The University's Dr Roy Lowry explodes 1,650 ping-pong balls

From setting fire to school classrooms to providing the pyrotechnics for the front covers of four JG Ballard novels, the work of Dr Roy Lowry has never been anything less than explosive. He has, variously, fired 1,600 ping-pong balls out of a cannon in the Roland Levinsky Building, exploded packets of Angel Delight, and set a world record for the number of fireworks released in 30 seconds (56,405 to be precise).

Little wonder the Associate Professor of Chemistry has, during the course of 25 years of teaching and inspiring outreach work, earned the affectionate title of ‘Rocket Man’.

But behind the goggles – and at a suitably removed minimum distance – is an academic fiercely committed to the principles of pedagogy and peer engagement.

“I think of my practical demonstrations as ‘coat hooks in the brain’,” Roy says. “They create the ‘wow’, which enables you to follow up with a whole number of ‘hows’. It’s a great way of changing gears when you’re asking someone to listen to you for 50 minutes. And I’m a big believer in applying everything I do to a practical level.” 

It’s a belief born out of his own experiences – the good (an inspiring chemistry teacher at school) and the bad (“I did my BSc at a well-respected red brick university. It was very academic, in that it was ‘of no practical use whatsoever!’”), the latter of which turned him off science for several years. Instead, he indulged a passion for stagecraft by running his own business, Tarsus Lights and Pyrotechnics, something that, ironically, he’s ultimately ended up integrating into his pedagogical approach.

After completing a PhD, Roy took up a research role with the then British Gas, and found himself put forward as the man who presented findings on a regular basis to the chief executive. It was during these sessions that he began to think that he might have the makings of a teacher, and so it was in 1989 that he joined Plymouth on a lectureship post in the former Department of Environmental Science.

“For the first ten years, that first lecture of the academic year you could hear my knees knocking,” he says. “But I’ve worked hard and developed over time.

“If it is done right, a lecture is a theatrical experience – you walk out in front of an audience and you have to hold their attention for much longer than under normal circumstances. And it doesn’t matter what has gone on before you get there – your computer has crashed, or you’ve had a row over the breakfast table that morning – the lecture must be the most captivating topic on the planet, and you have to make it so.”

Roy’s full teaching portfolio, covering all three years of BSc (Hons) Chemistry, Year 1 of BSc (Hons) Environmental Sciences, the Extended Science (Foundation Year) course, and a communication module on the MSc Geology has, alongside a greater variability in the type of room he delivers from, meant that he’s had to scale down the number of demonstrations that he conducts each year. In their place he’s focused upon analogy, group work, and videos and podcasts of experiments that he’s staged.

But when it comes to engaging children and other members of the public through widening participation work on behalf of the University, the sky – or the ceiling at least – is the limit.

“For me, experiments like this are the shop window for science,” he says. “One of my favourites is where I produce a two-storey sheet of flame from a single packet of Angel Delight. It demonstrates that you can have all the fuel in the world, but if you don’t have air then you won’t get the reaction. I did it in a school once, and the flames went right across the ceiling!”

Dr Roy Lowry

Dr Roy Lowry

My hope is that fireworks will excite young (and not so young) minds to ask how and why such things happen and hence to delve deeper into science.

Read more about Dr Roy Lowry

Recognition of Roy’s show, ‘Pyromania’, came when he was asked by the Royal Institution to take a lecture in London, and he delivered it from the same theatre that hosts the Christmas Lectures – a series that had so entranced him as a boy. He has also recently been called upon by artist Stanley Donwood to provide the pyrotechnics for the artwork adorning four JG Ballard novels, the complete set of which were recently displayed in the Roland Levinsky Building as part of the Plymouth International Book Festival.

And then there are the private and public firework shows that Roy is invited to stage, through a private company run by a good friend.

“They are really intensive – often up to 100 man hours to set up,” Roy says. “It’s a great contrast to working at the University, where you make a change to something and ten months later you’ll see the result. Here it’s hammers and gaffer tape, computers and channels, physically intensive – and then after ten minutes you hear the roar of the crowd and you tidy up! Not bad for someone who was scared of fireworks as a child!”

A father of four, and now a grandfather to four (with a fifth on the way), Roy also squeezes in drumming and support for the Plymouth Christian Centre into the air pockets of his life. And nearly a quarter of a century on from first walking through the doors at the University, there’s little sign that Roy is in danger of fizzling out.

“I think I have always stayed true to my core principles,” he says. “I try to teach through real-world scenarios, and I still believe that we’re on a journey together with our students.”

Dr Roy Lowry, Associate Professor in Physical Chemistry, said:

Experiments like this are the shop window for science. My hope is that such experiments will excite young (and not so young) minds to ask how and why such things happen and hence to delve deeper into science

Liquid nitrogen and ping-pong balls collide


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