Earlier this month, chemistry professor Bassam Shakhashiri and his crew staged their 47th presentation of “Once Upon a Christmas Cheery, in the Lab of Shakhashiri.” The popular family-friendly show of colorful and surprising chemical demonstrations, accompanied by live music and a visit from Santa, delivers a message that has long been Shakhashiri’s slogan: Science Is Fun!
Educating children, students, and the general public about science, and about chemistry in particular, is Shakhashiri’s passion. A past president of the American Chemical Society and founder of both the Institute for Chemical Education and the Wisconsin Initiative for Science Literacy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he is also the lead author of five world-renowned books on chemical demonstrations published by the University of Wisconsin Press.
UWP published Volume 1 of CHEMICAL DEMONSTRATIONS: A HANDBOOK FOR TEACHERS OF CHEMISTRY in 1983. That first volume offered 282 chemical demonstrations arranged in 11 chapters, setting the pattern for the following four volumes focused on different kinds of chemical phenomena. Each demonstration includes seven sections: a brief summary, a materials list, a step-by-step account of procedures to be used, an explanation of the hazards involved, information on how to store or dispose of the chemicals used, a discussion of the phenomena displayed and principles illustrated by the demonstration, and a list of references.
By 2011, the fifth volume was published. Although flames do not normally leap out of Volume 5 when opened, as they do in Shakhashiri’s holiday show, Volume 5 is distinctive from the other books in the series because it is printed in full color, to better convey the volume’s focus on the chemistry of color and light.
Nobel laureate in chemistry Roald Hoffmann has pronounced the series, “The most comprehensive set of chemical demonstrations handbooks ever created.” Taken together, the five volumes constitute the bestselling publication in the University of Wisconsin Press’s eighty-year history.
The success of the Chemical Demonstrations books led UW Press to work, as well, with UW-Madison physics professor Clint Sprott to create the book PHYSICS DEMONSTRATIONS: A SOURCEBOOK FOR TEACHERS OF PHYSICS and accompanying online videos. A review in Physics Today urged that Sprott’s Physics Demonstrations “should be placed in the libraries of all college physics departments and would be useful for many high school physics programs.”
Professor Sprott and other campus physicists have also presented public shows since 1984. The 2017 Wonders of Physics shows will be presented February 11, 12, 18, & 19 in conjunction with the annual Physics Fair.