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Crazy Christmas chemistry

by Alex Scott
December 2, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 48


The advent of chemistry

A photo of Norwegian chemists adding magnesium powder to dry ice.
Credit: University of Stavanger
Lighting up Christmas: On Dec. 1, Magne Olav Sydnes (left) and Inge Christ showed what happens when magnesium powder is added to dry ice.

Some people can get awfully carried away with chemistry; others, with Christmas. Getting carried away with both together—think booming explosions and flashes of light overlain with “Jingle Bells” music—and you have the mind-set enjoyed by Norwegian chemists Magne Olav Sydnes and his aptly named lab partner Inge Christ. From their laboratory in Norway’s University of Stavanger, just a sleigh ride from Father Christmas’s toy factory in the North Pole, the two chemists have been in a festive scientific frenzy putting together a video Advent calendar of chemistry experiments to share on YouTube this Christmas.

Sydnes, associate professor for the Department of Chemistry, Bioscience, and Environmental Engineering, and Christ—no, not that one—who is a professor of chemistry, plan to publish a two-minute fun chemistry video every day until Christmas Eve, Dec. 24. Sydnes and Christ are hoping their calendar can open a window on the world of chemistry for youngsters.

This is the fourth year that the festive duo have made their video calendar. Interest in it is growing by the sackful: the 2017 calendar attracted more than 200,000 views on YouTube, up from 44,500 in 2016.

For Christ and Sydnes, it’s more than a bit of holiday cheer. “Teachers use our short films in their teaching,” Christ says. Schools have started showing the videos year-round. Each film is linked to more information online, including chemical formulas. “We have had students who say they want to do chemistry at university as a result of the Advent calendar,” Christ says.

Christ and Sydnes have promised the Christmassy chemistry-loving Newscripts gang that this year’s Advent calendar will be full of explosive, and also safe, experiments. “We’re playing with rockets inside and outside,” Sydnes says.

The Dec. 1 video features a block of dry ice cored and lit up by magnesium powder. “We turn the light off in the room. The dry ice looks just like a huge lamp,” Christ says. This year, there is also an experiment for adults allowing them to easily clean their blackened silverware so it is looking its best for Christmas dinner, Sydnes adds.


Making a chemistree

A photo of a crystal Christmas tree.
Credit: William Barron de Burgh
Branching out: The theme for this year's Chemistree competition is the periodic table.

For those keen to be equally hands on with the fusion of chemistry and Christmas, then entering the annual O chemistree competition—in which apparatuses and/or chemicals around the lab are used to create a chemical Christmas tree—could be the holly on their festive pudding.

John O’Donoghue, chemistry education coordinator for the Royal Society of Chemistry, started judging chemistrees on his Facebook page 10 years ago as a distraction from working on his PhD. But the competition has continued to thrive, with O’Donoghue receiving about 100 entries each year.

The competition has five categories: making 2-D drawings, adding chemistry items to an existing tree, combining traditional Christmas decorations with lab equipment, using only lab-based materials, and growing crystals that look like Christmas trees. This year’s theme is the periodic table.


“Anything on the nanoscale is hugely impressive. Etching and nanostructures are getting more inventive every year,” O’Donoghue tells Newscripts.

“I’ve seen Chemistry bingo done in some places with elements or numbers, but nothing is quite as widespread and universally recognized as the chemistree,” he says.

Entries can be made by tagging O’Donoghue on Twitter (@johndhodonoghue) using the hashtag #chemistree. Winners will be announced on Dec. 21. So grow crystals, fill flasks with colorful liquids, connect stands into tree shapes, and have a chemistry-filled Christmas!

Alex Scott wrote this week’s column. Please send comments and suggestions to


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