas lecture by the previous Director of General Chemistry, Gil Haight, who had pioneered many of the demos currently done in the show and which been quite popular with the students, would make a great addition to the holidays for the general public. And now, for many local families, it's a holiday tradition.

Tina Huang, who says one of her favorite holiday pasttimes is watching college basketball, encourages the crowd to cheer the Illini on by making a beaker alternately turn from blue to orange then back again.

And while the chemistry folk who contributed to the show might never know if some of the youngsters present end up in chemistry down the road because of their efforts, based on the effusive thanks expressed by members of the audience on their way out, they do know this: a good time was had by all.

Story and photographs by Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative.
More: Chemistry, K-12 Outreach, REACT, 2016

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

Jose Andino applies liquid nitrogen to make Olaf the Snowman shrink.

Christian Ray prepares for the finale.

The big bang.

The aftermath.

The performers and "stage hands" (Chemistry undergrads) of Chemistry's Holiday Magic show.