Scientist Peter Wothers wants to ignite families' interest in chemistry this Christmas. Watching his forthcoming televised Christmas Lectures is a good place to start - then perhaps you can carry out a few kitchen table experiments of your own.
By Lisa Salmon
Watching TV at Christmas is something of a modern tradition, with families gathering round the box to enjoy a wealth of seasonal specials.
But with a psychologist recently calling for children to be limited to only two hours of TV a day, the high volume of Christmas light entertainment enjoyed by kids could be construed by some as a form of 'benign neglect' - particularly if the programmes are trashy.
However, the Royal Institution is hoping that both parents and children will be turning on the TV between Christmas and the New Year for family viewing that's fun but educational too.
Aimed at a young audience, the Royal Institution's Christmas Lectures have been broadcast on UK television for more than 40 years, and this Christmas they take the form of a three-part science series called The Modern Alchemist.
The lectures, which will be delivered by renowned Cambridge University chemist Dr Peter Wothers, will unpick the chemistry of the world around us by looking at air, water and earth and the elements that make them.
Olympia Brown, science learning manager at the Royal Institution, says the Christmas Lectures are perfect for family viewing, pointing out: "The explanations and hands-on experiments aren't dumbed down, but explained and demonstrated in way that really brings the science concepts to life.
"Not only do we find they appeal to just about every seven- to 17-year-old, but plenty of grown-ups enjoy the spectacular experiments, interesting science and the inclusive way Peter Wothers explains some rather complicated chemistry."
She says the lectures, which were started by Michael Faraday in 1825 and are now filmed in front of a live studio audience, have become part of the British Christmas tradition.
"They make a smart alternative to the repeat of a Christmas film you and your kids have seen a hundred times," says Brown, "and as a parent, you can feel reassured that your children are learning something while being entertained.
"Plus there's the advantage that parents love the lectures too, so you can sit back and enjoy something a little bit different to some of the other programmes that fill the schedules at this time of year."
Wothers, who has been giving demonstration lectures to children and adults for 15 years, says he first became interested in science at the age of eight, and used to perform experiments in his bedroom. He watched the Christmas Lectures every year with his family as a child.
He says: "One thing that really inspires me every time I give a lecture is how much the whole family enjoys seeing the spectacular chemistry demos like lighting a balloon of hydrogen (cue a large bang!), dropping sodium in water and seeing lightning spark from a Tesla coil.
"Chemistry is exciting!"
He says there will be lots of experiments, explosions and exciting facts shared in each of the lectures, which cover chemical issues ranging from exploring if we're really worth our weight in gold, to demonstrating one of the most dangerous reactions between two elements: caesium and fluorine.
"I want to show the young audiences that chemistry is exciting," says Wothers, "but also to reach their mums and dads, who might have mixed memories of their science lessons at school, and show them that chemistry is essential to understanding the world around us."
Wothers says children might like to try their own simple kitchen chemistry experiment at home, and he suggests writing a secret message with home-made invisible ink.
To make the ink, you'll need baking soda, water, paper, a lamp or iron or purple grape juice.
Simply mix equal amounts of water and baking soda to form the ink, and then paint or dab it with cocktail sticks on to the paper, forming a secret message.
Leave it to dry, and when you want to 'develop' it, either place it under a towel and iron it (always under adult supervision), or paint over it with purple grape juice, which must be done carefully as the juice can stain clothes.
Either method will make the message appear.
Wothers says the science behind the experiment is that painting the baking soda solution on to paper leaves a film of sodium bicarbonate on the paper.
When this is heated, it will brown faster than the surrounding paper, revealing the message.
Painting purple grape juice over the bicarbonate will cause an acid base reaction, changing the colour of the juice in contact with the bicarbonate and again revealing the message.
:: The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures are on BBC Four on December 26, 27 and 28 at 8pm.
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