Elemental Comedy at the British Science Festival in Bradford

On Saturday 10th September, at the British Science Festival 2011, in Bradford, we were treated to an evening of comedy and chemistry with Elemental Comedy: a Carbaret of the Elements.It was a totally crazy evening with Jonny BerlinerVivienne ParryMarty JopsonGraeme JonesJem StansfieldMatt ParkerDallas CampbellLiz BonninTimandra Harkness, and more (I think). With Quentin Cooper in the Chair with the inevitable puns it sure wasn’t Boron.

The show started nearly half an hour late, and finished nearly one and a half hours late, which meant that my car got locked in the multi-story carpark, costing me nearly £20 extra in taxi fares to and from my hotel, but it was worth it. (Someone said I should sue them for my taxi fares, but I didn’t, as the massive overrun meant great value for money. But £20 worth? Hmm, maybe I will send them my receipts and ask for a refund.) The highlights of the show for me were:

Elemental Comedy - Mat Parker 1Matt Parker telling us why Sulphur is his favourite element. You notice how I spell Sulphur? The proper way. No international convention is going to stop me or Matt Parker from spelling Sulphur properly! It’s ESS YOO ELL PEE AECH YOO ARR – Sulphur, got it? Those damned Yanks have a lot to answer for. They’ll be telling us to spell Phosphorus with Fs next. No way! Fosforus is just stupid!

Elemental Comedy - Mat Parker 2We also learned that there are more molecules of water in a pint glass than there are pints in the worlds oceans, and that every pint of water you drink possibly contains up to 10,000 water molecules that used to be in Matt Parker. Think about how most water gets out of us.

Elemental Comedy - Graeme JonesGraeme Jones explained what a wonderful element Nitrogen is. No funny spellings here. It’s found everywhere, from making up 78% of the air we breathe, to being a major constituent of explosives, to being a vital element of DNA, the blueprint for life. And he also did some kind of weird dance.


Jonny Berliner, a Science Singer of great repute, treated us to a couple of his songs, which he has kindly given permission to be displayed here. I love this guy. So, here they are:


Elemental Comedy - Andrea Sella
Andrea Sella, a Chemistry lecturer and demonstrator, showed us some great experiments. His element was Phosphorus (notice the spelling?) and he did a wonderful Phosphorus Sun. He also explained how early alchemists first obtained Phosphorus, through the distillation of human urine. He showed a video clip (thank the gods) from Chemistry: A Volatile History, where he did this using his own and Jim Al-Khalili’s urine.


Elemental Comedy - Vivienne ParryVivienne Parry, the well known presenter on Radio 4, treated us to a wonderful talk about Mercury and Arsenic, two extremely poisonous elements. She was dressed in a beautifully garish poisonous green outfit.


Elemental Comedy - Call my Bluff
There was a 15 minute break, but time was getting on and the performance was slipping big time. Just before the interval we were treated to Call my Bluff, between the Bang Goes the Theory team and the rest of the performers, including a couple of lucky people from the audience. It was excellent, and I was caught out a couple of times.

The absolute best part of the show was the end. Not that! I mean, the finale, with Andrea Sella attempting to demonstrate 30 elements in 15 minutes. He had 1 litre of Mercury to show us. He reckoned he brought it up on the train, but weighing in at nearly 14Kg I can’t imagine he brought all that, including nearly 60 other elements in a box, plus practical equipment. He showed us stuff like Uranium glass (I’ve got some of that – it’s cool), and used a Neodymium magnet to test for magnetism in the other elements. No prizes for guessing what happened there. One spectacular demonstration didn’t work. So, it wasn’t spectacular then, but it would have been. It was probably just as well that it didn’t work, as it may have been explosive, sending a heavy rubber bung into the audience. The idea was to set off a reaction between Hydrogen and Chlorine gas in a tube with a bung at one end. This is an excellent reaction, as it is set off by bright light. Andreas was going to do another chemical reaction to to produce the light, but lost one of his reagents, so tried to substitute it with another. I’m fairly sure I know what his missing Silver compound was, as I’ve done this reaction myself, and it is certainly spectacular. Combining these two reactions would have been something to see. But we didn’t. Ho hum. Finally, Andrea did the Barking Dog reaction. First in a small tube, then repeated for those who blinked. I was rather frustrated in the end, as you will be momentarily, as my battery ran out just as he was setting up the final Barking Dog reaction in a four foot (yes 4ft!) reinforced glass tube. It was incredible and was a spectacular end to a spectacular evening. I keep using that word – spectacular – but that sums up the entire evening. I had an extra £20 taxi fare to round off with, but, in the end, it was worth it. I hope you enjoy the video.

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