Behind the Scenes: 45 Years of Fun with Science

Watch the 45th anniversary of “Once Upon a Christmas Cheery in the Lab of Shakhashiri,” with an introduction by Alan Alda.

Wisconsin is full of great traditions. Every time “Jump Around” plays at Randall Stadium, the student section goes crazy. Each August, the ever-popular cream puff brings droves of hungry customers to the Wisconsin State Fair. And every year at Christmas, Professor Bassam Shakhashiri gives his lecture, “Once Upon a Christmas Cheery in the Lab of Shakhashiri,” captivating his audience with a series of chemistry experiments that range from funny to freaky.

Shakhashiri, who is celebrating the 45th anniversary of his lecture, started the tradition after being inspired by renowned 19th century British chemist Michael Faraday’s Christmas lectures. In order to spark interest in science, Faraday gave a demonstration of the chemical history of the candle each year at the Royal Institute in London.

“I started doing this in my first-year chemistry course way back in 1970,” Shakhashiri says. “At the very last lecture, I did experiments because I wanted to entice (the students) to come to the second-semester. Word got out that this was a fun thing, and the following year the crowd was overflowing.”

By 1973 WHA-TV – now Wisconsin Public Television – offered to broadcast the production state-wide. Before long Shakhashiri was giving his Christmas lecture four times over the course of a weekend, and WPT was sharing the show with other PBS stations across the nation.

“It’s grown bigger and bigger,” Shakhashiri says. “I remember one year I was traveling in Wyoming to give a lecture. I was in the hotel looking for the weather forecast, and there was the Christmas lecture on TV.”

Each lecture, guests range from scientists and professors to artists and children. Bucky Badger and Santa even join in – sporting safety goggles, of course – to perform signature experiments involving glow-in-the dark liquids and exploding balloons.

“It’s an attempt to share the joy of scientific exploration,” Shakhashiri says. “Kids are naturally curious. Why do the leaves change color in the fall? How does the microwave work? Questions all over the place. We want to nurture that curiosity. We want people to not only to ask questions but to learn to seek answers, so we emphasize hands-on, minds-on experimentation.”

Tickets for the live 2014 Christmas lecture sold out after only two weeks, but you can watch it on WPT at 11 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 21 or 2 p.m. Christmas Day. Generations of fans are involved, including UW-Madison student Alyssa Leahy, who attended the lecture as an elementary school student and is working as part of the Wisconsin Union Theater technical crew.

“It’s really exciting,” Leahy says. “I saw the show about 12 years ago, so it’s really interesting to come and work and see everything behind the scenes.”

Victoria Bannister, another UW-Madison student and Wisconsin Union Theater crew member, appreciates the amount of collaboration Shakhashiri’s production creates.

“I’ve had some of the people here as professors,” Bannister says. “They’re here from the chemistry department, and I’m here from the theater department. I think it’s cool that we’re all coming together to do the show.”

The show will feature members of the Madison Youth Choirs, University of Wisconsin Varsity Band Director Mike Leckrone, and even Shakhashiri’s daughter, Elizabeth, who grew up participating in the show.

“It’s become part of the culture we have,” Shakhashiri says. “I want this to be part of a process; I want people to become engaged and think about what science is and what science does for society. My goal is to make cerebral and emotional connections with the audience. It’s very rewarding, it’s very humbling and it is truly the Wisconsin Idea at its best.”

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