Dr Peter Wothers (the Modern Alchemist) from the Department of Chemistry at the University of Cambridge, talks about his long-standing involvement in the Cambridge Science Festival and this year’s exciting demonstration lecture, Just add water, which explores some of the surprising properties and reactions of water.
CSF: You’ve been part of the Science Festival for many years now. What do you enjoy most about being involved?
PW: For me, the most exciting thing is seeing how the audience reacts to the story we have put together. Whilst the bangs and flashes are fun, it is also really exciting when you manage to get across some of the fundamental ideas of the subject. I was particularly pleased one year when I had a round of applause for explaining the Avogadro number (it’s quite large – around 6 with 23 zeros after it). It is really rewarding when young students come up to me hooked on the subject, but also when their parents come up and say they finally understand what their teacher was going on about so many years before.
CSF: How do you choose the theme each year, for instance last year’s topic was light and this year‘s is water?
PW: Occasionally, there is a good reason for a particular topic – for instance, last year was the International Year of Light – but on the whole, we simply like to have a bit of a mix over the years so that our regular attendees see new things.
CSF: You make it look so easy on stage, but there must be an immense amount of preparation behind the scenes? What’s involved in putting on the kind of demonstration lectures that you present?
PW: There is an ENORMOUS amount of preparation behind the scenes. Some lectures take years to put together. We are often trying to show spectacular, difficult experiments but carried out safely in front of a live audience (who we would like to keep live!). This requires an awful lot of planning and practice in advance.
CSF: Do you ever get nervous just before giving one of your demonstration lectures? And what makes you more nervous, TV or a stage and live audience?
PW: So long as I know everything is well prepared, I don’t tend to get too nervous, but then nerves can get you when you least expect it! I was nervous before giving the start of the Christmas Lectures, mainly because things are suddenly very different with a large audience in front of you, lots of cameras aimed at you and being blinded by the lights. I generally prefer lecturing in front of a live audience because of the interaction with them.
CSF: What first drew you to chemistry?
PW: This was from a very early age and was probably due to a pot of copper sulphate I was given. I was impressed with how it could be electrolysed to plate iron nails with copper, decolourising the solution. I rapidly built up a rather substantial lab at home, complete with Bunsen burners, a balance, centrifuges, and all sorts of chemicals that would most likely be banned now!
CSF: What inspired you to want to do the kind of work you do, ie encouraging young people into science?
PW: I think that chemistry is such a beautiful subject and I would like others to see this beauty too.
CSF: Year-on-year, your lectures are some of the most popular at the Festival. What’s the secret to communicating science and exciting a young audience?
PW: I think it’s because I’m passionate about this subject and have been for so many years. I get rather excited talking about chemistry.
CSF: What do you think could be the next scientific, life-changing discovery?
PW: That’s one of the best things about science; the most exciting discoveries come completely out of the blue. Let’s see what our future young scientists come up with!