Salthouse, Son et Lumiere

On my daily commute I was laughing with a friend about a demonstration lecture I’d been to as a student. It’s title was ‘Son et Lumiere’ and just that name brings the memories flooding back!!

I was telling my ‘train pal’ how the lecturer bubbled an oxygen-acetylene mixture through washing up liquid, then, stuffing oversized balls of cotton wool in this ears, picked up a long pole with a burning taper attached and ignited the mixture  – with the loudest explosion I’d ever heard – to massive applause!

Outside the train station, as we scattered to our offices, I started to think about just how good the lecturer, John Salthouse, was. Hidden between the lines of my funny story is the fact that Salthouse was as much of the ‘chemistry’ in the performance as the science.

Salthouse and his legacy.

John Salthouse was a professor of chemistry at the University of Manchester. He was an accomplished chemist, but was best known for ‘Son et Lumiere’, which he would ‘tour’ around the UK and Europe. His show contained dramatic demonstrations of chemical reactions that gave off light and sound, and explanations of the science underpinning them. He showed ‘live’ the science that our lecturers talked about.

Salthouse retired in the late 1990’s but continued to perform. He died in 2008, before video smartphones became really common, and there is woefully little online video of his performances. Martyn Poliakoff plays tribute to him and repeats some of his demos here, and there are a few handheld videos of a 2007 performance of Son et Lumerie here. (You can see a version of the explosion in my story about 1 min:30sec into this video.)

Last year SIPBS was fortunate enough to have Tom Pringle (aka Dr Bunhead from Brainiac) doing a demonstration lecture, and as I chatted with Tom about the chemical and safety arrangements we discovered we’d both seen Son et Lumiere and agreed on the influence it had on us.

Sam, Tom and Steve (and tomato-friend!) at SIPBS Researchers Day 2014
Sam, Tom and Steve (and tomato-friend!) at SIPBS Researchers Day 2014

From engaged to engager…

I saw Son et Lumiere in 1989 as a 2nd year undergrad ‘science’ student. I was just trying to keep my head down, passing exams, believing that good marks were the key to avoiding the growing dole queues. Within a year what would seem impossible would become history: Nelson Mandela would be released, the Berlin Wall would fall, as would Margaret Thatcher.

Steve circa 1990
Steve circa 1990

At the time I wasn’t even a chemistry student because at Glasgow University students didn’t specialise until 3rd year. General students weren’t invited to the lecture: I just saw an wee poster in the corridor and thought I’d try and sneak in!

25 years later Salthouse, Mandela and Thatcher are no more. Neither is my fine head of hair! Now I try and make sure that – at least some of the time – I have my head up, believing that science can improving the lives of others: whether that be through lab research or public engagement.


Science engagement or science engager?

My memories allow me to think, as a science engager, about what my 20 year old eyes saw. Look at the story again:

1) “bubbled an oxygen-acetylene mixture though washing up liquid”: as the bubbles lifted out the metal bowl Salthouse created expectation.

2) “stuffing oversized balls of cotton wool in this ears”: the audience knows (or believes) this is going to be loud, the extra cotton wool, sticking out from his ears just adds to the drama and the comedy.

3) “picked up a long pole with a burning taper attached”: I remember the laughter in the lecture theatre as he switched from the short taper he’d been using for most the lecture to this long pole.

4) “ignited the mixture…massive applause” Chemistry has put energy in the bubbles, Salthouse has put the energy in the audience.

When Tom Pringle visited SIPBS last year he spoke to our researchers about becoming an engaging scientist. Tom’s passion for science came across in the way he talked. No – not ‘talked’ – performed. You would have thought that as someone who earns a living from demonstrating experiments, Tom would be reluctant to share his techniques (after all as working scientists confidentiality is the buzzword), but he’s happy to tell people how to do the experiments. Why? Because he knows that the real key to science engagement is the science engager.

May be the title of that old lecture should have been “Salthouse, Son et Lumiere”.




The photo used as a banner is of a demonstration by John Kilcoyne, another famous chemistry engager. John presented the Salthouse Memorial lecture in 2009. The picture was taken by the University of Strathclyde photographer, Graeme Fleming.






  1. Hi Steve,
    I was listening to The Infinite Monkey Cage today and they were talking about oxygen and how quickly a digestive biscuit burns if it’s been soaked in liquid oxygen and I thought ‘that’s what Dr Salthouse used to do in his show’. So I wondered if there was any video of him still around and I stumbled across this blog of yours. As well as seeing his Flash-Bang Show 3 or 4 times (as it was called when I saw it) I was also lucky enough to have had John as my tutor at Manchester University from 1991-1994. I’m happy to tell you that he was just as enthusiastic in our tutorials as he was in those shows and he was a fantastic teacher, finding different ways to illustrate his points and bring his chemistry to life. So I’m glad that you captured his appeal so well in this blog. I very much enjoyed it.
    All the best,

    1. I am now a Teacher in the US of A, but I always try to Ignite curiosity and interest for Science in my Students at Middle School. Nothing beats trying to emulate the effects and interest that The Legendary John Salthouse could create.

      1. Steven, thanks for the comment. I do wonder how we re-ignite interests in the sciences in school pupils, but I’m also aware that the dramatic demos that attracted me, might not attract modern pupils. There are many science demonstrators in the UK, but not many (now) like Salthouse who would travel from place to place doing demos. Having spoken to some, they go to the schools in wealther areas (where the time, energy and resources are available to set up a lecture theatre – with the fire alarms decativated) rather than the less affluent schools. Do you find that dramatic demos lead to a deeping of interest in chemistry from students?

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