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Chemistry Professor Bassam Z. Shakhashiri Is Making Science Fun for the Holidays

Bassam Z. Shakhashiri. Credit: Bryce Richter

Joy, awe, thrill, and delight are some of the typical emotions that light up the faces of children and adults in the audience as they watch “Once upon a Christmas Cheery, in the Lab of Shakhashiri.” This annual science-themed show created and hosted by Bassam Z. Shakhashiri, Ph.D., a chemistry professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has at its heart a clear message: Science is fun.

In fact, “Science Is Fun” is the name of Shakhashiri’s website, and is the essence of the idea he has endeavored to share through his free Christmas science show, which marked its 50th anniversary this December. Shakhashiri held his first holiday show, which took inspiration from the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures created by British scientist Michael Faraday, in 1970, as a holiday treat for his introductory chemistry students. But when word got out about the must-see science show, and the lecture hall became packed beyond capacity with eager students, Shakhashiri opened up the show to the public the following year. Shortly thereafter, Wisconsin Public Television offered to videotape and broadcast the production, and began airing Shakhashiri’s show the week of Christmas in 1973.

Since then, PBS has offered “Once Upon a Christmas Cheery in the Lab of Shakhashiri” nationwide every year around the holidays (availability and air times depend on individual local stations) as well as online at PBS.org, and Shakhashiri has performed his Christmas show at places like the National Academy of Sciences, the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, the halls of the U.S. Congress, Boston's Museum of Science, and of course, each year at his home base at UW-Madison.

The show features experiments like color-changing chemical reactions and exploding balloons, which are so loud that he advises audience members to put their fingers in their ears (much to the glee of the kids who are excited about the big bangs). It features guest stars like musicians, UW-Madison mascot Bucky Badger, Santa, and scientists—all of whom make a point of putting on safety goggles and, when necessary, protective gloves, to teach kids about practicing safety precautions when doing science experiments.

This year also featured the Tin Man and Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz (a nod to the 50th anniversary because the atomic number of tin is 50); they helped with the experiments and Dorothy even mixed chemicals that turned into the colors of the rainbow.

The Christmas show is one of the dozens of presentations Shakhashiri gives each year at schools, museums, retirement homes, civic or religious groups in and around the UW-Madison area. As with the Christmas show, many of these events have a theme, and involve Shakhashiri or his student assistants engaging with the audience and asking questions like, “Do you know the word for when something turns from solid to gas?” or “Do you know another name for an uncontrolled combustion reaction?” (Hint: It’s an explosion.) He’s also taken his message global, and has given over 1,500 lectures and presentations all over the world including North America, Europe, Asia, Australia, the Middle East and South America.

When asked why he does live science presentations, Shakhashiri takes note of the facial expressions on the faces of the kids and adults in his audiences, not to mention the “oohs,” “aahs” and the squeals of delight and laughter. “My purpose is to share the joy of learning,” says Shakhashiri. “I want them to ask, ‘How does a microwave oven work? Why do leaves change color?’”

For Shakhashiri, that early spark of interest in discovery was something he wants to share with others, especially younger generations, because it’s something that he himself experienced as a boy growing up in Lebanon. He vividly recalls as a child, his mother knitted him a yellow sweater, and that he was curious why it was yellow when sheep are not yellow. “My parents encouraged me to ask questions,” says Shakhashiri.

Later, his family moved to the U.S., where Shakhashiri was able to complete his undergraduate degree in chemistry at Boston University. (He chose the field of chemistry, he says, because he was fascinated with the changes that occur when you mix chemicals together.) He went on to earn his master’s and doctoral degrees in chemistry at the University of Maryland.

In 1970, Shakhashiri joined the faculty of the UW-Madison (a position he still holds today), where he is the first holder of the William T. Evjue Distinguished Chair for the Wisconsin Idea at UW-Madison. His accomplishments have continued. In 2002, Shakhashiri was the recipient of the AAAS Award for Public Understanding of Science and Technology. Shakhashiri, who has been a AAAS fellow since 1986, says he was “honored and humbled” by the award.

Shakhashiri knows his chemistry shows are a lot of fun for attendees, but he also sees engagement with the public as part of his duty as a scientist, particularly given some of the serious challenges faced today like climate change and scarcity of resources like safe drinking water. “Those in the science sector have a sacred responsibility to share their knowledge,” says Shakhashiri.

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Katherine Lee

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