Nigel Latta is on a mission to discover how a real explosion differs from a movie explosion. He asks the question: “If it were a real explosion, could I still walk away in slow motion like an action movie hero?”

Real-world stuff (explosions) result in holes in your head and bits of wood in your liver.

Nigel Latta

Nigel Latta Blows Stuff Up
Watch Series 1/Episode 2: Explosions

Science ideas and concepts in Episode 2: Explosions

In between the drama and humour, Nigel introduces a number of important science concepts. This episode explores:

  • the empirical nature of science – scientific understanding is based on evidence
  • oxidationcombustion and chemical reactions
  • changes of states of matter
  • shockwaves.

Nature of science

Scientific understanding is based on observations of the world around us from which interpretations are made. After observing both movie and real explosions, Nigel was able to conclude that real explosions are only safe when they are a long way away.

Resources on the Science Learning Hub provide an in-depth – and safer – means to further explore these concepts.

The empirical nature of science

Most of us would assume that movie explosions are very different to real explosions due to the cost and safety of filming scenes with highly paid actors. But scientific knowledge relies heavily on observation and experimental evidence – rather than assumptions. Nigel consults with pyrotechnic and explosion expert Martin Van Tiel and observes various types of explosions. After experimentation, Nigel concludes: “Based on this evidence, you can walk away from a real explosion like an action movie hero. You just have to be a long, long way away.”

Learn more about observation, investigation and the nature of science.

Observation and science
The ‘Investigating in science’ strand

Activity idea

The empirical nature of science (suitable for all levels)
In these activities, students learn about scientific observation – as opposed to merely looking – and explain why good observation skills are important for scientists.
Observation: learning to see
Observing earthworms
What do we see?
Developing observational skills in younger students
Do you see what I see?

Oxidation, combustion and chemical reactions

Nigel explains that the rate of oxidation and combustion determines the power of an explosion. Rust has a slow rate of oxidation – millimetres per century. Fire is faster – its oxidation and combustion rate is a few centimetres per hour. For an explosion, the rate has to reach metres or even kilometres per second.

Learn more about combustion – a type of chemical reaction.

What is fire?
Chemical reactions and catalysts
Rockets and thrust

Activity idea

Oxidation, combustion and chemical reactions (suitable for all levels)
In this activity, students observe the teacher igniting flour when it is in a basic combustion chamber.
Exploding flour

Oxidation, combustion and chemical reactions (suitable for secondary level)
Elements react with oxygen

Changes of states of matter

Nigel explains that an explosion is “a sudden and violent change of state that produces a shockwave that sometimes destroys things if they are too close”. He demonstrates the energy released during a change of state using boiling water to turn liquid nitrogen into a gas. The energy released was slow and gentle, rather than explosive. To demonstrate a more powerful explosion, Nigel limited the change of state to a smaller space. The increase in released energy was enough to blow 1000 ping pong balls into the air.

Learn more about states of matter and energy.

States of matter
Hidden heat


When a wave moves faster than the speed of sound, it is a shockwave. Like other types of waves, a shockwave carries energy. The movie explosions released heat but no shockwaves. The real explosion combined fuel and an oxidiser. Energy from the real explosion travelled at 8 km/second, creating a shockwave. A shockwave dissipates with distance – that’s why it was safe for Nigel to casually walk like a movie action hero, as long as he was far enough away.

Learn more about waves.

Fundamentals of waves
Waves as energy transfer
Meteoroid explodes over Russia

Useful links

This episode featured expertise from Van Tiel Pyrotechnics. Visit their website to watch some of their uniquely Kiwi pyrotechnic displays.

Nigel Latta is not the only New Zealander who blows stuff up in the name of science education. Dr Michelle Dickinson, aka Nano Girl, has a YouTube channel dedicated to explosions and explanations.

Use literacy resources from the School Journal and Connected to support science understanding:
The mystery of Tunguska Part 4 Number 2 2008
Ber-bang! Bang! Part 1 Number 1 1994
A bit of a bang Part 4 Number 3 2004
Fast Rust Connected Number 3 2013

Learn more about the School Journal and Connected.


    Published 7 May 2015