Popular Science’s Theodore Gray on The Elements (and Hillbilly hot tubs)

If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to chuck an explosive metal into a lake, or whip up some homemade ice cream using liquid nitrogen, Theodore Gray can help you out.

Gray is the author of Mad Science: Experiments You Can Do At Home – But Probably Shouldn’t, a how-to guide of fun (and sometimes dangerous) ways to harness simple chemical reactions to do everything from copper-plating your iPod to using quicklime to heat a hot tub “hillbilly-style.”

Gray’s latest book is The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe. The Elements features full-color photographs of iron, gold, neon, lead, and each of the other hundred or so chemical elements that make up our world, with extra attention given to the especially beautiful and interesting elements.

Gray spoke with the Toledo Free Press about Mad Science, The Elements, and the state of science education in America. According to Gray, there’s really no secret to getting kids interested in science.

“All children are inherently scientists. They’re curious about the world; they’re constantly asking why, why, why, why, why; they want to know how everything works, and why things are the way they are, and that is essentially the definition of science, right? There’s stuff out there, and we want to know why is it that way, and what can we do with it, and what can we do to get something to happen that we want to have happen. And that’s really just built into children, and it has to be beaten out over the course of many years of schooling to get somebody to not be interested in science. I had the good fortune of going to a school that didn’t beat it out of me, so I remained interested.”

Gray’s interest eventually led him to a regular science column in Popular Science, “Gray Matter” (http://www.popsci.com/graymatter), from which the experiments described in Mad Science were taken, and to a quest to collect and photograph samples of virtually every element in the periodic table, including some of the unstable ones. Although his element collection has enough radioactive material to raise an eyebrow or two at the Department of Homeland Security, it was actually a non-radioactive – but militarily sensitive – sample of niobium that caught the attention of the FBI, who stopped by for a visit to confiscate it.

“They were very friendly,” said Gray. “I mean, they said, oh yeah, we know who you are, and what you’re doing, and one guy reads my column. So they were almost apologetic about having to take my stuff away, which is nice.”

Even after losing the niobium to the feds, Gray has plenty of other samples, which he has lovingly catalogued in both The Elements, and on his website at http://www.periodictable.com. The domain name was originally owned by another fan of science, but after years of persistence, Gray was eventually able to persuade the owner to part with it, in part by promising that the periodic table would be appropriately honored, and given the presentation it deserves.

“Everyone remembers the periodic table from their high school, and it was just this kind of thing on the wall with a bunch of numbers and figures and letters and things that didn’t make a whole lot of sense and didn’t seem very interesting. But of course, if you show people what’s really behind it, it’s much more interesting, and people like to be shown why things that they feel they ought to be interested in actually are interesting.”

“What’s important about teaching the public about science is showing people why science and chemistry and elements and things like that are actually interesting, beautiful things.”

Interview transcript

What were you originally going to speak in Toledo about?

Well, probably Elements, it was for a chemistry group, and I’ve done a number of talks like this around different places, basically talking about a combination of the two books, essentially. What’s important about teaching the public about science is showing people why science and chemistry and elements and things like that are actually interesting, beautiful things.

I think that one of the reasons people like The Elements and like my periodic table posters also, which are basically the same kind of pictures except in poster form, is that everyone remembers the periodic table from their high school, and it was just this kind of thing on the wall with a bunch of numbers and figures and letters and things that didn’t make a whole lot of sense and didn’t seem very interesting. But of course, if you show people what’s really behind it, it’s much more interesting, and people like to be shown why things that they feel they ought to be interested in actually are interesting.

Mad Science and Elements both came out in ’09, right?

Yeah. Mad Science is based on 5 years of Popular Science columns, so in a sense, it came out one chapter a month for the past five years, and then we put it all together into the book. And likewise, the Elements book, I’ve been working on that for many years too, putting it up on my website, one element at a time, and then we put it all together into the book. So they kind of came out together, but it’s not like they’re just few months’ work each, they’re actually five or six or seven years work in each one.

So how did you get interested in science when you were a small boy?

Well, I think everyone is… all children are inherently scientists, right? They’re curious about the world, they’re constantly asking why, why, why, why, why, they want to know how everything works, and why things are the way they are, and that is essentially the definition of science, right? There’s stuff out there, and we want to know why is it that way, and what can we do with it, and what can we do to get something to happen that we want to have happen. And that’s really just built into children, and it has to be beaten out over the course of many years of schooling to get somebody to not be interested in science. I had the good fortune of going to a school that didn’t beat it out of me, so I remained interested.

Although, I ended up actually spending a couple of decades doing software instead, which is a quite related sort of undertaking. So yeah, I think it’s an important point that children really are inherently interested in science right from the start, and it’s only a question of whether that is nurtured and maintained or kind of stomped out.

What do you think your teachers did right that kept you from being discouraged from it, and having it stomped out?

Well, I think it’s good to have a teacher who is themselves actually interested in it and knowledgeable about it. This is a particular problem these days, and has been for a couple of decades, that math and science teachers in particular often are… they didn’t become math and science teachers because they’re interested in math and science, they’re sort of generic teachers who took a course on how to teach math and science and they’re not really that interested or that skillful in those subjects, and that really shines through to the students immediately and communicates a sort of lack of enthusiasm on the part of the teacher.

I went to a lab school run by the local university where the teachers were in many cases graduate students or people who sort of had a real, personal interest in the subject they were teaching, and that really just comes through, and if you have questions that go beyond the material, if they will actually go with that and answer them in relatively deep ways, that’s just a much better experience than someone who’s essentially teaching out of the textbook and doesn’t really know much more beyond the chapter that you’ve gotten to, which is unfortunately quite common in this country.

Do you think that’s as a result of just general declining scientific literacy, or is it people that are scientifically inclined aren’t inclined to go into education anymore?

There are a couple of factors… There’s a general decline, although I think the general decline is caused by poor schools, more than the other way around. This is a big topic, and there are entire books that have been written about the question of “why have we screwed up our education system.” I think if you had to boil it down to one thing, it would be the notion of the professional schools of education being able to produce teachers who can teach anything. There’s the sort of the way that teaching is organized is, if you want to become a teacher, you go to a school of education, they will teach you how to teach, and the most important thing is that you have a teaching certificate that says you are a certified teacher, and you’ve learned all these teaching skills. And there’s very little in there about actually knowing the material that you’re supposed to be teaching.

And this works reasonably well for subjects like English, maybe, where… well, I’m not sure it even works there. And it certainly doesn’t work in math and science, where these are in fact very deep subjects, where it takes years of study and enthusiasm to really get a feeling for what they’re about, and where the students will often be able to ask questions that go way beyond what any sort of curriculum materials can tell you, where if you have somebody who’s actually an expert in, or at least interested in, and spends time learning about math or science-type topics, they’ll be able to interact with the student in a meaningful way, as opposed to just repeating what they had read in the textbook the night before.

But that requires that one hire people with a physics degree to be a physics teacher, or a math degree to be a math teacher. So then, obviously they need some additional training and skill in the art of teaching, which I don’t want to imply that’s not in itself a complex professional occupation, but it’s just not enough to be a professional teacher. And then of course you get into money, because somebody who has a degree in physics or a degree in math or a degree in chemistry and also has the personality and the skills, the people skills to be an effective teacher, well, that’s somebody who’s in considerable demand and can probably make quite a bit more money than a public school teacher makes, doing some other job.

And there are union issues, where the teachers unions don’t like the idea that one should hire somebody who’s not sort of a member of the professional teachers’ guild, and that’s a bad thing as far as they’re concerned, and that introduces additional barriers. It’s a multi-faceted layering of problems, some of them directly traceable to money, some of them directly traceable to the institutions of teacher education, and some of them traceable to the lack of the pool of people; we’re now into the second or third generation where if you have a teacher that grew up under a dysfunctional math education system, they’re not going to be an effective math teacher, or at least it’s a lot harder. So things are kind of getting to a bad state there.

I wasn’t around in the fifties, but it seems as if there was more of a national emphasis on science as a way to catch up with the Russians…

Well then it was Sputnik. Sputnik was a real thing. I was just talking to a teacher friend of mine who’s old enough that we was an active participant in that particular incident, and he said it really did have a significant effect over the course of many years to energize people, and say, whoa, this is really a problem, and we need to focus on this and there were lots of people running around trying to have new ideas, and fix problems and start new curriculum programs and new schools, and it had a good effect for a period of time.

And actually, there’s a name for this, it’s called the Hawthorne effect, which says that any new educational initiative will raise scores, will raise student performance. It makes no difference what the content of the program is, or what its philosophy is, if it’s new, students will do better. And the reason, of course, is that if it’s new, it’s interesting to the teachers too, and the best and most innovative teachers will spend more time actually interacting with students and being fully engaged with the process because they’re trying out this new program that’s exciting and going to be great. And that alone, simply teachers paying attention and having more energy is what causes the students to do better, much more so than any of the details of what particular educational philosophy is behind the curriculum. And so Sputnik, you could say, was a giant nationwide Hawthorne effect, where everyone was paying more attention and spending more time and effort on it, and right now we’re kind of in – and have been for some time – in a sort of an apathy phase, where there’s not nearly enough money or enthusiasm being put into it.

If you want to look at a bright side to something like global warming, we are a species that tends to respond to crisis only when necessary, so we have some really dramatic global warming-type problems popping up, that’s the kind of thing that would cause people to say, whoa, this is a real problem, we’d better start educating people, we’d better start working on this a lot more seriously. And it may take something of that magnitude to kind of really change course and get back to a society that’s organized around spending time and effort on things like education rather that, I don’t know, football, or whatever it is that people spend time and effort on these days.

But with global warming, do you think that that could be similar to the Y2K scenario, where it’s a victim of its own success? If you actually get the people behind fixing it, then people later will say, well, it wasn’t a big deal, it didn’t happen.

Well, I mean, I hope so! Right? I mean, it would be great if, just like with Y2K, there could have been many more negative effects than there were, but they got fixed ahead of time. I think in that case, it was also somewhat more hype about it and exaggeration of the real dangers, in the case of Y2K. But nevertheless, there would have been a huge amount of stupid hassles going on if people hadn’t dealt with it. And I would certainly hope in the case of global warming that we don’t have to actually ruin the world in order to prove the point that it was actually a problem.

It does sort of go into crisis mode, though; people don’t really pay attention to things, as you say, until it’s really…

My personal guess it that it will go into crisis, because people simply aren’t going to do anything about it until it is in fact a major ongoing crisis. At which point it will, of course, be a whole lot harder to solve, so in that sense you can call me pessimistic. On the other hand, I think that when it does go into crisis mode, a solution will be found, or multiple, overlapping solutions. And things will get dealt with at tremendous cost, financial and human cost and there will be tremendous disasters and catastrophes worldwide, but it will get better. So I’m a combination pessimist and optimist about that.

The Elements, 2009

When it comes to America’s looking at the “bad guys,” the Russians in the fifties and the Middle East today, do you think there’s a difference in how, in the fifties people would want to outwit the Russians with science, and now we just sort of want to blow up the bad guys?

Hmm. That’s an interesting question.

Obviously we’re doing some things, using various surveillance technologies, but it doesn’t seem as ingrained in the culture, I guess.

Yeah. That is a very interesting question, I’ve not thought about that. One thing that immediately comes to mind is that of course, in the fifties, there were also people who just wanted to blow them up, and I wonder, since we didn’t end up blowing them up, I wonder to what extent there’s some selective memory. And there’s obviously people today who also are in favor of being a little more sensible and dealing with problems than just saying “let’s blow it all up.” But, yeah, I don’t know. I wouldn’t really have much to say about that since I haven’t thought about it.

Do you think that there are more fruitful results to be had for looking past element 118, or have we reached the point of diminishing returns?

Well, I don’t know, in terms of actual, practical usefulness, that point was reached… Curium, maybe, is the last one that’s really actually useful for anything. The ones beyond 100 or so are really strictly laboratory curiosities. There may be some mildly interesting physics to be learned from doing it, whether there’s any value in what’s beyond 118 other than the basic physics that people seem to think is worth it.

There’s some theories that there could be elements beyond there that are relatively stable; I think there’s no question they would still be highly radioactive, but they could be slightly more stable than some of the ones up to 118, but it’s not clear that that would really be any good for anything. So I don’t know, I think 118 is enough.

The biggest objection I have to somebody discovering one past 118 is that it’s going completely mess up the periodic table layout.

Need the “g” orbitals…

Yeah, and you have to add a new row, and not only is it a new row, but it’s a new block.

Block of 18, right?

I think it’s… that sounds plausible. Yeah, I’d have to go back…

10 is the “d” orbitals, I think, and then 14 is the “f” orbitals…

That sounds right. I think so. Anyway, it would be horrible, because where are you going to put it? It’s bad enough when Glenn Seaborg went and forced us all to have the whole extra row for his actinides that he almost single-handed discovered most of that row, or at least had a hand in it. So, there just isn’t room for another row, because it will be sparsely populated and uninteresting. So I’m hoping the convention develops that you just kind of put a footnote somewhere saying there’s a couple more of these but no one really cares about them. That footnote would apply to almost everything past 100 anyway; they’re certainly of no consequence to any practical applications in the world outside of basic research. And nobody’s making any, it’s not like there’s somebody making a bunch of 105 to study or something, they made two atoms of it and claimed their little paper and got to name it.

I’ve seen in science fiction movies, they’ll have a giant periodic table that stretches into the hundreds; is there a practical limit on how big even the most unstable element can get?

Well, I don’t think anyone really knows that. The element number is just a number, 347, right, you could imagine a nucleus with that many protons in it and some number of neutrons, and that would be element 347. The only question really is… well there are two questions. One is: could you put it together? And how long would it stick if you did put it together? And there are various calculations that you could do, but none of them are really absolutely definitive. It seems pretty unlikely that there would be any arrangement of neutrons and protons that would be stable that’s anything bigger than 100. Or I guess actually, 84 is the last… no, 83 is the last stable element, and even it’s not technically entirely stable.

So yeah, I mean, who knows, it could be various exotic science fiction materials that are essentially compacted nuclear material on a macroscopic scale, like neutron star-type material. I don’t know that one can definitively rule it out yet, because the physics is not 100% understood, but there’s certainly no evidence that there’s any possible way of making it or that it would last for more than a fraction of a nanosecond if you did.

But it would be kind of neat if you could, because if you could make some neutron star material, that would be pretty cool stuff.

Probably get confiscated from you like the niobium if you did.

Not to mention it would fall through the floor and possibly make it to the center of the earth.

Theo Gray’s Mad Science: Experiments You Can Do at Home – But Probably Shouldn’t, 2009

So what was that like, did you just get a call from the FBI?

Yeah, actually they left a voice mail message saying I should call them back, and it was like a week after I’d gotten back from China. So I think that if they’d called the receptionist a week before and found out that I was in China; that would have been an even more interesting story. Because, you know, if you’ve got secret missile parts and you happen to be in China when the FBI calls, that’s probably not good.

At least you got a picture of it before they took it back.

Right, yeah, well we had it thoroughly photographed. And they were very friendly, I mean, they said, oh yeah, we know who you are, and what you’re doing, and one guy reads my column, one of the agents that came. So they were almost apologetic about having to take my stuff away, which is nice. And they didn’t mention, for example, the enriched uranium fuel pellet which is listed on my website. I’m not supposed have that either, but apparently they either didn’t notice or didn’t care about that one.

They must have figured, what’s a little uranium between friends?

It’s technically not… you’re allowed to have uranium. I’ve got, I think, I’m up to about 14 pounds of uranium. You’re allowed to have up to 15 as a private citizen with no special license. But it can’t be enriched. And the fuel pellet is this tiny little thing, but it’s isotopically enriched and fissionable uranium, and you’re not allowed to have any amount of that at all, for any reason, unless you’re a nuclear power plant, or something like that. Or a government, or whatever is a suitable institution. But these pellets are actually fairly common, and they’re such a tiny amount, so there’s no actual danger to it. But while they were around confiscating stuff, I thought they might come and take that one too, but they didn’t.

One of the things that I found interesting about, actually, just the back of the book is the Oliver Sacks blurb. How did you get to know Oliver Sacks?

Let me think, how did I first meet him… I think… I mean, he wrote this book which sort of inspired the whole thing. I don’t know if you’ve read that anywhere, the story of why I…

Uncle Tungsten? I loved that book. I got that a few years ago, it’s one of my favorites.

That was a great book, right? That book what was caused me to build the periodic table in the first place, and start putting elements in it, and it kind of was the beginning of what led to that book [The Elements], which also led to my writing a Popular Science column, and therefore led to Mad Science, so in a sense you could say that Oliver Sacks is completely responsible for both of those books, and my website and everything else.

So at some point I think I wrote him a letter, saying, by the way, great book, this is what got me started, and then we were on a couple of radio shows that had both of us as guests, and so I ended up going to visit him a couple of times, and I think he’s pleased to see what his book has kind of led to, and was happy to write these blurbs, which is nice, because it’s good to have blurbs like that. People like him, you don’t get blurbs like that for just anything.

You have periodictable.com; how were you able to get that? Were you one of the first ones to think of that being a viable domain name, or did you have to buy it from somebody?

Well, I had to buy it. It was taken very early in the Internet… when was it first registered, certainly by the late 90s it had been registered, I think even earlier than that. I mean, it’s such an obvious thing, and it was owned by a guy called Roy Alexander, and he’d registered it long, long ago, and he actually designed his own special arrangement of the periodic table called the Alexander Arrangement, which is sort of a 3-D looping kind of a thing, and he sells paper models of it that he puts together into the 3-D structure, and he had the domain, and at some point I just decided, after I had my poster and I had periodictabletable.com for a long time, I decided that I was going to mount a campaign to try to see if I could get periodictable.com from him.

It’s really hard to get people to part with their domain names. They cost so little to maintain, and even if you’re not actually doing anything very significant with it, I think people have a psychological attachment; they always feel like, well, I could do something with it, I might in the future, and it’s only costing me nine dollars a year to keep it up, or something. So I had to convince him that not only that I was willing to pay enough money for it to make it worth his while, but also that, you’ll notice that if you look on it now, there’s a link to his website at the bottom fairly prominently with a picture of his arrangement, and I had to convince him that I would be a worthy new caretaker of this domain, and would continue to cooperate with him, which I do, and in fact we’re planning a photo version of his 3-D arrangement. And, you know, that I would put it to good use and would honor his domain name, and it took about a year of kind of working at this, but I really thought that I want that domain, and I’m the right person to have that domain. And I think it was worth the effort, and the not insignificant amount of money that it took.

One last question for you: I’ve been thinking about getting a block of gallium for a few years. Is that a good idea, or a bad idea?

Gallium is perfectly harmless on the whole, it’s not considered toxic… it’s relatively expensive these days, but there’s no problem with having a block of gallium. You want to store it… it has a couple of problems with storage. One is, if you put it in a glass bottle, it will crack that bottle eventually, because it has a tendency to melt and then expand when it freezes. It’s kind of like ice, but it’s worse than that, because somehow it sticks to the glass and even if it doesn’t actually melt, it has a pretty high thermal expansion ratio, and I’ve just found that any gallium stored in any kind of glass bottle, a few months later you’ll find the glass is cracked. So you want to keep it in a plastic bottle. Although it might seem like it’s fun to take some and melt it in your hands, you end up with stained hands, so that’s not such a great idea. It sticks to everything.

It’s irritating, because what the world needs is a version of mercury that’s non-toxic. A liquid metal at room temperature that you can play with. Either gallium or the gallium-indium-tin alloys that are actually liquid all the way down to freezing, practically, or below. These are great potential mercury substitutes, they’re completely non-toxic, but they have this problem of being sticky. Where mercury always beads up, it doesn’t wet glass, it doesn’t wet practically anything, so you can kind of have little beads of it… whereas the Galinstan alloy and gallium itself, they kind of stick, they’re more like water; they wet many different surfaces and you can’t really play with them the same way you can with mercury.

So I’d probably be better off getting some bismuth crystals, then.

Bismuth crystals are very attractive. I don’t know, all the elements have their own little pluses and minuses. In terms of a liquid metal, a plastic bottle full of the Galinstan alloy is pretty neat because you can slosh it around, and it’s quite unusual to have a liquid of that density that you can slosh around. Of course, mercury is even better in that regard. But bismuth crystals, they’re really very nice. Multi-colored, lots of interesting surfaces.

I’ve seen photos of them. I’ve never actually had my hands on one, but they look pretty cool.

Bismuth crystals are easy to get, and considerably less expensive than gallium, so that would certainly be a good beginner element sample, a nice big bismuth crystal. And that is definitely, completely safe, non-toxic, no problem handling any amount you want.

I spoke with Mr. Gray on behalf of the Toledo Free Press. This piece was originally published in February 2013.







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