Sunday evening, Bassam Shakhashiri will take the stage at the Middleton-Cross Plains Performing Arts Center and proceed to delight children and adults alike with his annual display of science. “Once Upon a Christmas Cheery in the Lab of Shakhashiri,” with its overflowing, steaming, strangely colored water and other time-honored scientific experiments marks its 50th year.
Shakhashiri is the first person to hold the William T. Evjue Distinguished Chair for the Wisconsin Idea at UW-Madison. He was born in Lebanon and came to the United States in 1957 at the age of 17 following a year at American University in Beirut.
He joined the faculty at UW-Madison as a professor of chemistry in 1970. Since then, he has won over 35 awards and toured the country. Bassam and his wife, June, live in Madison.
50 is a nice round number and, in most circles, represents a golden anniversary. But Shakhashiri says there’s nothing golden about 50. 50 is Tin.
Tin? That’s interesting. What can we expect at Once Upon A Christmas Cheery this year?
Every year we do something a little different. Well, this year, being the 50th anniversary, we always tie the anniversary year to the atomic number of the element and element number 50 is tin.
So, this year we will have the Tin Man and Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz and a few other surprises that people will enjoy when they come to the live performances.
So who will play those characters?
Well, that’s what you have to come to the show to see and see the experiments they’re going to do! That’s why it’s Once Upon A Christmas Cheery in the Lab of Shakhashiri. We share the joy and the excitement of doing experiments safely.
Bucky will also be there and actually Santa Claus might make an appearance. Who knows? I did send my list to Santa Claus this year so I’m eager to see if he comes in and what I might get off the list I gave him.
In 50 years of presenting this, have you ever had an experiment literally blow up in your face?
No, we haven’t! We follow all of the safety regulations and rules all the time. We wear eye protection. We have a fire extinguisher ready to be used, just in case something goes out of control. We don’t plan on anything going out of control! Sometimes people ask if I’m going to blow up anything and I always say “Just the audience’s minds.”
What is it like interacting with an audience? Do you notice how people are feeling during your shows?
The expressions on the faces of people in the audience is what keeps me going. I thrive on the facial expressions of people in the audience. I like just watching the looks on the faces of children. They like liquids that glow in the dark. They like explosions.
I am such a lucky person. I’ve had adults come to me and say they grew up watching the program on television or in person. I’ve had experience with grandparents saying they brought their children and then their grandchildren to the presentations that we do every year.
This program is aimed at kids of all ages, from five to 85. I’m interested in nurturing curiosity, interested in having people ask questions. It’s the joy of learning that I promote. It’s the adventure of wanting to learn more and learning how to deal with frustration when we don’t get the answer right away.
I try to advocate the process of asking questions and always being skeptical because this is how we make progress in science. By being skeptical. We don’t accept everything at face value. We are inquisitive. We are curious. We want to learn and we want to be sure that what we’ve learned is valid.
What kinds of things were you curious about that made you want to pursue science? And did you ever find the answers to those things?
When I was growing up in Lebanon, my mother knitted me a sweater. A yellow sweater. I wanted to know what yellow is, so I started asking questions and she said the sweater is made of wool. I said: “Well, wool comes from sheep and the sheep are not yellow!”
That’s how I started asking questions, because I was fascinated about color. I wanted to know why the sky was blue. Why do the leaves change color in the fall? Why do some trees not change color at all? The cedars of Lebanon, for example, stay green year-round. So I was asking all kinds of questions.
So, why don’t the cedars of Lebanon change colors?
Well, they’re made of different chemicals so their composition is different. And so that’s how you get into botany. That’s how you get into forestry. And that’s how you get into the conversation on the threat of climate change.
There are so many people, especially in politics, who don’t believe climate change is real. Is it truly happening?
Nicholas, climate change is unequivocal and it is affected by our reliance on fossil fuels as a source of energy. When fossil fuels are burned to produce energy, they also produce carbon dioxide gas and that gas gets trapped in our atmosphere. Our reliance on fossil fuels as sources of energy is why we have to take individual and collective action.
What kind of action? What can everyday people do to positively impact climate change?
We’re not going to stop driving cars; we’re not going to stop flying. But we need alternative sources of energy that are clean producing and less forming of carbon dioxide. So that’s why we and our education and business and government leaders need to act together to bring about the economic and health benefits of using carbon-free energy.
We could drive less. We can conserve the use of water and eat less beef because it takes a lot of energy to produce the meat. We should pursue changing the lightbulbs we use and utilize more LED’s in the winter time and in the summertime use a programmed thermostat so that you don’t consume as much energy to cool the house. Use more public transportation or an electric car. So there are different steps that we can follow and we can be responsible for our actions. Then you can also make your voice heard. There’s the Union of Concerned Scientists, there is the Citizens Climate Lobby, there is a source of information called Project Drawdown.
But climate change is affecting everyone. It is one of the grand challenges that we face in science and in society and the tell-tale signs are all around us. That’s why I advocate for people to be engaged supporting scientists and supporting engineers. We have to ensure that we have quality scientific offerings in our school systems.
What have you loved most about your career?
I’m now in my 50th year as a faculty member at the University of Wisconsin. It’s one of my proudest professional achievements. I value the mission of UW-Madison. I want to live out the Wisconsin Idea.
The Wisconsin Idea?
The Wisconsin idea is the concept that says the boundaries of the university is not the campus, but the boundaries of the state and it also has been re-stated not too long ago that it also reaches around the world. This is part of the strong heritage we have in Wisconsin. The Wisconsin idea is a commitment to sharing knowledge that is acquired through research for the benefit of the citizens of Wisconsin and the world.
In my 50th year, I am proud to say that I’m pleased to see that idea thrive in the 21st century.