1953 photos of the chemistry teacher you wish you had

LIFE Alyea 1

This is Hubert Alyea, a Princeton University professor who clearly loves teaching science. “Grimacing with fiendish delight,” LIFE wrote about Alyea in 1953, “he sets off explosions, shoots water pistols and sprays his audience with carbon dioxide in the course of 32 harrowing experiments dramatizing complicated theory.” LIFE With Hubert Alyea: The Science Teacher You Wish You Had


  1. Those look very suspiciously like big bottles of flammable solvents sitting there nest to his explosion.

  2. My chem professor in college (Oregon State, Wendel Slabaugh) was like that.  You’d come into lecture now and then and the front lab bench was covered with stuff and you knew it was Demo(lition) Day.  He’d pour liquid nitrogen into his mouth, blow things, up, etc. – hugely entertaining.

  3. God bless my junior high science teacher, who rolled like this–and this was in the mid-seventies. Putting raw sodium in a water-filled aquarium to show us what would happen (hint: it explodes into flames), showing us what happens when you put a match to a huge, hydrogen-filled balloon (hint: it explodes), pouring liquid carbon dioxide on our desks so that it spilled into our laps. You never forget that stuff.

  4. Yup, college chem professor was all over this.  “Can anyone tell if this room has smoke detectors?   Oh well, we’ll find out…”

  5. I’m pretty sure he’s shouting “I fucking love science”, much like the young woman from that other vintage photo.  Because who doesn’t shout that when they’re blowing something up?

  6. If you were fortunate enough to have a chemistry professor as animated as this gent, how could you not look back fondly on their lectures?
    “I have some handouts for you boys and girls…” *flinging papers wildly into the lecture hall*
    “Has anyone here ever made a Cincinnati Fire Kite?  How about ice cream with liquid nitrogen? No?  Want to learn the science behind it?”

  7. I had a chemistry teacher who I think wanted to be like this. She was funny, smart, had a genuine love of science (she was head of the Science Club), and did as many demonstrations and had us do as many hands-on experiments as the school budget would allow.

    And there lies the rub. This was the late 1980’s, and after earlier decades of budget cuts politicians used the failure of schools to justify more budget cuts. The logic was that since schools were soaking up huge amounts of money and still failing the solution must be to cut funding even more. So twenty of us had to crowd around a table to watch a piece of sodium the size of a pinhead buzz around a dish of water. Or we got to watch our teacher burn a piece of magnesium so small it was almost like watching a flash bulb. Or four of us had to share an experiment originally designed for one.

    There are a lot of teachers who are merely good who could be great if they had the support and resources they need.

    1. Sounds familiar. All my mid-90s chemistry lessons were like this. You could tell that things were scaled back to group experiments, or teacher demonstrations, or even worse, videos of experiments that previously students would have done themselves. I’m sure my chemistry teacher (hi Mr Edwards!) would have been just like this if he could.

  8. Prof. Alyea (aka “Dr. Boom”) was the inspiration for Fred Murray’s Absent Minded Professor.

    Apparently a cop once pulled him over in a car completely filled with mousetraps and ping pong balls.  Professor Alyea explained he was on his way to demonstrate an atomic chain reaction, and the cop misunderstood and nearly arrested him for illegally transporting a nuclear device.

    1. You mean the Thermonuclear fission Lithium reaction on the board? I noticed that too, I think he may have incorrectly notated it as He + Li –> He + He + energy. When he probably meant to write H + Li –> He + He.

      In fact I can be positive he meant to write H + Li and not He + Li as he gives the mass of the reactants as ~8 grams and not the ~11 grams we would expect from He + Li.

      So either he should have written He + 7Li –> He + He + T. Or he really meant to write H + Li –> He + He, with my money on the latter.

      To be honest, I’m not entirely sure if a He + Li reaction is all that likely. Maybe someone who’s actually a physicist could confirm this?

  9. My dad tells a story of his undergraduate days in the 60s when his organic chemistry class were asked to synthesize a toluene compound and one of the students chose trinitrotoluene, leading to an evacuation… (or something similar, I forget the details).

  10. Ah, he reminds me a lot of my high school chemistry teacher.  Most people demonstrate how zinc reacts with hydrogen peroxide using standard 3% peroxide solution, soap, and a 100-mL graduated cylinder.  Not my teacher.  Nope.  30% peroxide (no idea where he found it) and a 2L cylinder.  To this day the ceiling tiles still show signs of the soapy geyser that formed.

    In a less serious vein, my college chemistry professors always used to say “There are only two reasons people major in chemistry: to make drugs or to blow stuff up.”.  None of the (chemistry) faculty made drugs…  :)

  11. I had the pleasure of attending a wonderful chemistry show by Dr. Alyea in the 1980’s.  He was funny and amazingly spry — popping bits of dry ice into his mouth and blowing smoke rings, singing the Princeton fight song in time to a black and orange color-changing reaction, etc.

    Thanks for triggering the fun memory!

  12. My college Chemistry teacher did a hydrogen candle.  A big coffee can inverted with a small hole in the top, propped up on small blocks.  pumped it hull ofg hydrogen then lit the little hole to form a candle.  As he went on with the lecture, the flame would start to flicker and everyone assumes it’s going out; not the hydrogen-oxygen mix inside the can was getting just right.  Suddenly- BAM! and can ricochets off the ceiling from the blast.  Scared the Hell out of everyone!  GREAT stuff!

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