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Chemist starts holiday season with bangs, controlled fires

Chemist starts holiday season with bangs, controlled fires

Bassam Shakhashiri

UW-Madison chemistry professor Bassam Shakhashiri has performed his annual Christmas lectures for the past 46 years.

The holiday season is beginning, and no one is more excited than professor Bassam Shakhashiri as he prepares for his annual Christmas lecture, which sold out this year after less than four days of going on sale.

Shakhashiri has been a chemistry professor at UW-Madison for 46 years and performs the presentation, “Once Upon a Christmas Cheery, in the Lab of Shakhashiri,” every winter.

This year, Shakhashiri said, event attendees should expect fast-moving transformations, smoke, loud noises, controlled fires and a few surprises. He leaked some of the secrets, including an appearance by Bucky Badger and a visitor “from up North.” Several other participants will exhibit their talents in both science and the arts during the program.

Shakhashiri learned about the historic event while teaching at the University of Illinois. The Christmas lecture originated in the 1840s when famous British scientist Michael Faraday gathered people to showcase his experiments around Christmastime, easily creating the label “The Christmas Lecture.”

Shakhashiri always enjoyed showcasing the chemical transformations with his students, but also wanted to expose it to the public. He moved the performances to the evenings to allow more people to attend, and it has grown so much that Wisconsin Public Television broadcasts it nationwide.

“It is my holiday gift to the community,” Shakhashiri said. “It is my gift to UW-Madison students, faculty and staff, and everyone in the Madison area.”

The program varies slightly each year. Shakhashiri spends ample time planning new experiments, but balances those with his “signature demonstrations.”

Shakhashiri said he wants attendees to experience the joy of watching experiments and hopes that they will do their own experiments after leaving the show.

The professor said the most valued aspect of his career and the event is making connections and seeing students’ expressions.

“They speak with me and I learn from that,” he said. “What I want to do is make cerebral connections and emotional connections, too, so we get to enjoy the beautiful, chemical world that we all live in.”

To learn more about Shakhashiri and the event, visit his website:

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