Carrie Steffen set up an alarm on her phone so she’d know the day tickets became available for Madison’s long-running holiday science show, and secured seats for her husband and her four young children.
“It was fantastic,” she said Sunday after “Once Upon a Christmas Cheery, In the Lab of Shakhashiri,” which had three performances over the weekend.
Steffen, 36, said her Wausau family never misses the annual show on TV, but had never seen it live. The program was “more immersed in sounds and lights,” she said. “It made it more real and the kids were much more impressed.”
UW-Madison chemistry professor Bassam Shakhashiri is in his 46th year of the show and the 76-year-old has no intention of retiring after his 50th year or any other milestone. “I’m going strong,” he said. “Do I sound like I am ready to retire to you?”
No, Shakhashiri still enjoys the thunderous applause and awe-struck looks he gets from audiences when he mixes chemicals making them turn color, explode or go “boom.” His raw materials include fire, dry ice and electricity.
“We thrive on the reactions that we see on the faces of kids of all ages,” he said. “We are energized by what we hear from them afterwards.”
After the free show, which included an appearance from Bucky Badger in safety glasses and a visit from Santa, a parade of children and parents came to talk to Shakhashiri. They posed for photos with the professor known around the country and across the globe.
Shakhashiri has put on his chemistry show at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., and at the Museum of Science in Boston. He’s done it as far away as Singapore.
Taking it on the road is what the Wisconsin Idea is about, Shakhashiri said. But in recent years, the show has stayed in Madison.
“Once Upon a Christmas Cheery” is one of a number of “Science Is Fun” presentations put on by Shakhashiri and his group.
The programs are in the tradition of the British physicist and chemist Michael Faraday, born in 1791, who gave dramatic Christmas lectures for children and their families. Shakhashiri has far outpaced Faraday, who gave 19 annual Christmas lectures even though he lived to 75.
Born in Lebanon, Shakhashiri came to UW-Madison in 1970. The chemistry show started as something he did in class at the end of the semester.
Word got out, and the following year the lecture hall was overflowing. Shakhashiri began opening it up to the public. Starting in 1973, Wisconsin Public Television began filming it and offering it to other PBS stations across the country.
Once when Shakhashiri was in Wyoming to give a lecture, he was flipping through the channels in his hotel room trying to find the local weather forecast when he saw his show on TV. A few weeks later, the same thing happened to him in New York City.
“The goal is to share the joy of science with kids of all ages,” he said, noting that his audience is made up of people age 5 to 95.
Jen Kakuske of Middleton, a 2004 UW-Madison graduate, returned to the lecture hall where she once took chemistry, this time bringing her not-yet 5-year-old son.
“I want to get him excited about science,” said Kakuske, a nurse. “I want him to know that learning is fun.”