The Chemical Educator, Vol. 7, No. 3, S1430-4171(02)03565-X, 10.1007/s00897020565a, © 2002 Springer-Verlag New York, Inc.

Sodium: A Spectacular Element. Cliff Schrader, Lee Marek, Mike Offutt, Tom Lehrer, Bob Lewis, and Greg Kimble. 37-minute VHS videocassette, Catalog No. AP5917, 1999. $30.00. Order from: Flinn Scientific, Inc., P. O. Box 219, Batavia, IL 60510;Telephone: (800) 452-1261; FAX: (630) 879-6962; email:; Web site: www.flinnsci. com.

George B. Kauffman and Anastacia Melendy, California State University, Fresno, and

When former students return to visit, they invariably recall lecture demonstrations even though more than four decades have elapsed [1]. The exothermic reaction of metallic sodium with water is probably the most spectacular demonstration that is a sine qua non in introductory chemistry courses. Many chemists have attributed their career choice to spectacular reactions such as this one.

Like many of us “natriophiles,” the late Cliff Schrader (whose obituary will appear in The Chemical Educator) of the University of Akron and longtime chemistry teacher at Dover High School in Ohio, had regularly demonstrated this reaction for his students over a period of decades [2]. In 1974 one of his former students, who had discontinued using the metal in a manufacturing process, offered him a 215-liter drum containing 34 five-kilogram cylinders of sodium, which would last him for several centuries at the rate at which he normally consumed it! Later that month, another former student, Greg Kimble, who managed a nearby strip mine, asked him how to raise the pH of the acidic mine pit water, which contained sulfurous and sulfuric acids, from 3–4 to 6–8 as required by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. Schrader simultaneously solved the problem and scaled up his usual demonstration [3]. By throwing large sticks of sodium into the mine pool he demonstrated not only a spectacular reaction but also a salutary environmental effect. For a decade this large-scale sodium reaction served as an annual last-day event in Schrader’s high school chemistry class until his sodium supply was exhausted. Students competed for the honor of becoming a “sodium chukker”—someone able to throw the sodium stick far enough so that the class could observe the reaction from a safe distance.

In 1999 Schrader purchased 50 kilograms of sodium, hired a three-camera crew who videotaped its reaction with water at the mine pit and in the lecture hall, enlisted the aid of colleagues and students, added additional material, and directed and produced the videocassette under review here. He purchased permission to use songwriter, entertainer, and former Harvard University mathematics lecturer Tom Lehrer’s song, “The Chemical Elements,” sung to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “I am the very model of a modern Major-General” from their operetta, “The Pirates of Penzance” [4]. This song, with a periodic table background and info on each element (symbol, atomic number, and atomic weight) in the foreground as it is mentioned, opens the video program. This is followed by singer, songwriter, and chemistry teacher Mike Offutt of Barrington High School, updating Lehrer by singing “the Chemical Element Name Game” accompanied by his electric guitar [5].

The program continues with demo master and Naperville North High School teacher Lee Marek of “Weird Science” and the David Letterman TV “Late Show” fame, discussing and demonstrating reactions of the alkali metals lithium, sodium, and potassium with water and of sodium with chlorine. He demonstrates the basic nature of solutions with phenolphthalein indicator. He asks students to participate, writes equations on the blackboard that he asks them to balance, uses a doll (“conductivity baby”), whose eyes light up in the presence of ions, and talks to the camera crew. He also attaches a pickle to electrodes and shows that the salt-laden cucumber completes the circuit (the “electric pickle”). Safety precautions are stringently taken throughout, and the demonstrators wear goggles and face shields.

The program then moves to the strip mine pit where the reaction of sodium is carried out on a much larger scale by “sodium chukkers,” who repeat it again and again and again…followed by slow motion replays in the mode of an athletic game. Anyone who has showed a small child a trick only to be asked repeatedly, “Do it again!” will understand the urge to repeat this spectacular reaction to produce a bigger explosion, brighter conflagration, and louder bang. However, the 16 minutes (almost 44 percent of the program) devoted to the large scale reaction is excessive for all but the most ardent sodium aficionado.

The hallmark of the video is informality. The demonstrators wear T-shirts and use colloquialisms such as “cool” and “sucker.” Marek sometimes makes mistakes in equations and slips of the tongue but then corrects himself. The sound is sometimes not of the highest quality, the sequences are sometimes disjointed, and the program could benefit from more judicious editing. The copy that we received was incorrectly titled “Sodium: A Spectacular Event.” In short, the video resembles a live, unrehearsed C-Span TV program rather than a “slick” commercial TV production.

This entertaining but educational video makes a perfect introduction to a unit on the alkali metals, especially suitable for use by instructors in high schools and colleges with limited facilities, equipment, or financial resources. It is accompanied by written materials that include teacher notes, lesson plans, background information, song lyrics, student viewer guides, equations to balance, problems to solve along with answers, and politically incorrect data sheet on “Woman” (symbol WO). It permits these fascinating and intriguing reactions to be shown to students safely as well as spectacularly.

References and Notes

1.       Kauffman, G. B. Lecture Demonstrations: Science's Living Theater. In 1995 Yearbook of Science and the Future; Encyclopædia Britannica: Chicago, Illinois, 1994; pp 220–240; Lecture Demonstrations, Past and Present. Chem. Educator 1996, 1 (5), S1430-4171(96)05057-1 (December 12, 1996), 38 pp.;DOI 10.1007/s00897960057a.

2.       Schrader, C. Dangerous Demonstrations Done Safely. CHEM 13 NEWS 1994, 231 (May), 12; The Spectacular Sodium Reaction. 2000, 285 (May), 22–23.

3.       For detailed directions for both micro and macro versions see Kauffman, G. B.; Jackson, J. D. Sodium–Water Reactions. J. Coll. Sci. Teaching 1985, 24, 432; CHEM 13 NEWS 1994, 231 (May), 13.

4.       Songs by Tom Lehrer (His Lyrics, His Music, His So-called Voice, and His Piano), Reprise RS-6216, long-playing record.

5.       For a review of additional science songs by Michael Offutt on audiocassettes, "Physics Songbag,” “Chemistry Songbag,” and “Science Songbag" (J. Weston Walch, Publisher: Portland, Maine, 1991, 1991, and 1995, respectively), see Kauffman, G. B. J. Coll. Sci. Teaching 1996, 25,445.