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.
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.
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.
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.
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.