Why are we so fascinated with fireworks?

The firework display industry in our country is positively booming. Think of any major sporting event – from the Olympic Games to the Rugby World Cup – summer parties and festivals, weddings and even the odd funeral, and fireworks have become a technicolour backdrop to a moment of celebration or remembrance. We’ve come a long way from the days when fireworks were largely confined to a night or two in November, and New Year celebrations in major cities.

Here in Plymouth, of course, fireworks figure spectacularly in the city’s calendar, with the annual British Firework Championships at the heart of the pyrotechnic popularity boom. This week will see the 20th staging of the event, which brings ‘firers’ from around the country to entertain and amaze crowd in their thousands over Plymouth Hoe. On a warm and clear evening, with reds, blues, greens and golds blooming in the sky and reflected in the water, it is as spectacular a sight as one could wish for.

People are fascinated by pyrotechnics. In an age when highly-polished and sophisticated computer generated images are the norm, a live firework display feels like ‘border country’. It’s a rare mix of controlled, careful choreography with that exciting sense that anything might happen. For, while almost all large displays are fired electrically, once that electrical pulse is turned into fire, the device is unstoppable. It’s a hypnotic cocktail of science and spectacle, raw power and beauty, colour and noise.

And here’s another reason why we love fireworks – they are transient, and we know they will inevitably come to an end leaving us wanting more. At a time when we are able to find anything on the web, and our favourite television shows are held in stasis for us, accessible at the touch of a button, we, the firework spectator, have no agency over the display nor the length of time they light up our retinas. Even a large ‘weeping willow’ lasts only a few seconds as it hangs in the sky. To appreciate a display, you have to be there – like a great gig or a live sporting event. Clips delivered via the internet are pallid representations of the real; no technology can replicate the vibration that you feel in your stomach when that shell explodes in the sky; no camera can truly capture the kaleidoscope of colour and light. A good choreographer will ensure that there’s an ebb and flow to a display so that the audience is wondering what’s next at some points and are fully aware that there’s a build up to something big at others. Some of my favourite displays are synchronised to music.

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

I have had the privilege of being a ‘firer’ for a while now, and even though I know the huge amount of preparation that goes on behind the scenes, it does nothing to diminish the thrill I experience at a good show. They can take up to 100 person-hours to set up (yes – there’s quite a few lady firers) and it’s physically intensive – all gaffer tape, hammers and cabling. I do a number of shows every year thanks to a friend who now runs his own display company. We met ten years ago, when I was part of the team that set the then world record for the most number of rockets fired in 30 seconds – 56,405! They let me push the button to set them all off – not bad for someone who was scared of fireworks as a child!

I use some of that thrill and tension in my work as a chemistry lecturer, and in particular the ‘Pyromania’ show that I take to schools and use to engage people with science. In fact, it’s earned me the affectionate nickname of ‘Rocket Man’ at Plymouth University. Students, schoolchildren, even adults, don’t want to listen to me talking about chemical processes for 50 minutes! So I use practical demonstrations, which I like to think of as ‘coat hooks in the brain’. They create the ‘wow’, which enables me to follow up with a whole number of ‘hows’. Why talk about how firework colours are created when you can make six feet of flame in red, yellow or green? Experiments like this are the shop window for science. My hope is always that they will excite minds, prompting them to ask how and why such things happen and hence to delve deeper into science. 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 oxygen from the air then you won’t get the reaction. I did it in a school once, and the flames went right across the ceiling!

Flames across the ceiling, fireworks arcing across the night sky: Guy Fawkes might have failed in his gunpowder plot, and we’ve pretty much forgotten the historic symbolism behind such displays – but the legacy is alive and well. Fireworks continue to thrill and amaze minds of all ages and at all times of the year and as far as I can see, always will!