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The Chemistry Show – a roaring success for 25 years

Explosions, brightly coloured flames and foam sausages, all mixed with humour and infectious enthusiasm. The Chemistry Show has entertained and inspired children and adults across Denmark for 25 years, and after the anniversary performance on 29 March, the students who run the show will reopen it to the public at Aarhus University.

In 2013, the Chemistry Show sent marshmallow sausages flying during Sommersummarum, the DR summer programme for children. Photo: Lise Balsby, AU

It sounds like a dream student job, and it is! At least if you are a chemistry student with a talent for communication and you do not have stagefright.

Travelling around the country and entertaining children and adults with fun and inspiring chemical experiments. And doing so as part of a team that has won the national championship in science shows four years in a row.

The team consists of 10-12 students, all of whom are enrolled on a chemistry programme and all of whom have an infectious passion for science.

This infectiousness is evident among new chemistry students at Aarhus University. The majority of them say that they have seen a performance, and mention it when they audition for the team.

You have to be ‘on’

One of the current members of the team, Benedicte Marie Berg Svendsen, describes what it takes to join:

"The presenters need to know their chemistry, be good communicators, be good on a stage and be good at dealing with heckling from the audience. You need to be ‘on’ while always keeping track of the chemistry itself, so you can help your partner if they catch fire on stage, for example."

Benedicte has not yet participated in a national championship as the competitions were discontinued during the corona lockdown. But she was there when the show won the audience award at the Science Me competition at the European Science Foundation Conference in Geneva in the summer of 2022.

In the last couple of years, the gender distribution among new chemistry students at Aarhus University has changed: there are now more women than men. We’ll never know for sure whether Benedicte and the other female participants can take any credit for that.

Chemistry at eye level – remember safety goggles

The core of the show is chemistry at eye level. For example, this means that:

  • ingredients should consist of everyday chemicals as far as is possible.
  • the audience should easily be able to carry out the experiments in their own kitchens or gardens.
  • you must remember to wear safety goggles.

Several students have experienced having their eyebrows or eyelashes singed off, and after six months with the team, almost everyone has had the hair on one arm or both scorched.

Someone who’s familiar with the smell of burnt hair is the aforementioned Benedicte Marie Berg Svendsen. She joined the show in February 2021 and is a passionate firebrand (pardon the expression).

"We have a lot of fun doing the shows. But it's also a lot of hard work. We spend a lot of time developing new experiments, and practicing and performing shows across the country. That’s why we’re employed as student workers. One of the benefits is that we’re insured against work-related injuries and if we cause any accidents. We’ve been known to leave marks on ceilings. Some libraries even leave the marks there and happily invite us to come back again,” she says.

Not just explosions

We should make it clear that the Chemistry Show has not had any serious personal injuries in the past 25 years. The only accident of consequense occurred when a student fell off the stage she was excitedly running around on.

And actually, only a handful of the experiments in the show result in explosions and fire. There are also experiments about density, freshwater and saltwater, floating golf balls, single-use diapers and potato starch in non-Newtonian fluids. And much, much more.

However, explosions still play a significant role in the repertoire because they are an audience favourite, and probably because Peter Hald became a member in 1998. When he started as a chemistry student, he was already an explosives expert after spending eight years in the army. He is now safety manager at the Department of Chemistry and serves as a consultant for the show.

The students are responsible for running the show themselves, though.

"They sometimes ask me if they can do this or that and to what extent. I've been in the game for so long that I can assess whether an experiment is reproducible; it has to work every time and not just in the lab," says Peter Hald, who still helps develop new experiments for the show.

Colourful lights at the end of the tunnel

The aim of the show is, unsurprisingly, to make young people interested in chemistry and science in general.

"The challenge isn’t to generate interest in the natural sciences, because that’s there already. We have the children's full attention. We must make sure that that interest isn’t destroyed. The problem is that natural science can easily demotivate people because you have to cross a desert of calculations and theory before you get to the reward, which is all the fun stuff those things can be used for. So if you’ve already seen the cool, fun stuff, then traversing the desert instead becomes a hike through an interesting landscape," says Peter Hald and Benedicte Marie Berg Svendsen.

They add that the spectacular elements, the surprises and the colours are intended to show the audience a good time, regardless of whether or not they are interested in the natural sciences.

In fact, the students’ own criteria for what makes a successful chemistry show have not changed in 25 years:

  • The audience member with the most knowledge of chemistry must see and learn something new. 
  • The audience member with the least knowledge of chemistry must experience some basic principles. 
  • Everyone in the audience should have an entertaining and educational experience that leaves them with food for thought. 

Much more than a show

The Chemistry Show is usually out of house once or twice a week, and they travel with more than just chemicals in their luggage. They also do workshops, have a stand at different events and give presentations about student life at the Department of Chemistry.

One of the places where the show has become a fixture is Cool Camp, an annual rehabilitation camp for young people with cancer aged 12-17 and their families.

And it will soon be possible to experience the Chemistry Show on its home turf:

"We’re going to resume performances of the show here at Aarhus University, so people can once again see our show for a modest fee," says Benedicte.

Like Mentos in coke

It quickly became clear that Peter Hald is still helping develop experiments for the show when he and Benedicte sat down to be interviewed for this article:

It was like pouring Mentos into a bottle of coke: Ideas bubbled out of them and between answering questions, they laughed and chatted their way to a new experiment they can perform at the anniversary show on 29 March:

It will be something about twisting a transparent plastic hose around one of the two chemists on the stage, filling the hose with oxyhydrogen gas and igniting it, so you can watch the flame snake its way through the hose.

Immediately after the interview, the two dashed off to the laboratory to test it out.

Here are a couple of photos from the video they recorded.

Fact box:

  • The Chemistry Show first saw the light of day in January 1998 during the education fair "Gateway to the future" in Fredericia. At the fair, two chemistry students, Martin Larsen and Jakob Thorhauge, demonstrated their favourite experiments instead of merely handing out leaflets. And it attracted an audience that included hosts from other stands. 
    The rest, as you say, is history.
  • Peter Hald and Benedicte Marie Berg Svendsen will be taking the stage at the Chemistry Show anniversary performance at the Department of Chemistry on Wednesday 29 March from 16:00 to 17:30. The event is sold out, but you can join the waiting list.
  • And should you be inspired to carry out some chemistry experiments yourself, may we suggest Peter Hald's book 169 Chemical Experiments, published by Aarhus University Press (Danish only)