Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Hazardous Outreach

By Stephen Luntz

Bob Muir is taking chemistry to the public but says safety regulations prevent him from doing the sorts of things he would really like.

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Chemistry is not the easiest field of science to promote. It lacks zoology’s cute animals, and astronomy’s stunning photographs and mindblowing scale. Science show demonstrations are usually mostly physics. However, Dr Bob Muir says Western Australia’s ChemCentre, an analytical chemistry facility, has “a fantastic outreach program” so when he was offered the chance to talk to school students he jumped at it.

One aspect of this outreach is the Baylis Lecture series held at Charles Darwin University. Muir titled his talk, to be sung to the famous tune from Mary Poppins, “Super toxic chemicals, clan labs and halitosis”. Muir says he is not allowed to blow things up on stage, making him a “slave to Powerpoint”, but he gets volunteers up from the audience, dresses them in hazard suits and challenges them to get a harmless white powder from an envelope to a sample jar.

When a UV light is switched on it becomes clear that the powder has got everywhere, demonstrating the challenges for forensics teams or those dealing with potentially hazardous substances.

“The teachers in Darwin were very, very appreciative,” Muir says of his mix of serious science and demonstrations. The gory photographs of the results of chemical weapons “get people thinking”. He does, however, suspect that much of the audience spent half the talk getting used to his thick Glaswegian accent...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.