From booms to bones, Nuit Blanche at McGill a blast

On the night of February 25, the McGill Chemistry Outreach Group and the Redpath Museum welcomed large crowds to their Nuit Blanche events
The McGill Chemistry Outreach Group put on an explosive show as part of Nuit Blanche McGill Chemistry Outreach Group

Nuit Blanche, the annual all-night winter festival, marked its 20th anniversary on February 25th with more than 100 cultural activities across Montreal. Two late-night events, one at the Department of Chemistry and another at the Redpath Museum, invited the public onto campus to join the McGill community in celebrating science and discovery.

Bringing the science of chemistry to Nuit Blanche 

The atmosphere was festive on Saturday evening in the Otto Maass building, where the McGill Chemistry Outreach Group staged a series of chemistry demonstrations in French and English for over 900 members of the general public. Volunteer science communicators, including a dozen undergraduate and graduate students, presented several stunning chemical reactions, then explained to the audience what they were and why they were significant.

Hundreds of people lined up outside for the shows in -15°C weather, but that kind of cold was nothing, the organizers said, compared to liquid nitrogen: at -196°C, it is twice as cold as the coldest temperature ever recorded on Earth. Imagine, they told the audience, what would happen to organic tissue exposed to temperatures that low. To demonstrate, volunteers from the audience, donning protective gear and safety goggles, plunged a bouquet of flowers into liquid nitrogen held in a dewar, a specialized flask designed to keep ultra-cold liquids from warming up. Ten seconds later, the volunteers slammed down their bouquets, the flowers shattering into tiny frozen petals that covered the lab bench like confetti.

“This is our eighth year doing Nuit Blanche, and it’s always a great time,” said Alex Wahba, PhD, an Academic Associate and the staff supervisor for Chemistry Outreach. “We believe that science can and should be enjoyed by everyone, even people who don’t feel like they’re good at it.”

The show was titled “It’s going to be a blast!” – and the organizers kept to their promise. One demonstration, for example, invited a volunteer who had recently had a birthday to celebrate with birthday cake and balloons, one of which exploded when it was near the birthday candles. Instead of filling the birthday balloons with the standard helium – a non-renewable, finite resource, the demonstrators explained – they had filled them with hydrogen. Like helium, hydrogen is lighter than air, but it is also very reactive and flammable. Definitely do not try this at home, the demonstrators clarified, noting that hydrogen is a powerful energy source better suited for rocket fuel.

In keeping with the celebratory theme, the Outreach team rounded out the night with lab-made fireworks and a confetti cannon, earning cheers from the audience, including notable squeals of excitement from the many children in attendance. “With events like this, we aim to share the joy of science with the wider public,” Wahba said. “But we also want to foster a deeper understanding of chemistry. Ultimately, we believe that if more people are literate in science, it will help us understand each other and make for a better world.”

Discovering the Redpath after hours  

Some 600 visitors braved frigid temperatures to take part in “Night at the Museum” at the RedpathScience Communications

The lights were out, but the doors were open late at McGill’s Redpath Museum on Saturday for its Nuit Blanche event, “Night at the Museum.” Long lines of visitors, flashlights in hand, were eager to gain access to the B.Y.O.L. (bring your own light) event. Inside, for the first Nuit Blanche at the museum since the start of the pandemic, visitors wandered the collections in the dark, discovering dinosaur bones, ancient fossils, and a vast zoology collection, among other museum pieces.

“We are very pleased with the turnout at the museum for the 20th edition of Nuit Blanche,” said Ginette Dessureault, the Redpath’s Administrative Assistant. “After a three-year hiatus, and despite the frigid temperatures, we had over 600 visitors throughout the night, and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves tremendously. It is definitely one of the highlight events at the museum.”

Dessureault emphasized that the event’s success resulted from a significant team effort that included many students. A dozen student volunteers from the Redpath Museum Society, a student-run organization supporting the museum, directed traffic flow and interacted with visitors. Representatives from the McGill chapter of Let’s Talk Science, an organization dedicated to STEM youth outreach, presented visitors with minerals, shells, and shark jaws from the museum’s collection and gave away glow sticks and shark teeth. Members of Steampunk Montreal attended in costume as special guests and interacted with visitors inside the museum, as well as in line outside. The Redpath plans to reinvest the money raised at the event in the museum’s public programming efforts, such as developing future workshops and hiring guides and educators.

Upcoming Science Outreach and Redpath Museum events

The McGill Office of Science Outreach trains students and staff on how to communicate science and is a hub of all science outreach activity at the university. Several events are coming up. Many of the outreach teams, including the McGill Chemistry Outreach Group, will participate in Québec’s 24 heures de science event, from noon on Friday, May 5th, until noon on Saturday, May 6th. This week at the Redpath, students are invited to participate in The Paleontological Expedition, a special youth programming event for the March Break. See the public calendar for details of these and other upcoming events.