Guest Instructor Ignites Curiosity in Chemistry

For most people, watching a fireworks show or an explosion filled action film does not spark thoughts of chemistry, but it does for John Conkling, who has spent more than 40 years studying and working in the art of the explosion. He visited Interlochen in the fall of 2010 to talk with students in the chemistry and motion picture arts classes about the science and art of his discipline.

Conkling has a Ph.D. in chemistry, teaches at Washington College, in Chestertown, Maryland and has worked with fireworks manufacturers, filmmakers, the military, NASA and occasionally advises the ATF. 

“Chemistry is the study of chemical elements, which react to form various materials and give off energy when they do it,” explained Conkling. “With pyrotechnics we exploit that phenomenon and create what I consider to be an art form – color images, light and sparks that create feelings in the human really appeals to many people’s basic emotional state.” 

Speaking with motion picture and comparative arts students, Conkling showed movie clips and discussed the mechanical and chemical processes behind the cinematic pyrotechnics. “His examples helped make the subject of chemistry much more accessible to our students,” explained Michael Mittelstaedt, director of the motion picture arts program. “The students had seen many of the film scenes he used as examples, but now they were focused on a specific detail: pyrotechnics. Learning about the thought and effort that went to create these special effects deepens their knowledge and appreciation - of both filmmaking and chemistry.”

Later in the afternoon, Conkling moved into the chemistry lab, rolled up his sleeves and donned his safety goggles. Conkling demonstrated several concepts by igniting various chemical compounds. 

Katie Wibby, instructor of chemistry at the Arts Academy explained that underlying principles being demonstrated related to “redox” or reduction and oxidation reactions, which transfer electrons from one substance to the other. “It’s something we have discussed in class, but it’s kind of exciting when you can see a redox reaction instead of just talking about it. And it is especially eye-opening when you can have a true ‘redox expert’ like Dr. Conkling showing you how it works.” 

“I think seeing Chemistry in action really brings to life what’s in the textbooks,” said Conkling. “You can read a chemical equation but it has little meaning until you can see that reaction take place.” He added: “no one appreciates fireworks like a chemist.” 

Check out the December 2010 issue of Crescendo for video highlights of Mr. Conkling’s visit.