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Science Rules: Brad Efford on Bill Nye the Science Guy, Episode 24: "Chemical Reactions"


Have you ever heard of the Nobel prize? the science guy asks. There’s Nobel prizes in art....and for peace....and for science.

You know where this is going with the first “Nobel.” The science guy explains how Alfred Nobel made his fortune on dynamite, its invention and popularization in the late 1800s. “Dynamite” comes almost directly from the Greek for “power,” though Alfred was a Swedish engineer. This was the time of rapid expansion, of discovery and destiny in America and abroad, of dams and canals and gold mines. The story of dynamite is the story of the right product for the right time—either Nobel’s success was inevitable, or the spirit of the era drove him to it to begin with, but what’s certain is he knew he had something when he had it. His patent was so tightly controlled that dynamite was the only dirt-blaster of its kind on the market. Name another around today.

You see, dynamite made Alfred Nobel rich, the science guy says. Fabulously rich. He became so rich that he arranged that every year, money will be given away to people who win a Nobel prize.

He continues, excited by the money, the scope of fortune. Now, everyone who wins a Nobel prize wins about a million dollars. That’s not bad! And it’s all from a chemical reaction: dynamite. An explosion fills the lab with smoke and debris, a way to distract from the weakness of these loose connections. As though the millions stem from anything but legacy. As though ambition and memory aren’t knotted together by those who most desire each, a life rope made only stiffer by the sea’s salty attempt to snap it.



Did you know that fire is a chemical reaction? Candace Cameron asks. She is dressed in science-guy blue, the familiar lab coat and bow tie comically large on her frame. She is visiting during Full House’s off-season. She does not yet know that the next year on set will be her last. Well it is. She explains how certain materials catch fire when reacting to oxygen in the air. She is at the large steel door signifying the entrance to the science guy’s laboratory and doesn’t seem to know the key combo to get inside. Soon enough, the science guy himself, chipper as always, opens sesame. Nice tie, he tells Candace Cameron. Come on in.

Inside the lab, the science guy has been observing a thin swirling tornado of fire, set spinning on a lazy susan the size of a sidewalk square. As they approach, the column of flames licking the ceiling, Candace Cameron says, Wow, this is really cool, looking for some sort of explanation. The science guy is already kneeling on the other side, staring directly at the spinning conflagration and grinning.

Candace Cameron is fed up with this, whatever this is. Hey, you know what else is a really cool chemical reaction? she asks, reaching for a gigantic hose sitting in the corner of the room: a carbon dioxide fire extinguisher. She blasts the tornado of fire. Its light and heat die immediately. The force knocks the science guy on his ass, sends him toppling.

Science rules, Candace Cameron says, young and already on top of the world, winning at seventeen, sounding all the world like she rules science.

And what are you looking to rule? What ambitions have you got, assuming any? The irony of age is the closer you get to settling, the more uncomfortable settling gets. The closer to excelling at any one thing, the scarier whatever’s next becomes. So maybe you don’t move on at all. Just sit still instead, normalizing your excellence. Ambition is nothing but fear actualizing into product, after all. And like all fears, this one’s less fun than paralyzing.



Pyrotechnics is an art form, Phil Grucci says, proud, defensive. He is one of many in the fifth generation of Grucci pyrotechnicians. He knows he is destined for top brass. All he has to do is wait. His patience is his secret weapon—only his eyes betray him. His confidence, his pride, the only clue.

Fireworks by Grucci. Phil dreams of his face attached to the marquee. Phil dreams of a marquee. Phil still remembers 15 years earlier, 1979 and the world feels limitless and topsy-turvy. The Gruccis pack up their show and head to the Monte Carlo International Fireworks Competition. The big enchilada. The kingmaker. Phil still remembers bringing home gold for the first time in U.S. history. Phil still remembers the press, the fifteen minutes, the headlines. “Grucci in the Sky With Diamonds.” The $20,000 contract for D.C.’s July 4th display. His uncle, only 27 years old, peacocking to The Washington Post.

To say you can fire a show in Washington is to say that you’re one of the best in the country.

When my grandfather came over, there were 11 fireworks companies in Long Island. They either had accidents and blew themselves out or they weren't good enough.

America’s First Family of Fireworks. Phil remembers the designation. The good old days that still haven’t ended. Won’t end until he dies on top. Until he passes on and passes it all on to Chris, starting grade school in the fall now. Pyrotechnics is an art form. Every time you see a firework burst in the sky in its beautiful colors, what you’re really seeing is a chemical reaction. Phil Grucci’s no scientist. But this isn’t science. This is art. This is understanding the medium to validate the message. This is Maestro Phil, Phil Picasso, Phil Jobs unveiling the Macintosh. This Macintosh explodes mid-air. This Macintosh brings in million-dollar contracts, brings families together, brings children to tears.

Without family, Phil is nothing. Without ambition, even less. Phil packs the cannon and ignites.



Brad Efford is the founding editor of The RS 500, a project pairing each of Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time with an original piece of writing. His writing can be found in Puerto del Sol, Pank, Hobart, and elsewhere. He teaches English and history in Austin, TX.

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