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Behind the Scenes: 45 Years of Fun with Science

Watch the 45th anniversary of “Once Upon a Christmas Cheery in the Lab of Shakhashiri,” with an introduction by Alan Alda.

Wisconsin is full of great traditions. Every time “Jump Around” plays at Randall Stadium, the student section goes crazy. Each August, the ever-popular cream puff brings droves of hungry customers to the Wisconsin State Fair. And every year at Christmas, Professor Bassam Shakhashiri gives his lecture, “Once Upon a Christmas Cheery in the Lab of Shakhashiri,” captivating his audience with a series of chemistry experiments that range from funny to freaky.

Shakhashiri, who is celebrating the 45th anniversary of his lecture, started the tradition after being inspired by renowned 19th century British chemist Michael Faraday’s Christmas lectures. In order to spark interest in science, Faraday gave a demonstration of the chemical history of the candle each year at the Royal Institute in London.

“I started doing this in my first-year chemistry course way back in 1970,” Shakhashiri says. “At the very last lecture, I did experiments because I wanted to entice (the students) to come to the second-semester. Word got out that this was a fun thing, and the following year the crowd was overflowing.”

By 1973 WHA-TV – now Wisconsin Public Television – offered to broadcast the production state-wide. Before long Shakhashiri was giving his Christmas lecture four times over the course of a weekend, and WPT was sharing the show with other PBS stations across the nation.

“It’s grown bigger and bigger,” Shakhashiri says. “I remember one year I was traveling in Wyoming to give a lecture. I was in the hotel looking for the weather forecast, and there was the Christmas lecture on TV.”

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