Stage fright is not an issue for Shakhashiri

Dec. 10, 2009

by Chris Barncard

[photo] Shakhashiri.

Bassam Shakhashiri, professor of chemistry, performs before an audience filled with children and their parents during his annual “Once Upon a Christmas Cheery In the Lab of Shakhashiri” demonstration program in the Chemistry Building. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the presentation.

Photo: Bryce Richter

On Dec. 6, Shakashiri wrapped up the 40th year of his wildly popular Christmas lecture with two packed performances of “Once Upon a Christmas Cheery in the Lab of Shakhashiri.”

“That’s with all respect to Edgar Allen Poe,” Shakhashiri says. “Although sometimes someone will call it ‘Once Upon a Midnight Dreary in the Lab of Shakhashiri,’ and I have to say, ‘There’s nothing dreary in my lab!’”

He’ll get no disagreement from his audiences, who snap up tickets within a few days of the announcement of each year’s show, filling a hall of 350 to watch gas-filled balloons burst in flames, solutions change color at the chemist’s command and liquids dance in magnetic fields.

In 1970, when Shakhashiri came to Madison from the University of Illinois — after immigrating from Lebanon in 1957, and studying at Boston University and the University of Maryland — he figured his new chemistry students would enjoy a lively, visual end-of-semester review.

“Word got out what I was going to do, and other students wanted to come,” he says. “So I had to find a bigger room.”

In the intervening years, that room has grown to include just about anyone with a TV set. The show — which was inspired by the Christmas lectures delivered in London by 19th century chemist and physicist Michael Farraday — has been a holiday season staple on Wisconsin Public Television since 1973.

The videos make their way beyond the Wisconsin network, though. Shakhashiri occasionally finds himself flipping channels in a far-flung hotel room, only to come across a begoggled Bucky Badger helping an equally familiar face swirl beakers on stage.

“A lot of people around the world know about the UW Chemistry Department not because of a paper in a scientific publication, but because of the Christmas lecture,” he said. “It’s a privilege to communicate this knowledge to the community.”

And a calling.

Shakhashiri says he is most proud of his role as an educator at UW–Madison, where he is the William T. Evjue Distinguished Chair for the Wisconsin Idea. But he also founded the Institute of Chemical Education in 1983, and served for six years as the National Science Foundation’s assistant director for science and engineering education. In 2007 the NSF’s governing board gave him its Public Service Award.

He has demonstrated chemical concepts in numerous countries and every state in the union.

“Well, not in Alaska yet,” he says, with a shrug. “I don’t know about Alaska.”

Not that he wouldn’t go in a heartbeat. He has answered about 1,300 other invitations over the years.

“What I’m interested in — as much as the science itself — is communicating an attitude about science, to get people excited about learning,” Shakhashiri says. “Anybody can mix chemicals to blow things up or make colors. What’s important to me is tickling their brain, connecting them to that progression of questions that is science.”

Young brains are open to that guidance, as evinced by the crowds at Christmas lectures. The show is aimed at “kids of all ages,” Shakashiri says, and attended largely by parent-child combos.

“I believe strongly in parental involvement in the learning process,” he says. “The best is seeing both parents and children in the audience reacting the same way to something amazing.”

Chemistry may have befuddled plenty of those parents — excepting, maybe, the former Shakhashiri students who often turn up with their kids — but that doesn’t mean the concepts require throttling down for young minds.

“There’s nothing to hold back,” Shakhashiri says. “The science speaks for itself. My choice is how much I want to say.”

Like each show that built to this year’s milestone anniversary, the Christmas lecture included a special appearance by the element of corresponding atomic number. The 40th was a showpiece for zirconium, and (like the metal) not just a low-rent version of the real deal.

“We’re not talking about cheap thrills, but being intellectually stimulated,” Shakhashiri said.

Of course, if you want to know something new about niobium (atomic number 41), it’s almost time to get in line for tickets.

“Farraday only did this for 19 years. I’m already up to 40,” Shakhashiri says. “But I’m a very lucky person. I have in my group very loyal and competent people. As long as they are with me, and the university encourages me, I’ll keep doing this.”

n The 40th anniversary Christmas lecture will be broadcast by Wisconsin Public Television at 1 p.m. on Dec. 21; 1:30 p.m. on Dec. 24; and 1 p.m. on Dec. 28.