Memory Lane: The Not-So-Silent Night

From left: Gretchen Adams, DeCoste and Ray "ooh" and "ahh" at their fireworks demonstration. (Photo by Elizabeth Innes)
Annual holiday chemistry show explodes with foam, flames and fun

For many families within driving distance of the University of Illinois campus, the winter holiday season is anything but silent—though it may be bright.

For these hardy travelers, the season doesn’t start until they’ve had their fill of holiday favorites—whether it’s flaming snowmen, exploding soap or the belching, green, chemical “Christmas tree”—all available at the UI Department of Chemistry’s annual Holiday Magic Show.

Few people can resist the lure of flashes, bangs, pops and helium-high voices, but the performance—part chemistry demo, part amateur hour, part comedy routine—is really all about showing how fun science can be. And does it ever succeed—audience members love it. Kids yell and scream. Adults act like children. Everyone has a blast—pun intended—including the presenters. And the dorkier the people in white lab coats act, the better.

The event often launches with Don Decoste ’88 LAS, ’89 ED, MS ’94 ED, PhD ’96 ED,  specialist in education, and Jesse Miller, ’97 LAS, director of undergraduate labs and outreach coordinator, setting “snowmen” (made of sterno) on fire. After initial ignition, the two men wet their hands and juggle the flaming parts.

The show proceeds with a version of  We Wish You a Merry Christmas, with the men’s voices high and squeaky (thanks to sucking in helium), and the women’s voices crazy low (thanks to an intake of sulfur hexafluoride). The choir only gets as far as the line, “And a Happy New Year”—sung by the women in a group voice that sounds like Lurch of The Addams Family— before the packed auditorium erupts in laughter. And then these “high-energy chemists,” as the back of their coats indicate, are on to more tricks.

The inspiration of retired professor emeritus Gil Haight (who conducted it from the 1940s-1980s for students), the show was resurrected in 2005 when Tom Rauchfuss, then head of the UI School of Chemical Sciences, asked Decoste, Miller and Gretchen Anderson, director of undergraduate studies (teaching of chemistry 1998, master’s in 1999: checking) to restore it and open it to the public.

After all these years, does the trio ever tire of putting on the show? Oh no, say Miller, Adams and Decoste, shaking their heads emphatically.

“I could blow up stuff all day,” says DeCoste, with a boyish grin.