Chemical Heritage Foundation

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    How Victorian Science Writers Enchanted my Kid and Made Me Believe in Fairy Tales

    By Jeff Guin

    One of the first public events I attended at CHF featured employees skipping through our museum in brightly colored wings and gauzy pastel dresses. It was a total fairy tale and yet totally true from both a historical and scientific perspective.

    Implausible, I know, but here’s the video proof from that day (warning, it’s 11 minutes):

    If you look closely, you’ll see my daughter in the lower right corner of the introductory sequence. She’s important to this story because her wide-eyed reaction struck a spark of understanding in me about what it means to keep historical memory about science engaging and new.

    The play was adapted by CHF staff members based on a genre of richly illustrated science books from the Victorian era. These books were written to help children see the unseeable. Authors like Arabella Buckley and Lucy Rider Meyer described chemical reactions as high-adventure fairy tales, portraying atoms as “atomic fairies” and molecular bonding as the fairies’ dancing. 

    I was reminded of the play about three weeks ago when I spoke about my work in digital media for CHF at the career day my daughter’s school was holding. There I demoed an unfinished version of the concept (time 2:06) as imagined by student animators through CHF’s partnership with University of the Arts. The children were captivated. At the end, they clapped and begged to see it again—even the boys! 

    The kids’ excitement was matched by my own—I recognized my daughter’s expression of wonder from the play reflected in the eyes of her peers (who reported me “cool,” incidentally).

    The fairyland of science concept is timeless, but our role in exposing new generations to these ideas remains important. Science relies on facts, but it is truly magical. Historical wisdom shows that making the connection to facts begins with a narrative, one that appeals to the imagination of the intended audience. 

    More than one colleague has accused me of having a third grade brain.  These fairyland experiences have taught me how much more fascinating humanity’s historic and scientific legacy can be when seen through third grade eyes. 


    Make sure to listen to the audio podcast about this topic and download our iTunes app for free.

    Want to more about the Victorian Fairy Folk genre of books? Watch this three-minute video narrated by scholar Melanie Keene

    Jingle Bell Science: Michael Faraday as Pop Icon

    By Jacob Roberts 

    In 1825 Michael Faraday started a series of science lectures at the Royal Institution aimed at young people. Faraday gave 19 talks, including a series about the chemical history of the candle. It was so popular that it was published in a book still in print today. The magic of Faraday’s lectures was built on two devices: he used everyday objects familiar to his audience (such as a candle) to explain abstract scientific concepts, and he employed the tools of theater to amaze people, capturing their imagination with demonstrations of combustion, electricity, and magnetism. To many it must have looked like magic. But the real trick Faraday pulled was showing people that it wasn’t magical at all; these were real applications of math and science that anyone could understand. What came to be known as the “Christmas lectures” started a trend of accessible science.

    The Christmas lectures are still being given at the Royal Institution. Modern science personalities, such as Carl Sagan, have taken over Faraday’s job as academic liaison to the public. Sagan’s 1977 lecture contextualized the planets in the solar system, showing how small and fragile Earth really is. In many ways Sagan illuminated astronomy for nonscientists just as Faraday popularized chemistry. While Faraday’s platform was a podium in a lecture hall, Sagan became famous for his books, television series, and willingness to tackle topics that few academics would touch, such as extraterrestrial life.

    At school, I always made sure to take at least one science course each semester in part because of Sagan’s work. He captured my imagination when I read about the Golden Record he helped create for Voyager spacecraft, probes that were sent careening into interstellar space in 1977 and continue to send data back to Earth. The Golden Record was encoded with a message to other sentient species with operating instructions that could be decoded using numbers associated with the hydrogen atom. Sagan postulated that if we had anything in common with other intelligent life across the galaxy, it would be our understanding of the universal truths of chemistry and physics.

    William Sanford Nye, better known as Bill Nye the Science Guy, was arguably more influential in my youth than even Sagan. Nye’s television show and lecture appearances have always been close in spirit to Faraday’s original Christmas lectures. Bill Nye the Science Guy focused on experimentation and debunked common misconceptions in science while encouraging viewers to always remain skeptical, all while providing a healthy dose of humor. In a classic example of Nye’s show, he explained static electricity in a (literally) hands-on experiment.

    Nye’s commitment to rationalism inspired an entire generation of people who grew up in the 1990s and are now entering college and the working world. A recent article in the New York Times describes the fever pitch his presence created on the campus of Iowa State University, representative of the celebrity he still commands more than a decade after his show stopped production. His subject matter has grown up along with his fans. Today he is a public advocate and teacher of science, speaking out against critics of global warming and evolution.

    Introducing science to children at an early age is a necessary part of creating a responsible, intelligent society. People like Faraday, Sagan, and Nye are the bridge between academics and the general public. I wish more professional scientists would spend time teaching and telling stories. Until they do, inspiration for science can come from anywhere. I didn’t learn how a point on the outside of a rotating record moves faster than a point on the inside at school; I learned it from reading Calvin and Hobbes. So did this guy.

    Drawing stories of science with graphic novelist Jonathan Fetter-Vorm

    Peek into the studio of author and illustrator Jonathan Fetter-Vorm, who reveals the creative process behind his recent book, Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb.

    Jonathan Fetter-Vorm and Bert Hansen will be telling true stories at CHF on January 22, and you are invited to watch via webcast. “Drawing History: Telling the Stories of Science through Comics and Graphic Novels” will air at 6:30 p.m. EST. Watch it live at

    Nov. 20th #HistChem Webcast: “Why the Chicken Became a Nugget and Other Tales of Processed Food”

    On November 20, 2013, the Chemical Heritage Foundation will present a live #HistChemwebcast that takes a historical look at how humanity has shifted its expectations about food, from fresh and flavorful to fast and frugal.

    The webcast will air at 6 p.m. eastern time at Guests will include historian Bryant Simon and sociologist David Schleifer

    Simon is the author of Everything but the Coffee: Learning about America from Starbucks and Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America. He is now working on a broad ranging study of the high costs of cheap food.

    Schleifer earned his Ph.D. in sociology from New York University. He researches health care, food, science, and technology. He is writing a book proposal based on his dissertation, “What Happened to Trans Fats?” which explains one of the most significant changes in the contemporary American food system.

    To view past webcasts visit the Chemical Heritage Foundation Vimeo channel. Subscribe to the highlights playlist on YouTube via the videos below.

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