Late at night in a London museum, crowds of people, cocktails in hand, huddle around a Petri dish in the dark, mesmerized by a green laser bouncing off its surface. In the middle of the dish, a glistening puddle of mercury, throbbing outwards and inwards, produces swirling patterns of green light on the wall. “It has taken me four years to get this experiment to work,” says Andrea Sella, a professor of chemistry at University College London.
Sella (BSc 1984 Trinity), who makes numerous public and television appearances in England, curated the night’s “Elements”-themed show. He helped transform the four-storey headquarters of The Wellcome Collection in London, England, into a venue for short plays, lectures and explosive experiments about iodine, mercury, oxygen and arsenic. Wellcome is a medical research charity, and these four elements have been widely used in medicine throughout history. More than just a crowd-pleasing array of twinkling tricks, “Elements” was designed to illustrate the complex relationship humans have with base matter, and the phenomenal power that the simplest of chemical concoctions can have over our health.
“If you were to remove the practice of chemistry from our world, everything around us would virtually stop,” says Sella, who advocates tirelessly for his chosen field. I first met him at an event last year called “Guerilla Science.” Sella’s performance at that event – an hour-long string of experiments staged with a physicist colleague – featured liquid nitrogen, flaming magnesium, and an explosion of blue light known as the “barking dog,” so called because, when done right, it produces a fantastic booming noise.
Sella says it was U of T where he learned to study not only the way matter works, but to publicly showcase his passion and reveal to non-scientists the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary. “Toronto was where I first staged chemical performances,” he recalls.
When he’s not striving to broaden the appeal of chemistry to everyone who abandoned it in high school, Sella devotes himself to the nuts and bolts of chemical research at University College London. One of his specialties is the development of chemicals involved in the creation of biodegradable polymer plastics from renewable resources such as corn. His interest in the environment extends to his persona life, too. He recently declined the chance to return to Toronto for a stage performance because he tries to keep his carbon footprint low by avoiding flying.