Barking dogs, whining barrels, and "organic explosions"

Audience is enthralled by Prof. Schüth’s Experimental Lecture

September 16, 2022

Ferdi Schüth, Wolfgang Schmidt and Andre Pommerin gave their famous experimental lecture. More than 2000 people came to watch it. They were enthralled. 

Communicating science to the interested public has many faces within the Max Planck Society: there are podcasts, popular science articles and videos. There are Instagram stories, exhibitions and open house days at the institutes. And then there's the experimental lecture by Prof. Ferdi Schüth, Dr. Wolfgang Schmidt and Andre Pommerin of the Max Planck Institut für Kohlenforschung - an event that has long since achieved cult status in the Ruhr region. This year, too, around 2,000 people have come to watch the chemists perform their spectacular outdoor experiments.

Repeat visitors will notice it right away: The title of this year's experimental lecture is a bit different from other lectures: "Fire, Flame, Dynamite - Now It's Getting Nobel!" is the name of the show. "After all, our colleague Benjamin List was awarded the Nobel Prize last year," Schüth explains at the beginning, not entirely without pride in his voice, "and so we didn't want to miss the opportunity to take up the topic." So the Nobel Prize runs like a thread through the lecture, accompanied by sometimes more, sometimes less serious references from the experiments to various Nobel Prize winners in chemistry or physics.

First, Schüth gives an account of Alfred Nobel himself - who was this person, and why does the Nobel Prize exist? How did he come up with the idea of making dynamite, and why did he donate his fortune to science of all things? Schüth mentions black powder, shows the interested audience how nitrocellulose, nitroglycerin and finally dynamite work. History of science in a relaxed conversational tone, illustrated with fire, sparks and firecrackers. The audience, including especially the children and all the other young at heart, is enthralled.

Back to the Nobel laureates: Schüth's parade through more than one hundred years of chemistry and physics includes Max Planck, who gave his name to the MPG and the institute in Mülheim and was the founder of quantum physics. Or Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, or Emmanuelle Charpentier, winner of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry and head of the Max Planck Research Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin.

Speaking of Berlin: His most important research in the field of surface chemistry, for example, required Berlin chemist Gerhard Ertl, 2007 Nobel laureate, to create a particularly strong vacuum. The large blue steel barrel that suddenly appears on the stage has nothing to do with Ertl's research. But it is about vacuum: The barrel is first filled with water and heated. "The steam will drive the air from the barrel," Schüth explains casually. As soon as the barrel is full of steam, the chemist closes the lid and lets the whole thing cool down. The vapor in the barrel condenses, and the pressure inside drops. "The barrel is whining right now," Schüth says with a nervous laugh, and is startled - just like the audience - when the steel barrel finally can no longer withstand the ambient pressure and is crushed from the outside with a loud "Bang!"

One of Germany's most important chemists did not receive a Nobel Prize during his career: Justus von Liebig. "But that was simply because the Nobel Prize didn't exist when Liebig was alive," says Schüth. Nevertheless, Liebig left behind important research and exciting experiments - such as the so-called barking dog. The fame of this reaction originates in a story: A demonstration by Liebig in front of the Bavarian royal family in the 19th century failed: an explosion injured Liebig himself, Queen Therese and Prince Luitpold. Not so in Mülheim: Andre Pommerin, Wolfgang Schmidt and Ferdi Schüth ignite the gas mixture in their cylinder, and everything runs smoothly: A light blue flame shoots into the sky, accompanied by that characteristic yelp that gave the reaction its name. The audience is relieved - and cheers loudly.

A vivid experiment with organocatalysts - that is a challenge for Schüth and his colleagues. "Ben List has won the Nobel Prize for a fantastic discovery," says Schüth. But how can the rather simple molecular tools from List's lab be vividly demonstrated? "We couldn't think of anything," Schüth finally admits with a mischievous grin, "so we just blow up the proline with liquid oxygen." This is a real "organic explosion," Schüth jokes, since the amino acid is a purely natural product. The powder in the small bottle explodes with force, and the audience again applauds enthusiastically.

The three actors on stage are beaming with enthusiasm, too. "Actually, we're doing this just for us," Schüth revealed before the event, "We're having a lot of fun, and we're letting other people watch. We don't really have any pedagogical aspirations." So the main thing for Schüth, Schmidt and Pommerin is to have fun - fun with science. And this fun spreads like wildfire to the audience, which hangs on until late in the evening, not to miss anything from the spectacular show with fires, puffs and bangs.

In between all the fires and explosions, however, there are also quite cool experiments: In front of the audience, Schüth takes off a black sock and holds it in front of a fire extinguisher.  He presses the lever of the fire extinguisher and "extinguishes" the sock with Co2, just to produce dry ice. "Great," Schüth comments dryly, "Now we have dry ice, but I have a bare foot..." While the audience is laughing cheerfully, he pulls a spare sock out of his pants pocket. In Germany this is what you call a “cool sock”. 

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