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December 21, 2009
Volume 87, Number 51
p. 56

A Chemical Christmas Tree, 40 Years Of Cheery Christmases

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Maurice Snook (both)
Artificial tree Labware gets a new life as a Christmas decoration.

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To appreciate their Christmas tree up close, the folks at the USDA Agricultural Research Service's Russell Research Center in Athens, Ga., need to don lab coats and safety glasses. And breaking an ornament means breaking out the chemical spill clean-up kit.

Maurice E. Snook, a chemist at the site, tells Newscripts that for a number of years he and his colleagues have repurposed their laboratory equipment to build a CHEMICAL CHRISTMAS TREE. They use a ring stand, clamps, glass rods, various sizes of round-bottom flasks, and glass wool. A glass rod that's been heated with a Bunsen burner and bent into the shape of a star tops off the whole apparatus.

"The colors of the solutions used to fill the round-bottom flasks are all made from inorganic salts familiar to all chemistry students, except for the red color, which is a water solution of Congo red," Snook says. "We challenge our nonchemist colleagues to guess the salts used for the colors."

The green color comes from nickel, blue from copper, yellow from chromate, orange from dichromate, and purple from permanganate. "The use of ferric thiocyanate for the red color would result in a completely inorganic tree," Snook points out.

Bassam Z. Shakhashiri got a little zirconium in his Christmas stocking this year. The sealed vial containing a gray dust of element 40 was given to mark the 40th year of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, chemistry professor's holiday show, "Once Upon a Christmas Cheery, in the Lab of Shakhashiri."

What started in 1970 as a holiday chemistry demonstration for his students has since grown into an ANNUAL SPECTACULAR for chemists and nonchemists alike. Shakhashiri tells Newscripts that he's delighted to have been putting on the Christmas extravaganza for 40 years.

"The thing I'm interested in is communicating chemistry to a variety of audiences—my colleagues and my students, but also the general public," he says. "I want to convey to them a healthy attitude about science and about chemistry. That's my main drive in doing this."

Over the years, Shakhashiri has performed hundreds of different chemical demonstrations. He likes to change them from year to year, but this year he put together a show of audience favorites. His iconic slogan has also evolved over the decades, starting out as "Chemistry Can Be Fun," which Shakhashiri changed to the more assertive "Chemistry Is Fun" and then the more general "Science Is Fun."

In the 1980s, Shakhashiri brought his show to Washington, D.C., during his tenure as the National Science Foundation's assistant director for science and engineering education. While in the nation's capital, he put on the Christmas show at the National Academy of Sciences and at the Smithsonian's National Air & Space Museum. Among his audience members was then-vice-president-elect Dan Quayle. Shakhashiri recalls that he had to prepare the Secret Service agents for all the loud bangs in his performance, lest they be mistaken for gunfire or explosives.

So what did Shakhashiri do with his special anniversary gift of Zr dust? He cracked open the vial, naturally, and sprinkled the Zr onto a hot plate, where, to the audience's delight, it erupted into sparks.

More on the Christmas lecture and all of Shakhashiri's activities can be found on his website,

Bethany Halford wrote this week's column. Please send comments and suggestions to

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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