Andrew brings chemistry to life with his spectacular demonstrations, public lectures and TV appearances.
Andrew Szydlo was born in England to Polish parents, who introduced him to chemistry at an early age. Aged nine, they bought him a ‘Kay’s Chemistry Set’, which provided him with his first opportunity to indulge in what was to become a lifelong passion – chemical experiments.
The magic of chemistry
Andrew’s enthusiasm for chemistry peaked when he witnessed a man selling medicine in a market. To prove his point about how acids can burn, he was making fire by mixing aspirins with cough syrup and unfamiliar purple crystals. Andrew was so entranced by the experiment that he decided to try to repeat it himself. He discovered that the unknown ingredient might be potassium permanganate, by using a library book, Chemistry Magic. He promptly purchased some, along with the other reactants and set to work trying to repeat the experiment.
“I realised one of my greatest ambitions – spontaneous combustion – performed in my mother’s kitchen, which almost burnt down.”
At school, Andrew was further inspired by his eccentric chemistry teacher, Mr Burrow (or ‘Bunny’ to his pupils): “His chemical demonstrations inspired me even further to develop a chemical laboratory at home, in which I used to spend many hours.”
Mr Burrow also sparked Andrew’s strong interest in the history of chemistry – in 1963 he wrote a project on “The life and work of Lavoisier” – scored a high mark, and has kept this project at home to this day.
PhD and teaching
Andrew went on to study chemical engineering and industrial safety at university, but immediately afterwards, he returned to his favourite activity; chemical experiments, by becoming a chemistry teacher. Whilst teaching full-time, he enrolled for a PhD researching alchemy and his thesis was later published as a book.
Throughout his teaching career, Andrew has continued demonstrating experiments outside of the classroom. These started off as relatively small chemistry club activities, but quickly escalated into lectures for members of the public.
“Three key words summarise my philosophy in delivering these: education, enlightenment and entertainment.”
Over the past 20 years, these talks have been given to a much wider audience, including schoolchildren, university students, family groups, scouts and those not in mainstream education. He has spoken at birthday parties, festivals and conferences in varied locations, including laboratories, school halls, lecture theatres, sports halls, fields, playgrounds, a disused swimming pool, a kitchen and an automobile workshop.
“My great satisfaction from these activities comes from my own passion and enthusiasm for chemical experiments, and from the sheer delight of enlightening others.”
The future of chemistry
As well as teaching, Andrew takes time to share other skills and hobbies with his students. He teaches car mechanics, runs an automobile society, a beekeeping society and gives photography lessons.
Looking forward, Andrew is confident about chemistry’s future.
“The science of chemistry has a great future. In a world with a rapidly increasing population, there is no end in sight for opportunities in the chemical sciences. The chemical industry, chemistry of the oceans, environmental and green chemistry will all play leading roles. Not to mention pharmaceutical and agricultural chemistry.”
Words by Debbie Houghton and Andrew Szydlo
Images courtesy of Andrew Szydlo
Published January 2015