Generations of Science Oxford devotees have been spellbound over the years by Natalie Ford's deft and striking displays of combustion in all its glory, as part of the Fire Show which has been a popular feature of their public education programme.
The 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London – which raged from Sunday 2nd to Wednesday 5th September 1666 – gave Science Oxford the idea of combining historical storytelling with scientific explanation to lend an even more dramatic aspect to the demonstrations and to bring aspects of the story of the Great Fire to life before our eyes.
Rowena Fletcher-Wood (inexplicably dressed as a Victorian gentleman) represented the historical side of the evening, reading the story of the Great Fire often in the words of Samuel Pepys, punctuated by explanatory interjections and demonstrations by Ian Snell, who gave possible or probable explanations of the causes and course of the Fire.
His exciting creation of a fireball on stage demonstrated how, although flour would not catch fire if packed in a sack, it would become hugely flammable if blown on a draught of air, and hence how the Fire could have started through the simple agency of wind through an open window blowing puffs of flour over an unextinguished candle.
From this, the pair moved on to describe and explain why and how the fire spread so quickly, why it was so difficult to put out, and the scientific phenomena behind contemporary descriptions of the nature of the Fire and its effects (e.g. the colours of the flames burning in the Thames Street warehouses, depending on the nature of their contents).
They also explored what methods we might use to fight such a fire today – many of which are, of course, based on scientific knowledge which was not yet available in 1666.
Science Oxford are experts in the accessible communication of scientific concepts and processes, and the evening was very illuminating, in both senses of the word! The show was a joy to watch, full of visual treats, and it brought both the science and the history to life – from the row of little model houses set alight to the 'empty tea-bag' demonstration explaining what Pepys might have meant by the term 'firedrops'. Science Oxford has recently been seeking to widen its audience and its appeal by cross-cultural collaborations – such as the recent Medicine in Shakespeare event with Creation Theatre – and we look forward to more such ventures in the future.