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Visualizing electronegativity of the elements in 3D

Visualizing electronegativity of the elements in 3D

While teaching the history and patterns of the periodic table of the elements to my chemistry students, I wanted them to get a better feel for the concept of periodicity – that some elemental properties repeat periodically as you increase atomic numbers.

Melting points of the elements visualized in 3D

Melting points of the elements visualized in 3D

For example, at the left of each period (row) is an element that is a soft metal that will react with water to produce a strong base. As a family they are called the alkali metals, and consist of lithium, sodium, potassium, rubidium, cesium, and francium. We now know they have a similar electron configuration, with a single electron in an s-type orbital. This electron is easily ionized away and accounts for the alkali metals’ high reactivity. Other families of elements (usually found in columns in the table) include the noble gases, the halogens, and the royal metals (copper, silver, and gold). It was the relationships of similar properties that led Mendelyev (and de Chancourtois, Newlands, Oddling, and Meyer) to develop the periodic table in the first place.

Melting points with a golden texture

Melting points with a golden texture

In an effort to visualize these patterns more clearly, I have devised a technique for taking the numerical values of a property, such as electronegativity, atomic radius, or melting point and turning them into three-dimensional models.

Chart for recording the numerical values of a periodic property

Chart for recording the numerical values of a periodic property

I start with a chart that is divided into squares in the shape of the periodic table, with white squares representing elements and black squares the spaces between and around the sections of the table (you can download this diagram here).

Periodic Properties Chart: 3D periodic properties table

Pairs of students look up one of the periodic properties, then write the numbers down for each element on the chart.

In a text editing program such as Text Edit or Microsoft Word, my students then type in the numbers for each row of the chart, separating them by commas and hitting return or enter to make the next row. For the black squares, they type in a zero. They have to be careful not to leave any element or blank square out. They will have 12 rows of 20 numbers each.

Electronegativity values typed in as comma-separated rows. Blank spaces on the chart are given zeros. The final grid is 12 rows of 20 values each.

Electronegativity values typed in as comma-separated rows. Blank spaces on the chart are given zeros. The final grid is 12 rows of 20 values each.

Once the comma-separated rows of numbers are done and checked, the students save the array as a raw text file (.txt) so that all formatting is erased. They then load the file up into a program called Image J. This program is freeware developed by the National Institute of Health and is very useful for analyzing images. To load in the number array .txt file, students need to go to the file menu and choose “File-Import-Text Image” and select their .txt file. This will create a grayscale image based on the .txt values: the lowest values (the zeros around the edges of the periodic table) are black and the highest value is made white. It will be a small image since the entire array is 20 by 12 pixels. You can save the image created or zoom in on it as close as it will with Command-+ and save a screen shot of it.

Importing the .txt file as a Text Image into Image J software

Importing the .txt file as a Text Image into Image J software

The original grayscale heightmap is only 20 x 12 pixels. You will need to zoom in and save a screen shot of the image.

The original grayscale heightmap is only 20 x 12 pixels. You will need to zoom in and save a screen shot of the image.

In Adobe Photoshop or GIMP, students load in the screen shot and cut it so only the grayscale area remains, then increase the resolution. You will need to blur it slightly (2-3 pixel Gaussian blur) to get rid of artifacts around the edges of the squares. Then make the canvas square by adding a black background using the “Image-Canvas Size” feature in Photoshop. You can do a similar function in GIMP. Save it as an RGB or 8-bit grayscale PSD or PNG file. This prevents the grayscale heightmap from getting distorted in the 3-D terrain editor.

The grayscale heightmap in Image J after zooming in.

The grayscale heightmap in Image J after zooming in.

Now open up your favorite 3-D modeling software. I use Daz3D Bryce because it makes excellent terrains. Most other 3-D software can do terrains out of grayscale heightmaps. Some free or low cost options are Blender and Autodesk Maya (you can find a free PLE version of it). You will then need to load in the square grayscale file you just made using the “Load” buttons in the Picture tab of the Terrain Editor, smooth it, and put a texture on it.

Electronegativity heightmap after adding black edges to make it a square. This avoids distortion in the 3D modeler.

Electronegativity heightmap after adding black edges to make it a square. This avoids distortion in the 3D modeler.

At this point you have a 3-D terrain showing the strength of a periodic property for each element. I am including several examples here. The models can be animated or have a camera fly around it. You can add lights and render out images, then put together a class powerpoint using all the student’s images to demonstrate periodicity and the Periodic Law.

The Terrain Editor in Daz3D Bryce. The model may need additional smoothing to round off artifacts.

The Terrain Editor in Daz3D Bryce. The model may need additional smoothing to round off artifacts.

I’ve also put together a video that describes the history of the periodic table as narrated by Dr. Eric Scerri of UCLA. You can find it on the video page of this blog.

Electronegativity model in Daz3D Bryce. An altitude sensitive texture has been applied.

Electronegativity model in Daz3D Bryce. An altitude sensitive texture has been applied.

Give it this activity a try and let me know how it turns out. I’d love to see examples of what your students come up with.

Electronegativity model in Daz3D Carrara with a little mood lighting

Electronegativity model in Daz3D Carrara with a little mood lighting

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Marriott Hotel

Marriott Hotel in San Francisco

On Thursday, March 10, I experienced my first full day of the NSTA Annual Conference in San Francisco. It was a remarkable day for me, for several reasons. I attended some excellent sessions with ideas on how to improve my teaching of chemistry and integrate technology into my classroom, I presented a session on this project (The Elements Unearthed) and the Science Demonstration Program at Walden School, and I received an important honor from a well-known person.

Periodic Paint Swatches

Periodic Paint Swatches: An Introduction Activity to Periodicity

All of my sessions today were at the Marriott hotel, right across the road from the Mosser where I stayed. My first session taught me an easy to implement idea on how to introduce the periodic table and the idea of periodicity of the elements using paint swatches from a hardware store’s paint department. Students are given a variety of basic hues with variations in tint and shade and are asked to put them into a meaningful two-dimensional array. In educational parlance, we would say this type of activity is de-contextualized (that is, removed from the context or content of the lesson far enough that students can easily relate to it). The presenters (Jesse Wilcox and Scott Moore) went further to suggest how to do the next step: an alien periodic table with missing elements very similar to what I already do (more contextualized), before introducing the actual periodic table (full context).

My second session was by D. J. West, a Senior National Science Consultant with McGraw-Hill, on good websites, sources, and ways to integrate Web 2.0 technologies into the classroom. He mentioned quite a few that I hadn’t heard of, and I now need to check them out and start using them.

My third session was on ways to improve Back-to-School Science Nights, which we will be doing in May.  Bruce Wear gave many ways of improving my planning and execution that I hadn’t thought of and which will come in handy. He presented about 25 steps and ideas, and he also showed some simple activities for physical science demonstrations that will be useful if I teach physics next year.

After lunch, I attended a session by the folks at Google on how to use Google Earth, including many features such as how to access new layers of data that can be found freely on the Internet. They mentioned that when natural disasters strike, they try to act quickly to provide before and after imagery, such as images of New Orleans before and after Hurricane Katrina. Little did we know they would have need of such fast data updating just the very next morning. I loaned the presenter my MacBook Pro video dongle, and they promised to send me something (what I don’t know).

The Google session was in the Pacific C room, which was where my presentation was to be held, so I stayed and prepared. I had finished creating some sample videos of my student’s presentations and of my visit last fall to Cripple Creek, Colorado. Here’s the Cripple Creek Video (which I will add to the downloads page along with the chem demo videos over the next few days).

I knew my presentation would be pushing the hour limit, but I wanted to show recent progress. My title was “Sharing the Stories of Chemistry in Your Community Through Video.” Perhaps a bit esoteric, so I knew my audience would be fairly small. I also knew I was going up against Bill Nye the Science Guy, who was speaking as the Executive Director for the Planetary Society. Despite all this, my presentation went well; I had six people there by the end and one stayed after to talk more about what I was doing. I had been promoting my session rather shamelessly all day, and quite a few people expressed interest, but not many of them came. At least they have my e-mail and can contact me if they want information.

I took my computer back to the hotel, then walked back to the Marriott for the reception I had been invited to. This was from 5:30 to 7:00. It was for ExploreMars, the organization I’ve mentioned that is promoting the human exploration of Mars within the next ten years. Here’s the press release:

http://www.exploremars.org/education/MEC_FinalPressRelease.php

Artemis Westenberg and Chris Carberry were there to make the awards. They began just one year ago, and one of their first projects was to create the Mars Education Challenge, where high school teachers create curricula and lesson plans that promote Mars exploration and science as part of regular classes. I had submitted several lesson plans at the end of January, and I was notified on March 2 that I had taken third place in the contest, which not only means a nice award check but some money toward my travel expenses to this conference. It was a very nice day when I got the e-mail saying I would receive this award (I did quite the dance of joy in my classroom)!

Major Award

Third Place Award for the Mars Education Challenge, presented to me by Bill Nye

The second place winner, Andrew Hilt, and myself were there to receive our certificates and checks – handed to us by Bill Nye himself. So maybe Bill competed with me for attendees at my afternoon session, but he kind of made it up to me. Andrew and I both said a few words about why we were competing and how we decided to do this. Andrew is from Wisconsin and spoke about the controversy there where the governor is trying to eliminate the teachers’ union and cut back on salaries, benefits, and retirement in a misguided attempt to cut expenses by cutting back on education (which will only come back to haunt them). He mentioned how under-appreciated teachers are, and how hostile many people in Wisconsin are just because teachers ask for the same rights to collective bargaining that other workers have. I spoke on my visit to the launch conference for the Mars Odyssey probe, and how I watched the moon rise over the Atlantic Ocean, and decided then to dedicate myself to promoting Mars education, just as ExploreMars has done.

I ran into several Solar System Educators during the day and Nancy Takashima invited me (or I invited myself . . .) to dinner at Buca de Beppo. I was a bit lake because of the reception, but had a chance to talk to Shannon McConnell from JPL, who is now the lead education director for the GAVRT (Goldstone Apple Valley Radio Telescope) program. Julie and Gary Taylor, Nancy, Martin Horejsi, Kay Ferrari, and others were there, and it was fun to get back together with them even though I am not active in the program any longer. But now I’m back in a high school setting, teaching science once again, maybe its time to get hooked back in.

It was quite a busy and exhausting day. I learned much, shared much, was rewarded for my time and efforts, and met up with old friends. A great day!

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The second part of the video on beryllium is now finished. You can watch it here:

This video has literally been 2 1/2 years in the making; my students Amy Zirbes and Nathan Jane videotaped our interview with subject expert Phil Sabey, the Manager of Technology and Quality at the Delta mill, in NOvember, 2007. This video discusses the history of mining beryllium at the mine site in the Spor Mountains of western Utah, including how the bertrandite deposit was discovered, and the land rush that occurred as a result (including an incident involving Maxie Anderson, who was head of Ranchers and the general counsel for Anaconda. Maxie Anderson went on to be one of three men to first cross the Atlantic in a helium balloon in 1978). This video also shows how bertrandite it is mined today by Brush Engineered Materials using open pit mines, then transported and processed at the concentration plant near Delta, Utah. The concentrated beryllium hydroxide is then shipped by rail to Elmore, Ohio for final refining into beryllium metal, alloys, and ceramics products. This episode also discusses Chronic Beryllium Disease, the main health hazard of refining or working with beryllium.

Chronic Beryllium Disease:

Beryllium dust, when in the air in concentrations of greater than 2 micrograms per cubic meter, gets inhaled and irritates the lung alveoli. The body treats it as an invading body, and sends white blood cells which surround the beryllium particle and form small granules called granulomas in the lungs. At this point, a person is said to have sub-clinical CBD or is “sensitized” to beryllium. Most people who are sensitized do not develop clinical CBD, but in about 2-5% of sensitized people, the immune system overreacts and the granulomas build up to where the lungs become stiff and respiratory function is impaired, leading to symptoms similar to pneumonia. There is no cure once CBD has set in, and the eventual result is painful death.

Before the effects of beryllium dust were known, a high number of workers in the beryllium industry were getting sick, especially in certain plants such as the old Brush Wellman plant in Lorain, Ohio. Beryllium in its ores (beryl crystals and bertrandite) is tightly bound to the crystal lattice and is therefore harmless. But refining bertrandite or beryl means that the beryllium is physically and chemically separated from the crystal, resulting in fine beryllium particles getting into the air unless precautions are taken. The effects of beryllium disease were well enough known by the mid-1960s that when the Delta concentration plant was built, safeguards were put in place that reduce beryllium dust to under 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter of air, or less than 10% of the maximum safety levels. Workers also wear respiratory equipment such as facemasks with filters to prevent even that level of dust from entering their lungs. There has not been any incident of chronic beryllium disease in the workers at the Delta plant.

Final beryllium metal, alloys, and ceramics are also fairly safe as the beryllium is part of the metal and not airborne. The danger occurs when these materials are cut, machined, or milled, which allows beryllium particles to get into the air where they can be inhaled. The only way to cure chronic beryllium disease is to avoid it in the first place by preventing beryllium dust from entering the air. Special precautions must therefore be taken in any business that handles beryllium. OSHA has been studying CBD and is likely to be coming out with new and even stricter standards soon.

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Finally, after months of waiting and effort, the two videos on the history of the periodic table are complete. Here they are:

The title of this video is:   The Periodic Table Part 1: Before Mendeleev

It’s YouTube links are: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tQghZkTyqP4 (Part 1-A) and  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v-SBTYQNAcM (Part 1-B)


The title of this video is: The Periodic Table Part 2: Mendeleev and Beyond

The YouTube links are: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a9tTcOnoNko (Part 2-A) and: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7msPp2QYrCk (Part 2-B)

They feature interviews with Dr. Eric Scerri of UCLA, to which I have added my own narration, animations, illustrations, photos, captions, etc. as well as publication artwork and notes by Edward G. Mazurs (see my previous Periodic Tables posts). I have edited the videos into two parts. Part 1 covers the events leading up to Mendeleev’s invention of the periodic table including the work of several precursors such as de Chancourtois, Newlands, Odling, Hinrichs, and Meyer. The second part covers Mendeleev’s working out of his periodic system and the work of his successors, as well as some interesting questions such as whether the periodic table can be entirely deduced from quantum mechanics and the mystery of the Knight’s Move pattern of properties. Part 1 is 17 minutes long and Part 2 is just under 20 minutes. I am very pleased with the results; I’ve been using every spare minute to complete the editing which is why I haven’t posted here for so long. I hope you feel it is worth the wait. Please let me know what you think!

Knights move image

The Knight's Move Pattern: Zn to Sn

In addition to placing them into this specific post, I will set up a separate page on this blog just for the completed videos. So far I’ve done the rationale video in two parts, now these two on the periodic table, and more will follow as soon as possible. The next will be on the mining and refining of beryllium ore, then on glass blowing, and so on. I have materials (video, photos, etc.) for about 30 episodes already and will get more as student teams begin to complete projects. I will also post these episodes to YouTube but will have to cut each part in two since you can only do ten minutes at a time on YouTube. I also plan on creating a completely separate website just for these videos so that I can place my own metadata on them and upload them to Apple iTunes as podcasts. As these steps are completed, I’ll post information here.

Next week I travel to Philadelphia to present this project at the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) conference. My presentation will be on Saturday, March 20 at 9:30 in Room D-17 of the Pennsylvania Convention Center. I hope to do a few posts from the conference. Looking through the program, I see several names I recognize among the presenters from my years of facilitating educational workshops for NASA, so it will be fun to see them again. I also hope to work out corporate sponsorship of this project, including funding, so that I can finally begin Phase II to have teams of student in Utah, Colorado, and Nevada start to create their own episodes of the mining and chemical manufacturing in their communities. It will be a very busy week getting ready for the conference. I’ll post again in a few days once all the uploading and links have been created to these videos.

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Periodic Table of Elements

Periodic Table of Elements

I had hoped to have the two episodes on the history of the periodic table ready to upload by yesterday but the editing is progressing slower than planned, mostly because my “day” job has picked up and I am editing Business Profile Videos for three clients at the same time. Work on the Elements Unearthed podcasts has had to take a back seat to actually earning money. It has also taken more time to create the animations for the episodes than expected. I added an extra section to my original script, explaining what elements were known at the time Mendeleev built his table, and since this will be done by narration there must be some sort of visual material to show while the narrator (me) is talking, and I have devised several animations that go along with the script.

I’ve put these animations and a few still renders into a compilation clip that I am attaching to this blog here:

To explain the animations, the first two animations (after four stills) are of A. E. Béguyer de Chancourtois’ Telluric Screw, which was the first table to recognize the periodic law. He envisioned a cylinder with a spiral sequence of the elements, listed by order of atomic weights from the top down. He divided the elements into periods of 16 columns each, so that every 16 positions the pattern repeats, although not every position is occupied (atomic weights often increase by several units from element to element). It works quite well for the first few turns of the screw, but by the time it gets past titanium into the transition metals, the pattern of periodicity starts to break down because, as we now know, the periods of the periodic table aren’t the same length. The second animation shows the alignment of the elements into groups. Here are two still images rendered from the animation that show this alignment of elements by properties.

The Telluric Screw 1

Alignment of Li, Na, and K

Telluric Screw 2

Telluric Screw: Alignment of B & Al, C & Si

The next animation is simply a list of the elements by date of discovery, divided into periods of 25 years. 63 elements were known by 1869. The next animation shows all of the elements arranged in order by atomic number into six columns (there’s no reason for the six; it was just the number that I picked to set up the animation). They are also given colors by elemental families: red for the alkali metals, orange for the alkaline earths, green and blue for the transition metals, indigo for the metalloids, purple for the non-metals, bright purple for the halogens, magenta for the noble gases, and yellow and brown for the rare earths. The next animation shows the same list, but now takes away the elements that were unknown to Mendeleev, leaving only those that he was able to work with when building his table. Only a few rare earths were known, there were significant gaps, and an entire group of elements, the noble gases, was unknown. So trying to organize these elements into some sort of table was a difficult task.

Elements by atomic number

The elements listed by atomic number

The next animation shows this list of known elements moving into position to form Mendeleev’s first periodic table of Feb., 1869. One can see that he made some mistakes – beryllium and magnesium should be moved down to a position underneath lithium and sodium, and he has the rare earths out of place (mostly the trouble was that their atomic weights hadn’t been accurately measured yet). He has gold and mercury reversed, and a few groups shifted. His table is also organized vertically by periods instead of horizontally as is our usual medium format table today. If you were to take his table and rotate it clockwise 90 degrees, then flip the whole table horizontally, it would be oriented as our standard table is today and quite recognizable. This was quite an achievement given the limitations he worked with. His main insight was realizing that the periods didn’t have the same lengths; all his competitors had tried to force the elements into periods of equal lengths and it just wouldn’t work. Another insight was that he realized there were gaps in the table –  jumps of atomic weights and properties, and Mendeleev put himself out on a limb predicting that those elements were yet to be discovered; he even predicted their properties with high accuracy. The three most famous cases were gallium (discovered about five years later), scandium, and germanium.

Mendeleev's first table

Mendeleev's First Periodic Table, 1869

I am still working on several animations and one is rendering right now showing the medium format table opening up to become a long format table; I’ll do another one where the medium format table rearranges itself into a left-step table, and even try a few 3D tables as well. To build these tables, I created each element as a separate, moving tile which can be arranged in any position. The software used is Daz3D Bryce. The music playing in the animations is a simple loop I created using Garageband on my Mac. As for the sample images I’m showing here, feel free to download them and use them however you like as long as you give me credit. I’m trying to provide accurate scientific information but do so with visual appeal and artistic merit.

Meanwhile, editing on the video itself is progressing and I will have these two episodes posted along with the Rationale episode ASAP. I’ll then follow with the beryllium episodes and one on Greek matter theories, then move on to blown glass, cement making, stained glass, synthetic diamonds, and the Tintic mining district in Utah. I hope to have all of these done and posted before March 17, as I will be traveling back to Philadelphia then to attend and present at the National Science Teachers Association annual conference. My proposal to present was accepted by NSTA, and I will need to have several episodes posted by then to use in the presentation, one way or another, even if I have to put some client projects on hold.

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I’ve been neglecting to write this blog for the last few weeks, what with the usual Christmas rush. Now that New Years is done, I’m resolved to write more often, at least twice per week. Another reason I’ve been neglectful is that I’ve been quite busy working on episodes of the videos for The Elements Unearthed project, especially the episodes on the history of the periodic table where I interviewed Dr. Eric Scerri of UCLA. He is the author of The Periodic Table: Its Story and Its Significance by Oxford Press.

Book by Dr. Eric Scerri

During the last few weeks I’ve transcribed his interview and sent it to him to look over for revisions, as well as the drafts of the episode scripts. He has been most gracious to provide suggestions that have greatly improved the scripts. Because of the detail of the interview, I’m going to divide it into two parts, the first on the precursors to Mendeleev and the second on Mendeleev and beyond. Each should be about 15 minutes when complete. I will upload a compressed version of each episode here once they are done (another two weeks, tops – I have quite a few client projects happening right now, too) as well as the finished transcript of the interview and the episode scripts. I’ll also upload them to a dedicated video site and then uplink them to iTunes and YouTube.

In preparation for these episodes, I’ve been cleaning up the photos I took this last summer at the Chemical Heritage Foundation of the Edward G. Mazurs collected notes, which he prepared over several decades for his book Graphical Representations of the Periodic System During 100 Years, which he self-published in 1957 and which was then revised and published by the University of Alabama Press in 1974.

Mazurs_books

Books by Edward G. Mazurs

He classified over 700 different periodic tables, and his notes filled ten three-ring binders. I also was able to photograph the production artwork that was used for the books. It dawned on me while I was doing the clean-up that I didn’t actually have any photographs of the final books, so I traveled over to Brigham Young University’s library two weeks ago and found both editions on the shelves, as well as Jan van Spronsen’s book and a book in Russian with photos of Mendeleev, his notes. and his laboratory. I photographed all the relevant pages, including any photographs or portraits of the people who contributed to the development of the periodic table, including such people as Alexandre Emile Beguyer de Chancourtois, who developed his Telluric Screw in 1862 which shows the first discovery of the periodic law: that the properties of the elements seem to repeat periodically.

de_Chancourtois

A. E. Beguyer de Chancourtois

Finding the 1957 edition of Mazurs’ book is quite rare, since not many were printed. While I was there, I looked up an article I remember reading in Chemistry magazine back in the 1970s on various forms of the periodic table. It’s funny how memory can play tricks on you, however. What I thought was a major article showing various forms of the table in full color was actually a short article showing one form of the table (although it was in full color). I apparently have a better memory for images than for text; my memory had expanded and aggrandized the article into something much more than it was. But the table was interesting, and here is a photo of it:

Continuous-form_periodic_table

Continuous-form periodic table, 1975

I was also struck as I was preparing these images from Mazurs’ notes how some of the more exotic continuous-form periodic tables look remarkably like images of strange attractors in fractal mathematics. I’ve been playing around with an interesting free-ware program called Chaoscope trying to come up with similar images and here are a few samples comparing Mazurs’ notes and artwork with fractal patterns. Wouldn’t it be fun if some bored mathematician was able to show that the unusual pattern of the periodic system (created by the quantum mechanics of electron orbital filling in successive atoms) followed a fractal equation? I’m afraid I’m not much of a mathematician, but I can make some pretty pictures now and then. Anyway, from a visual standpoint, the similarities are amazing.

Notes_by_Mazurs

Strange forms of the periodic table by Edward Mazurs

chaoscope_render_1

Render from Chaoscope

Triple_sprial_artwork

Artwork for Mazurs books

Lorenz_attractor

Lorenz strange attractor from Chaoscope

Strange_attractor_artwork

Artwork from Edward G. Mazurs book

strange_attractor_chaoscope

Render from Chaoscope

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Interactive Periodic Table at DePauw University

Interactive Periodic Table at DePauw University

    As I mentioned yesterday, my journey back to Utah from my fellowship in Philadelphia was eventful and too much to write about in a single blog post, so this is about the second phase of my journey. This part mostly revolved around the Periodic Table of the Elements, as I stopped at DePauw University at the Percy Julian Science Center to photograph and videotape an interactive periodic table display created by Max Whitby and Theo Gray, then traveled to Champaign, Illinois to interview Theo himself.

    After visiting the Drake Oil Well on Monday, Aug. 31, I ditched my plans to travel northwest to Lake Erie and Kirtland, Ohio and instead traveled due south on PA 8 through Oil City to I-80, then west to Youngstown and I-76, then west to Akron, Ohio and I-71, then southwest to Columbus (which I skirted around on the belt route), then west on I-70 past Dayton and finally found a cheap motel just east of Indianapolis. The next morning I traveled north around Indianapolis and was going to take I-74 directly to Champaign, but decided to visit the DePauw University installation first (I remembered I had gained an hour passing through the time zone change to Central time). So I exited immediately, zig-zagged through a couple of small towns west of Indianapolis, then caught US 40 heading southwest, then PA 240 into Greencastle, IN. 

Part of the Interactive Periodic Table at DePauw University

Part of the Interactive Periodic Table at DePauw University

    DePauw University is fairly compact, but considering its size and location in a smallish farming town, it boasts some impressive alumni, including Percy Julian, one of the foremost black chemists of his day. A documentary about him recently aired on PBS, and the Chemical Heritage Foundation helped with the research as they hold his personal papers. DePauw has named their new science center after him, and have installed a wooden interactive periodic table display overlooking the fourth floor atrium. Each element of the table is a cube with a sample of that element (as far as that is possible – obviously, the radioactive elements and the synthetic elements can’t be displayed). A computer is installed in the table with touch controls that allow the selection of an element and information and videos about it to be displayed as well. I photographed the table and used my motorized pan-tilt head to videotape panning across the table, but this was interrupted by a class change and hordes of students tromping past my camera. Once things had calmed down again, I finished the pan, packed up, and drove up to I-74 and on to Champaigne, IL. 

Periodic Table, designed by Theo Gray

Periodic Table, designed by Theo Gray

    I had set up an interview with Theo Gray, who is the co-founder of Wolfram Research, Inc. – the company that makes Mathematica software, which I have greatly desired to have a copy of ever since I saw it demonstrated at teacher conferences back when I taught science and math classes. He got into collecting elements accidentally. He’s always been interested in chemistry, and even started out majoring in it in college before he got into computer programming. When his company reshuffled their office space to make room for a conference area, he realized they would need a conference table and thought it would be fun to make a literal periodic table of the elements. As he was building it (he is an excellent carpenter as well), he realized that using different types of wood to represent the families of elements would be a problem in Illinois’ humid climate; different woods would expand at different rates and cause the table to crack. So he left the tiles of each element unattached. Then he got the idea – since the tiles can be removed, he should make a sample area under each one to contain a sample of the element. Then he had to go out and collect the samples.

Gold samples underneath the gold tile

Gold samples underneath the gold tile

    Well, years later he is now an expert at collecting the elements and writes a column about it in Popular Science magazine called Gray Matters, and has developed a series of outrageous chemical demonstrations (such as heating his hot tub with quicklime) that have been videotaped. He has created photographic periodic table charts, a book, etc. In addition to his table, he has displays in his office of some of the more interesting objects that contain various elements in them and that use properties of those elements.

 

Samples of the elements on display in Theo Gray's office

Samples of the elements on display in Theo Gray's office

    Theo was very gracious in letting me, an amateur, invade his office for a couple of hours in the middle of a busy work day. After finishing the interview, I traveled south from Champaign and picked up I-70 again, then traveled west and crossed the Mississippi at St. Louis (right at sunset again), then headed south for about an hour to the old lead belt and camped at St. Francois State Park. Although I had used the interstates for most of the day, I got off them enough in Indiana to get a feel for the countryside. From here on, I would be staying mostly on the back roads.

 

Samples of silicon and bismuth in Theo Gray's office

Samples of silicon and bismuth in Theo Gray's office

 

Different woods used to represent families of elements

Different woods used to represent families of elements

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