Geeking Out on the Periodic Table / by Leslie

When we were at the American Museum of Natural History for Quinn's birthday, my sister-in-law wanted to buy the boys fun placemats. Quinn picked out the dinosaurs, of course, and Milo picked out a colorful placemat of the periodic table. I thought it was very cool myself and I love to encourage Milo towards science. After getting it home and having a closer look at it, I discovered that it was far more than just a fancy periodic table.

Theodore Gray has been able to combine his love of science, talent for photography and his clever humor to create a very interesting and exciting look at the dozens of elements that are the building blocks for everything single thing on earth.

A diamond is forever, unless you heat it too much and it burns up into carbon dioxide gas. Graphite is also pure carbon and widely used in pencils, but not nearly as pretty. In this poster, pretty trumps practical.

This foil is what remained after useful shapes were stamped out, but what those shapes were useful for remains a mystery to me. Pure thorium metal like this is quite rare, and not easily obtained.

These nodules were created by pouring molten aluminum into a bucket of water. There was no reason to do this other than my desire to create a sample to photograph for a certain periodic table poster.

Bismuth loves to form beautiful crystals. You can make small ones without even trying, but one this big requires very pure bismuth and careful control of the cooling rate as the crystal is formed.

The placemat is just one iteration of the information that he has amassed. There is a poster, a book, an Ipad application and the website, each giving us a slightly different experience. The book is full of beautifully designed spreads and large scale images that really let you see the materials.

On the website, if you click on an element and view the details page, you can scroll down and see additional photographs of ways that the element is used and it's applications. There is occasionally humorous and cryptic information about how he obtained some of the materials. On the Thorium page, you can find this:

"Cutout sheets, 20g. This was part of a larger batch purchased by Max Whitby for his commercial element collections: I piggybacked the purchase of this material from the same source, for a sum that must remain confidential per our agreement with the source, who also wishes to remain anonymous. (Nothing illegal mind you, ownership and sales of thorium metal in small quantities is perfectly legal, they just don't want anyone hassling them to sell more of it.)

This sheet is about 1/16" thick, not just a foil, a real plate, heavy due to the high density. The photograph shows it as it originally came to me, it is now 3/4" shorter because I cut off a 15 gram (out of a total of 50 grams originally) rectangle of it to trade for a depleted uranium projectile. Please note that if you're looking for a serious chuck of thorium metal (a) good luck and (b) don't bother asking me, I am not prepared to trade any of this material for blood or money. The only thing I might trade it for is a seriously unusual sample of something I don't have anything like: A significant historical object, genuine DU tank penetrator, that kind of thing."

I just find that whole description fascinating on so many levels and WHAT is a DU tank penetrator?! The way that Theodore tells the stories behind each element is pure entertainment. Secretive buying and selling of rare and possibly dangerous metals aside, the passion and enthusiasm that the author has for his work is apparent throughout the project. The life he has brought to the Periodic Table is incredible.

In addition, Tom Lehrer's famous Elements song now has a visual animation to go with it:

If you thought that was fun, check out Daniel Radcliffe singing the whole thing on a British talk show. I had no idea he was a geek too!! With a great memory!!

I think what is so remarkable about this project is the visual display of information. I am a visual person and if I can see something and make it real, my understanding and memory of it is really improved. I think for students, this is an incredible tool for learning, and every science classroom should have a large poster hanging on the wall and a handout for each student.

Theodore Grey has done us a great service in harnessing his passion and directing it into a project in which we can all share in his knowledge and enthusiasm for the elements that make up our world.

*All images used with permission from Theodore Gray*