Ooh! Aah! That science geek really knows his fireworks!

One of the cool things about becoming a scientist is that you get to learn all kinds of fancy words that you can use to sound intelligent, whether you are or not. Most of the words just mean the same thing as normal words, but sound more cool.

Before we get into that, did you know that if you carefully heat bamboo sticks, they will explode with a loud bang? That is because the gas trapped inside each segment expands until it ruptures the tough fibrous covering. I am told that Chinese children used to do this believing that the loud noise would frighten away monsters. Sort of a poor-man’s fireworks I guess.

Then the Chinese invented gunpowder about 13 centuries ago. Interestingly, gunpowder wasn’t originally used for guns. It was used for fireworks. And fireworks were used in ancient China, as they still are today, for entertainment, celebration and to scare away evil spirits. These celebrations weren’t for the common folks, though, just the rich and royal. China is still the leading manufacturer of fireworks in the world.

The way fireworks work is by igniting small pieces of burnable material called stars. Stars are pellets of various metals, salts or other compounds that have specific colors or effects when they burn. A wet paste is made of the burnable material. Then this paste is turned into small pellets through a variety of simple methods. These are the stars.

Since many of the compounds are difficult to light, the stars are then coated with a primer material that ignites them more easily. Often black gunpowder is used. The stars are packaged into cardboard or paper tubes and fitted out to either ignite the stars on the ground or be projected into the sky for ignition.

This brings us to the part about big words. Each chemical compound burns with a slightly different-colored flame. When you see the color of the flame, you can make an observation about the contents. You might be entirely wrong, but no one will know, unless you’re unlucky enough to be close to a science geek of some kind. But science geeks are pretty rare, so the odds are good you can pull this off.

You don’t have to take a course in chemistry to enrich your life with chemical knowledge and sound intelligent. Just follow this basic primer to enrich your conversation and impress your friends this Fourth of July. You can scatter historical comments about China and history throughout the evening, and then use your newfound chemical jargon during the finale.

Instead of the usual “oohs” and “aahs,” you can learn these few names, to be used appropriately. If your memory is poor, or time is lacking, you might be able to fill out a little cheat sheet that could be consulted while others gaze at the sky.

For example, if a particular explosion has an intense blue color you could observe, “Wow, those copper halides are brilliant!” Since there is often more than one blue firework throughout the evening, you could vary this with, “Oooh, I think that was a copper chloride.”

If there is more of an indigo hue, you can observe, “I wonder if that was cesium or potassium?” At a shower of gold sparkles you could say, “You realize, of course, that is mostly just iron.” Strontium and lithium both burn red, although strontium is a more intense hue, so you could speculate about which you think each burst might contain. Those really bright, white explosions are usually fueled by aluminum, or a mixture of aluminum and magnesium called magnalium. During a lull you could explain that magnesium is too dangerous to use so they have to form a more stable mixture.

Green flame and stars are most likely barium. And “bury him” is what many of your friends will be tempted to do to you by the end of the evening.

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Gary McCallister is professor of biology at Mesa State College.


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