Alex Woodall

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I haven’t studied any science formally since I was 15. Chemistry then was wonderful. It is the only science I studied for GCSE. Mr Mathewson was an exceptional teacher – one of those whose lessons have stuck with me so that not only can I still recite ‘methane, ethane, propane, butane’ and have some vague notion of covalent bonding, acting out electrolysis, testing the relative strengths and absorbency of different sorts of kitchen roll(!), and drawing a beautiful architectural/material drawing of my house for summer holiday work one year, but above all, his lessons are memorable because he took risks. Plenty of them. He dared to do things that the other science teachers would never have done. Explosions in the lab, burning poisonous plastics so that bits of (possibly lethal) black stuff floated in the acrid air, sugar burnt in a beaker with lavatorial effect leading to an hysterical bunch of giggling girls, larger bangs and unsuitably dangerous explosions on the lawn. He practised his viola in the lab at lunchtime, and regaled mesmerising warning stories about his son, who, as a teenager, had been captivated by a religious cult, and who, with his wife, Mr Mathewson had had to kidnap to get back, but with much psychological damage already done. Later, they built their own house from Scandinavian timber, and I wondered whether that was why he had wanted us to do the architectural drawings of our own homes, so that he could be nosey and get some ideas for his own building project. That’s why I loved chemistry. It was all about life, about interconnections, about things other than what was on the syllabus. Not the compartmentalising of knowledge that so often happens in many schools. And Mr Mathewson was a brilliant performer.

And so it was with a great deal of excitement that I realised, on entering the ‘Transformations’ workshop with Matthew Tosh and Lucy Lyons, that this was the first time I had been in a ‘science lab’ since then: looking at real scientific equations about something called thermal decomposition (which is what baking powder does in cakes); being reminded about the fire triangle; learning that gunpowder is constituted from 75% potassium nitrate, 15% charcoal and 10% sulphur; and hearing what Newton’s 3rd Law is (about forces of rockets) probably for the first time ever…

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But all this in a theatrical, performative, dangerous feeling session, all about the joys of fireworks. What they are and why we love them. On first glance this may have had little to do with my own research on engagements with objects in art galleries. But yet there was so much overlap. Emotional encounters, material engagements and – a new level for me – chemical engagements with things. Warming us up gently, we first explored sparklers (which apparently cause more injuries than all others, although there was at least one grim and very sad tale of a head teacher being decapitated by a large firework), before moving on to look at different compositions of fireworks for different purposes: for flames, bangs, colours, and patterns, and combinations of all these. All of which engage with all, or some, or some combination of our different senses.

The pyrotechnic is an artist, the sky his or her canvas. I loved this description of the craft of the firework designer. Maker, inventor, artist, scientist, actor, entertainer: all these things seem to come together seamlessly in the ‘ultimate live performance’ in which there are no rehearsals. Who would have known there were regular annual fireworks championships, seriously competitive events where every split second counts, and ensuring perfect symmetry is vital? I remember my first Guy Fawkes Night firework display as a student on the Vale at the University of Birmingham back in 1996: I had never experienced anything like it, with the fireworks timed to music, and a display blasting over the lake.

Just as back then, my reactions today were visceral: physical jumps, that terrified excitement of a roller coaster, shrieks and squeaks like I used to make all the time at school (and which got me into a lot of trouble for being too noisy in class), a few expletives, and lots of awe and wonder, followed often by laughter and smiles all around. I loved the shut-eye drawings that Lucy suggested we did to accompany two of the particularly dramatic examples (because ‘drawing is a way into understanding’). My first drawing is of a sudden shock. A very loud bang and a physical jump.

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I love the drawing: it is so immediate, a bounce on the page. The second drawing was of the most haunting sound all afternoon. Someone screaming: in agony, or fear, or both (the pyrotechnic whistle, which, we learnt, is not the same as the Doppler effect). An amazing sound. It made me think that there are so many sounds in the world that sound like other sounds, and how utterly confusing it is if we can’t also use our other senses to discern where a sound is coming from…

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Smell was another significant feature of the afternoon: it was fascinating to see how long the smells would pervade the air after an explosion, and how long after the explosion they would pervade; how different colours or bangs produced different smells; how the room was so full of smoke that I felt quite nauseous at one point; and all the time I wondered how on earth the risk assessment for this session passed, whether the fire alarms had actually been switched off, and what we would do if an explosion went wrong. Life on the edge, and it was very exciting. I suppose something else (other than adrenaline), that I took from today was about the role of the senses working together, and working together within the very physical body, to understand things. ‘Never lose respect for the materials you work with’: and the body is of course one such. Which is utterly tied into to my research. And I loved making a bleach over ink stick drawing inspired by the afternoon’s immersion in fireworks: another thing I haven’t done nearly enough of since school.

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I sincerely hope it’s not another 20 years before I can do some more dangerous chemistry experiments.

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