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Bubbles and bangs introduce visitors to chemistry

"Chemistry began with magic: the alchemists devised complex schemes to hide their wizardry. But today chemistry is open to all and creating new materials, from better batteries to miracle medicines, to transform our lives," said the introduction to the "Central Science Colouring Book in one of our Chemistry Open Day activities on 17 March.  In the book, Professor Robert Glen from the Centre for Molecular Informatics, asked "Who but a magician could turn one thing into another with a puff of smoke?" before informing those who came that "Today, chemistry is the central science in almost all our endeavours, and is open to all."

Indeed it was, and there were plenty of puffs of smoke - not to mention bubbles, batteries and bangs - as we threw open the doors of the Department of Chemistry. Budding chemists created rainbows in test tubes, made batteries from fruits and explored non-Newtonian liquids like cornflour slime

We run an Open Day every year as part of the Cambridge Science Festival. Hundreds of people of all ages come through our doors and enjoy exploring aspects of chemistry from the explosive to the illuminating.

At the Open Day, visitors aged from three to 83 took part in a range of activities. They created volcanoes with vinegar and bicarbonate of soda, and learned about the behaviours of liquids of different densities through creating sugar-water rainbows in test tubes.

They explored the structure of molecules by constructing models of them, and discovered the chemical reactions necessary to make 'Elephant Toothpaste'.

Children made their own batteries out of fruit and explored the properties of non-Newtonian fluids – those that behave differently when you apply pressure to them – by playing with cornflour slime and watching volunteers jumping on, and walking across, a pond filled with it. (See picture right.)

"It's always a very popular day. On average, we have about 1,500 visitors during the day, and sometimes as many as 2,000," Open Day organiser Emma Powney says.

One of the big draws of the day is Dr Pete Wothers' lectures which are – quite literally – explosive. This year's lecture was entitled It's A Gas. As Dr Wothers told audiences about the gases in our atmosphere, including hydrogen and ozone, his demonstrations included blowing up a hydrogen balloon and a (model!) chicken.

We know from the feedback we receive that many visiting schools and families enjoy and benefit from the event. One mother came from France especially to bring her two teenage children to the event. A primary school wrote to us to say: "Our thanks to the Chemistry department: our children had an amazing day. They were given a glimpse of science at a top university – and loved every minute!" And a student from a secondary school in Leicestershire said: "I learned about 'sublimation' today – about how solids can turn into gases without becoming a liquid first. I didn't know that could happen until today."

A parent contacted us to say: "We enjoyed a fabulous day at the Department of Chemistry. Everything from Dr Wothers' inspiring lecture to the range of hands-on activities was simply marvellous and you have won over the hearts of all three of my children to science. Heartfelt thanks from my entire family."

Read more about the Chemistry Open Day here. Or watch our video of the 2018 Open Day below.

  • We gratefully acknowledge the support of The Walters Kundert Charitable Trust which makes this event possible.