Magic is scientifically impossible. But can science sometimes be magical? The Chemistry Department tested this hypothesis last week in a “Magic Show” where Vassar student volunteers performed fun and flashy chemistry experiments for children.
Held annually to celebrate the National Foundation for Science’s Chemistry Week, the event on Oct. 23 in Sanders Auditorium hoped to instill in the young children a lifelong interest in chemistry.
Lab Technician and organizer Jenn Jackson described the magic show as having one simple goal: “To show kids that science is fun and exciting.”
She introduced the show telling the invited class from Whimpfheimer Nursery School and Toddler Centerthat they were about to witness what she said were “A few things we can do with chemistry that seem a lot like magic.”
The magic tricks themselves were less acts of misdirection or deception than demonstrations of straightforward but dramatic chemical processes, the type of experiments you might encounter in a high school chemistry lab performed as an example of a certain chemical reaction.
Assisting Jackson was a group of seven freshman volunteers from the Chemistry 125 Chemical Principles class who performed the actual tricks for the audience of children.
In preparation for the show, the students had met out of class to practice the tricks, all of which were brief and lasting no more than three minutes or so. With the lab work prep and calculations all already taken care of, the students said the magic show was a way to enjoy chemistry without the rigor of a class lab-setting.
It was a chance for Ellen Quist ’17 to play around a little. “Let’s do something that looks really cool and has zero practical purpose in the real world,” she said.
The chemistry student performing his or her trick—seven tricks, one for each student—would say a few words, not making mention of any specific or technical language that would go over the head of a child between the ages of four and eight. The tone remained less like an education in chemistry and more an initiation into science.
Several of the experiments or presentations were dressed up with a Halloween theme, owing to the show’s proximity to Halloween weekend and a desire to keep the material exciting for the young children.
The demonstrations were also given Halloween-themed names. Student volunteers referred to chemical solutions as “potions” and their experiments as that of creating a “crystal ball” or a “candy fountain.”
In reality, these demonstrations are examples of chemical processes that can be found in everyday life.
Quist, whose trick opened the show, showing off the chemistry that goes into creating rayon, a synthetic fabric often found in clothes and upholstery.
Quist began by mixing two different chemicals in a wide beaker. Then, inserting a glass rod into the beaker, she began to collect a clump of thin blue filaments, winding it up slowly throughout the show until it resembled a slimy ball of yarn.
Afterwards, she talked about the science behind the experiment that she had left out during the show. She explained, “You add two really nasty organic compounds and the densities are different so they separate out and at the interface.” This interface, she elaborated, is the space between the two molecules where bonding occurs.
The method Quist used to produce a tangle of these strands is the same basic one industrial rayon-manufactures employ on a much larger scale.
“I’m sure they have a much more efficient process than hand-winding it, but it’s basically the exact same stuff,” she added.
The most dramatic trick belonged to Bien Zheng ’17 who performed a trick called “Foam Tower.” Zheng added two compounds to a beaker propped up over a small kiddie pool. A thick foam erupted, overfilling the mouth of the beaker and forming a mound about two-or-so feet high. Another favorite among the crowd was the experiment titled “Changing Colors” performed by Morgan Strunsky ’17.
“Hey, everybody! Safety first,” was the first thing Strunsky said, putting on his safety goggles. Strunsky first poured one colorless liquid into a jar. He then added another colorless liquid to the jar and began stirring the chemicals.
After a few seconds the cloudy white mixture turned bright blue. The color then reverted back to white, but only to suddenly turn blue again. And back and forth and back and forth it went, alternating between colors four to five times.
Jackson, who decided which experiments made it into the show, said he had to rule a few out. Some were impractical. Others incited concerns about safety.
“Previously we have exploded pumpkins and done light saber tubes,” said Jackson
The magic show was only half of the programming the Chemistry Department organizes during National Chemistry Week. The night before the show, Vassar, inviting students from Marist College and the United States Military Academy at West Point, as well as from among its own campus, held a chemistry scholastic trivia bowl.
Volunteer Jason Storch ‘17 believed that the magic show offered the children a glimpse of where an interest in chemistry can take them. “Because you look at this fun stuff and you say, “Oh, hey, I want to do that someday,” and you eventually might,” said Strock, adding, “You do science and this is the type of stuff you get to do.”
The magic show was followed by a snack in Mudd Chemistry Building of oreo-flavored ice cream, which was prepared using frozen nitrogen.