Fireworks come alive! ALIVE!!!

Like many in the US, I spent yesterday evening watching an impressive display of fireworks to celebrate our independence day. Even though I’m a chemist, I’ve spent surprisingly little time thinking about how fireworks are made, or how all those swirly patterns are produced (although this site was really interesting). It got me thinking, though; how and when do people decide that they want to devote their life to making fireworks? Are they analytical chemists who want to do something more with the sodium D-line than measure it? Are they inorganic chemists who get tired of just making compounds and then storing them in the freezer? Were they encouraged by their high school guidance counselor to explore their passion for exploding things? (we had a similar conversation in the office about the thought process involved in becoming a professional eater like the folks who competed yesterday in the Coney Island hot dog eating competition…)

In recent years, my favorite fireworks have been the ones that look like Saturn – you know, the big globes with the rings around them (although I doubt Saturn is as brightly colored). My least favorite fireworks, until last night, were the ‘maroon’ shells – the ones that just explode as a dot of light but with an incredible noise. However, as much as I value my hearing, those annoying fireworks have been supplanted by a new and creepy design. I’m not sure of the name, but the explosion results in a bunch of white starry things, which then veer off in directions that make no sense according to the original trajectory. It made me think I was looking at either a) UFOs or b) (and more disturbingly) a bacterial swarm assay. Yuck. I apologize to the person who must have spent 5 years developing these, but I am not a fan.

In any case, now that we have fireworks that look like E. coli, we need to get some chemistry into the patterns (aside from the fact that the whole thing is based on chemistry, obviously…). What about a giant TLC plate where spots develop? Or a beaker-shaped outline of lights?

What would your fireworks look like if you were a fireworks-ician (fireworks-alist? fireworks-ist?)

Catherine (associate editor, Nature Chemical Biology)