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Creative science: A fireworks display using real flowers

Creative science: A fireworks display using real flowers

by Matthew Tosh, science presenter, pyrotechnician and education consultant. He tweets at @MatthewTosh

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Bonfire Night is upon us and it’s one of the busiest nights of the year for pyrotechnicians. For the discerning pyrotechnician, creating a fireworks display is a creative union of science and art in which the night sky is the pyro artist’s canvas.

After all, the pyrotechnician needs to entertain the watching crowd by considering the positioning of different colours, effects and contrast created by each firework as it expels its burning chemicals to create incredible and stunning effects.

In this manner, creating a fireworks display is not dissimilar to arranging a spray of flowers. In fact, several firework arrangements are known as bouquets. And it’s not without coincidence that there has long been a historic connection between fireworks and flowers with many of our most popular fireworks, such as peony, dahlia and chrysanthemum, also being the names of everyday garden flowers.

Dr. Simon Werrett, author of Fireworks: Pyrotechnic Arts and Sciences in European History, explains more:

Fireworks and flowers have a long history of associations around the world. In the 1880s, pyrotechnicians in Britain developed ‘transformation pieces’ which displayed the shape of a thistle or rose in a fiery outline before transforming into a portrait of a famous person, and as early as 1778 a firework display staged in Canada included a grand ‘bouquet of rockets’, a term still used today to describe a multitude of rockets bursting in the air in the shape of a bunch of flowers.”

So with this in mind, when we were approached by Interflora to create a world first – a fireworks display made from real flowers - we couldn’t hide our excitement. The aim of the project was to turn history on its head, with flowers exploding to look like the fireworks that are named after them.

Clearly Interflora wanted to use the up-coming Bonfire Night to create media attention, but at the same time it was refreshing to see a brand willing to investigate the basic boundaries of pyrotechnics. And of course, anything that brings the media spotlight onto creative applications of science is fantastic in my book.

What made this project particularly interesting to me was that Interflora had realised the significant link between flowers and fireworks which made this much more than just a stunt.

Take a look at what we created: http://youtu.be/wt32qGZqz8Y

And the ‘making of’ film (which I appear in) here: http://www.interflora.co.uk/content/firework-flowers/

The footage looks stunning, but in order to achieve what we wanted there were a number of questions we needed to answer. Firstly, we didn’t know if creating this display would even be possible. Would the delicate petals burn, be scorched or shredded by the burst or lift charges? The rapid acceleration could damage them. And if they did survive the pyro, would the petals flutter in the air long enough to look like a real firework display to the naked eye?

Petals are really delicate and so to achieve these results we couldn't use anything too powerful. For example, a CO2 blaster or a "mine" effect could rip the petals apart.

We enlisted Rob Farrow, Special Projects Director at Alchemy Fireworks, who helped to create our final display.

There were a number of challenges to the project,” explains Rob. “Petals are an irregular shape; they don't flutter like custom-made confetti, so we had to create a lot of different shots. We also wanted to use cannons and airbursts which meant packing the petals in tightly, without breaking them, to get a decent mass and projection from the launch. Petals are also small and they don’t travel far.

“In the end, the effect of each ‘flowerwork’ lasted just a few seconds. That’s why we brought in the slow motion camera to enhance the effect, make it longer lasting, and achieve a stunning display which looks just like real fireworks.”

As Rob mentions, a super slow motion camera was used to capture the action. Filming at a rate of up to 1,600 frames per second, the Phantom HD camera allowed our team of videographers to document each explosion and flower petals in minute detail.

I’m sure you’ll agree that the visuals they captured were absolutely stunning. Mixing flowers and fireworks, it seems, has long been a good idea.

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