Burke Scott Williams sits behind a blast shield, watching a plume of thick, acrid smoke rise from a beaker. He mixes a handful of sugar with concentrated sulfuric acid, and the reaction creates a jet-black column of carbon over a foot tall. The burnt-caramel smell is unbelievable and the audience’s eyes water, but they don’t move. That’s because the next demonstration involves making molten iron with a thermite reaction, and they don’t want to miss a thing.
A moment later, sparks shoot over the top of a flower pot where a lab assistant has placed the thermite. A small stream of white-hot molten iron pours into a bucket of sand below. The heat generated by the reaction keeps the bucket illuminated for over a minute as the iron cools. The crowd of students stares transfixed; they’ve learned their lesson for the evening.
“I try to do something once a week,” Williams says about his practical labs. “Showing how lead floats on mercury, geysers, and explosions are all great. Nobody ever forgets the first time they saw potassium metal thrown into water; the purple flames, sizzle, pop, and the smell of caustic potash are unforgettable.”
Williams, an assistant professor of chemistry in the Joint Science Department, has worked with faculty to create these interactive experiences since arriving in 2003. The goal is simple: provide students with a sense of wonder about the topic they’re learning. “We take so much of what we have for granted,” he says, “from drugs that battle cancer to four-inch phones that allow you to talk to someone in Singapore. Chemistry is a lot of work, but it also unlocks the ability to do things we depend on in our daily lives.”
Above: Assistant Professor of Chemistry Burke Scott Williams observes “Mole Day”—a celebration of the chemist’s unit of measurement—by giving practical chemical demonstrations with “Professor Molennium.”
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