Take some hydrogen peroxide, boric acid and dishwashing liquid, add an open flame, electrified pickles and an audience singalong of "YMCA," and stand back. Because what you get is "Dr. Al Chemist's Potions & Rachel's Songs," an all-ages science presentation Friday night at Modesto Junior College.
The free program is a presentation of Modesto Area Partners in Science, or MAPS, a group of Modesto Junior College science professors and a few high school teachers and community members whose goal is to raise scientific literacy. It will be led by Steve Murov, MJC professor emeritus of chemistry, as his alter ego, Dr. Al Chemist. "The presentation is consistent with the goal of MAPS to provide a view of science that illustrates how fun and exciting it is, and how important it is, said Murov, who has donned Al Chemist's curly, once-red, now-white wig to do MAPS presentations since 1992.
Most MAPS programs are aimed at junior high school age and up, but once a semester, the group does all-ages shows that Murov said are appropriate for kids as young as kindergartners. "I will say some things that probably some of the young kids won't be able to follow, but most of the program involves demonstrations that — I'm not sure how much of the science they'll understand, and I won't go a lot into the science — but they will be fascinated by the spectacle."
Those demonstrations will include a foamy eruption called "elephant toothpaste," a "tornado of fire" and pickles that glow after they're impaled and electrified on Dr. Al's "chemis-tree."
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Murov, one of the founders of MAPS, stepped down as leader of the group in 2003 but remains an associate member. "I've been given the responsibility of the once-a-semester all-ages presentations," he said in an MJC chemistry lab on Wednesday as he ran through some of the demonstrations for Friday's program. "We need to get kids hooked at a very early age. By the time they get to high school, it's too late — they already have the attitude that science is a difficult field for only very special people.
"The younger kids will be fascinated by the demos, but they will be bored when I'm talking, and I will talk a little. Because, for instance, I will address climate change very quickly because it's related to one of the demos and I think scientists have to speak out more about these issues instead of staying on the sidelines."
While "Dr. Al Chemist's Potions" will be chock-full of spectacle and just a bit of trickery, Murov said it definitely is not a magic show. "I don't like to use the word 'magic,' because ... I will try to explain most of what I do. 'Magic' has this implication that it isn't understood, where everything I'm doing is understood."
He said the demonstrations he'll do would best be appreciated in a more intimate venue, such as a chemistry lab, so for the 800-seat MJC auditorium, he "scales up" a bit to hopefully make everything clearly visible to the audience. Still, arriving early for close seats is a good idea. And there's no downside to sitting near the stage. "Nothing I do is particularly dangerous. In fact, I try to avoid explosions."
That said, he's considering conducting a couple of exothermic reactions, which give off heat and flames, on Friday night. But audience members should rest assured that Dr. Al will put no one at risk. As Murov points out, "I'm the closest one to the explosion."
"Dr. Al Chemist's Potions & Rachel's Songs" will begin promptly at 7:15 p.m. The first 10 to 15 minutes is a prelude, Murov said, during which 16-year-old Rachel Hall, a soprano and Murov family member from Milpitas, will sing as Dr. Al is off-stage to conduct some audience-participation experiments.
MAPS, which gets funding from the Associated Students of MJC, has three other programs planned this spring, for audience members 13 and older:
Cave Microbiology — Feb. 26, presented by cave expert Penny Boston from New Mexico Tech.
Technology of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation — March 26, presented by John Field, who has a doctorate from Stanford University in electrical engineering specializing in atomic physics and quantum optics.
Monitoring the Changing Hydrology of the Sierra Nevada — April 16, presented by Ryan Lucas, UC Merced graduate student and Sierra Nevada Institute member.
All programs except "Dr. Al Chemist's Potions" are in Forum 110 at MJC, 435 College Ave., and are free. "Everything we do is free because we want to raise the level of science literacy — we think it's very important," Murov said. "If you look at the big issues in our country, many of them involve science. Health care certainly involves science. And the climate-change and energy issues. And society has to make informed decisions — we're all part of the jury. We need the evidence, and people don't pay attention to the evidence. They just believe what a few people tell them. We need them to be informed so they make the best decisions, and that's what MAPS is all about."
On the Net: http://virtual.yosemite.cc.ca.us/MAPS.
Bee features editor Deke Farrow can be reached at 578-2327.