With a triumphant performance at Nuit blanche 2021, McGill’s Chemistry Outreach Group not only overcame the challenges of moving its spectacular chemistry show online, but also captured the imagination of its widest audience to date, with demonstrations more daring and intricate than anything it could ever attempt in person.
Since their 2015 debut at Montreal’s annual dusk-to-dawn festival, the group has become a favourite of chemistry-curious Nuit blanche revellers who have flocked to the 220-seat auditorium in the Otto Maass Chemistry building to watch the show. This year, with the COVID-19 curfew keeping crowds at home, the group was forced to get creative, putting on a virtual edition that streamed on YouTube for people across the city, and even the rest of the world, to watch.
“Being able to perform the experiments in the lab allowed for more demonstrations to be done, especially ones that would be too dangerous to perform in an auditorium or would be too small for everyone to see if done in person from the back of a large room,” said the group’s coordinator, Alex Wahba, an academic associate in the Department of Chemistry at McGill.
Aligning themselves with this year’s theme of art and culture, the volunteers dubbed their show The Art-Chemist, pun intended, framing it as a night at a museum filled with visually striking experiments to transport viewers into another world. Realizing that livestreaming would put them in direct competition for audience attention with just about every other form of on-screen entertainment (the renascent hockey season, the latest bingeworthy Netflix series, etc.), the group resolved to be a lot more concise, adopting the rapid-fire style of modern television, while maintaining the precision of their chemistry.
Having already delivered several live, online demonstrations to school groups, the group was unfazed by the potential pitfalls of malfunctioning microphones and cameras. Reaching over 460 different individuals and families, their 2021 Nuit blanche performance may even have surpassed previous in-person attendance levels. And for those who couldn’t tune in on the night, both the French and English shows remain available on the group’s YouTube channel.
While the group plans to bring the most successful aspects of the virtual show into future Nuit blanche presentations, Dr. Wahba said that one of the major downsides was not being able to see and interact with the audience directly.
“We still prefer having people in person so we can get interaction and discussion – nothing beats seeing the public awestruck by an exciting chem demo. We are definitely looking forward to having guests back at McGill.”