Chemistry and Biochemistry

"Behind the Scenes" with National Chemistry Week

Posted: Oct 29, 2010

Explosions, lasers, light sabers and goop appeared in the Benson Science building during National Chemistry Week. This annual week of events is sponsored by the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and the Central Utah Section of the American Chemical Society and is designed to enhance the public’s awareness of the contributions chemistry makes to everyday life.

This year’s theme, “Behind the Scenes with Chemistry,” highlighted chemistry in the movies. As always, the ever-popular Chemical Magic shows attracted large crowds, with attendees ranging from school children interested in fiery explosions to entire families to Boy Scout troops. The department held two shows every evening Monday through Friday and about 450 people attended each night. Chemistry professors performed most of the shows, with the Y Chem students putting on one magic show Thursday night (October 21).

The chemistry demonstrated in the shows was based on several well-known movies, including Star Wars, Disney’s The Incredibles,Harry Potter and the popular children’s TV series Avatar: The Last Airbender. Organic chemistry professor Jennifer Nielson, who presented the magic show on Wednesday, wowed the audience in a Ghostbusters moment by using a vacuum chamber to reduce “Stay Puft Marshmallow Man” to a harmless bunch of toothpicks and marshmallow. She also used “waterbending” to freeze water and explode balloons. “Blue is the best color for a light saber,” she declared following an exciting Star Wars clip with a saber battle, and proved it with a laser demonstration where only the blue laser had the necessary energy to initiate a reaction between hydrogen and chlorine gases and create a large flash inside a glass case.

The Department’s Y Chem Society, a student chapter of the ACS, helped plan and put on several events, including a liquid nitrogen ice cream fundraiser. Liquid nitrogen ice cream was sold to students Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and to magic show attendees in the evenings. Y Chem also organized a series of lectures for a chemistry symposium Thursday afternoon.

Biochemistry professor Emily Bates, one of the speakers at the symposium, used Jurassic Park to teach students about the process of cloning DNA and explained why scientists probably wouldn’t be able to clone dinosaurs in the way it was done in the movie. “The more likely way to ‘create’ dinosaurs is to use developmental biology. Sometimes you can reverse traits so organisms re-acquire traits they’ve lost,” Dr. Bates said. “For example, scientists have been able to give teeth back to birds – of course natural contemporary birds don’t have teeth. In this way, it could actually be possible to take a descendant of a dinosaur and go back stage by stage until you get the dinosaur again.”

In “‘No Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!’ Lasers in the Movies,” Dr. Matt Asplund used numerous video clips (including a few fromJames Bond) to demonstrate the utterly unrealistic way lasers are portrayed in movies. “Lasers move fast, don’t carry much energy, and make no sound because all they’re made of is light. You also shouldn’t be able to see them from the side because they move at the speed of light,” Dr. Asplund said before playing “bad example” clips from Star WarsStar Trek and James Bond. “I know you’re all thinking, ‘why do they use lasers in movies at all?’ There’s a simple answer: bullets look terrible on film. Lasers work well because they can be slowed down enough to see. The audience knows exactly what’s going on. Lasers are also cool and futuristic.”

Dr. Daniel Austin, another speaker at the symposium, talked about the forensic science seen in TV shows like CSI. “CSI tries to depict real science in their show, but there are some differences between it and real life, such as the time it takes to get results and how conclusive those results are,” he said in his lecture.

Another talk by Dr. James Patterson explained inconsistencies in the movies about “Something for Nothing: Energy Sources in the Movies and Real Life.” “It all boils down to the first two laws of thermodynamics: the energy of the universe is constant and any time a process takes place, some of the energy is lost as heat and cannot be used to do work,” Dr. Patterson said.

On Friday, October 22, posters were displayed in the main hallway, presenting about 25 projects on topics ranging from the genetics of migraines to the structure of viruses. A poster session was held from 4:00-6:00 p.m. where student authors discussed their work.

“My research focuses on one virus,” undergraduate student Robert D. Swenson said about his project. “It’s a project that was probably going a year before I got into Dr. Belnap’s lab. I chose to work on this one because I like to see what I’m working on – I get pictures, not just graphs. Students get to choose which project they want to work on,” Swenson said. “Or, sometimes they will approach a professor with a new idea for a project.”

Another event scheduled for National Chemistry Week was a hands-on chemistry workshop for children organized by Dr. Jennifer Nielson. This event was held at the Provo Library on October 23. “One year while I was doing a magic show, the kids seemed so interested in my performance that I wanted them to participate, not just watch. I wanted them to make the magic,” she said. “This was our fourth year doing the workshop. 

Some of the activities at the workshop included playing with gases and lights, and freezing balloon animals in liquid nitrogen. “When you put a balloon in liquid nitrogen, the balloon shrinks so it looks like the air is gone from it,” Dr. Nielson explained. “But as soon as you take it out, the molecules expand again and it looks like you never put the balloon in the liquid nitrogen.” The workshop was very well attended with about 165 people, “mostly children,” Dr. Nielson said.

"Blue is the best color for a light saber!"

A large can closes in on itself.

A student explains his research project.

Liquid nitrogen ice cream.

Dr. Asplund demonstrates the power of a laser at the magic show.

The research poster session.

By Jessica Henrie