Yeah, science!Posted: October 2, 2013
If you want to learn about chemistry but find lectures and studying hard, Hubert Alyea is the Walter White to your Jesse Pinkman.
A jarring but necessary revelation that comes to all scientists, eventually, is that the daily practice and pursuit of knowledge isn’t the endless series of thrilling discoveries that they once envisioned. The “scientific method,” after all, is a fancy way of characterizing the slow, measured grind — the theorizing and experimenting — that defines so much scientific labor. Occasionally, though, teachers emerge with such engaging, energized ways of making science new again that, through their eyes (and occasionally through their antics) the universe regains its power to enthrall.
Hubert Alyea — a Princeton University professor famous for lively, colorful chemistry classes and public talks that were as much performance as professorship — was such a teacher. Alyea, who died in 1996 at the age of 93, lectured with an animated, dynamic style that drew enthusiastic audiences of all ages.
“Grimacing with fiendish delight,” LIFE wrote of Alyea’s pyrotechnic teaching, “he sets off explosions, shoots water pistols and sprays his audience with carbon dioxide in the course of 32 harrowing experiments dramatizing complicated theory.” Alyea delivered his talk on the chemistry behind the atomic bomb and atomic energy about 2,800 times all over the world — burning several suits of clothing in the process.
Alyea’s lectures were energetic, exhausting and educative. Some knowledge of chemistry is helpful but not necessary. Alyea explains everything with vivid examples and explosive experiments. His excitement is infectious and his way of engaging his audience like a chemical reaction in itself.
Here are excerpts of Alyea’s lecture “Lucky Accidents, Great Discoveries and the Prepared Mind.” Alyea used it as guest lecturer all over the country after his retirement. This footage is from a recording at Louisiana State University and demonstrates perfectly his way to engage and interact with his audience. Alyea repeated the lecture for alumni each year (for a song and chemistry demonstration about Princeton, Yale and Harvard see 23:13). The film is produced by the Alumni Council.
Alyea’s lectures won’t teach you how to make illegal drugs (spoiler alert) but offer an entertaining way to learn a bit about chemistry, the process of invention and how to learn more. You can watch Alyea explaining the atomic bomb using chemistry demonstrations in a 1955 television broadcast for NBC here.
Photo credit: LIFE