This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2004, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Ronald Ragsdale will dust off his black tuxedo, strap on a black bow tie and don a gray top hat tonight as he transforms himself into famous 19th-century chemist Michael Faraday for one last holiday performance.
Ragsdale, 72, and fellow University of Utah chemist Jerry Driscoll, 65, will step out in front of their final audience in a chemistry hall to deliver a chemistry show filled with bangs and crunches, bubbles and flames.
The presenters of the popular Faraday Christmas Lectures will pack up their flasks, beakers and honey cans for the 24th and final year of the shows. Starting next December, a new U. chemistry duo will embark on a new series of Faraday shows.
Since 1981, Ragsdale and Driscoll have enthralled thousands with the fun side of chemistry.
"I had no idea it would take off," Ragsdale recalled of the first shows.
As much as Ragsdale enjoys the shows, their timing often caused a bit of domestic strife.
"My wife is ready for me to give it up," said Ragsdale, who recently celebrated his 48th year of marriage, "so I can't interfere with any more of our anniversaries."
For nearly a quarter century, Driscoll was the man charged with setting up and cleaning after the shows. In recent years, that added up to 40 hours of work, which came as he was dealing with finals week.
"It's almost as hard at the end as it was at the beginning," he said.
The shows require no advertising - indeed, tickets are long gone for tonight's finale. In the 1980s, when the public was actively invited to the shows, chaos reigned, said Driscoll, who plays Faraday's assistant.
"We had people banging on the doors and kids crying in the halls," he said.
Preparing for his second-to-last performance Monday, Ragsdale looked back on those shows fondly.
"That hall filled up and it would be bursting at the seams," he said. "It was a victory just to get a seat. It was electric."
Great for putting on a show, not so great for public safety.
"The fire marshal went ballistic on it," Ragsdale said of the 200 extra spectators nightly.
About 15 years ago, the lecture series began distributing free tickets. Often, fans snapped them all up in a day.
With less adrenaline running through the crowd, thanks to guaranteed seats, Ragsdale said, it's hard to predict how much the demonstrations will rile up the audience.
"You get a nice response," he said, "but nothing like you'd get 15 years ago."
Over the years, the chemistry pair has tinkered with their lineup of experiments that now numbers 30. Driscoll said they dropped one particular experiment that involved an explosion.
Ragsdale said they used to mix red phosphorous and potassium chlorate to create a big bang. A high school teacher was injured several years ago trying the experiment at his school after using too much of each chemical. Ragsdale and Driscoll dropped the experiment soon after.
A popular experiment that made the cut involves boiling water in a 5-gallon metal honey can and then covering it with ice. The can would collapse on itself and, with the addition of liquid nitrogen, reform itself and blow its top.
The lectures honor Michael Faraday, who made several breakthrough discoveries dealing with magnetism. The 19th-century British chemist, a noted speaker, delivered holiday science talks to children at the Royal Institution in the 1840s.
Utah's own version of the lectures will live on, though in a different form, and will retain some of the traditional chemical wizardry.
After tonight, Ragsdale's top hat and tux will not be doomed to gather dust squirreled away in an anonymous closet.
This summer, when he helps teach about 100 science-savvy high schoolers, he will become Michael Faraday once again for a day, top hat and all.