This is a pseudo-blog post. The original is an ancient web page still present at periodictabletable.com.
My reasons for making the physical Periodic Table Table were purely practical: We needed a new conference table for my office area, and I didn't want an ugly one from the office supply catalog. But my reasons for making and then greatly elaborating the website were more subtle, so subtle in fact that I didn't know what they were until the website was very far along.
At some point, after I had established the framework and about a hundred sample descriptions, I started realizing that I had more to say about some of the elements.
Naturally I resisted the temptation to start writing personal reminiscences about individual elements, because that's been done by the likes of Primo Levi, Oliver Sacks, and John Emlsey. It's hard to compete with memories of trying to collect snake poop to extract urea for making lipstick after the war, and I'm not going to try.
At the end of one of those books, Uncle Tungsten, Oliver Sacks describes the process of growing out of his youthful enthusiasm for chemistry as a painful feeling of loss. I know exactly what he's talking about.
And I also know that there are a lot of kids who never feel this sense of loss, because by the time they are teenagers, they have nothing left to lose. Whatever enthusiasm, creativity, and focus they started with has long since been driven out of them, destroyed by television, video games, horrible schools, horrible opportunities, and horrible role models. The bright flicker of our television screens is the stolen incandescence of a thousand young minds.
One of the first things to go is a sense of mastery. Television, even the supposedly good stuff, is full cues that this is something other people can do, not you. Beyond the ubiquitous "Don't try this at home kids!" there are the slick production values and the fancy props to hammer home the lesson that nothing you could possibly do at home is as interesting or as valid as what you see on TV.
There is a world of difference between watching someone use a special aparatus to make hydrogen in front of the class or on television, and doing it yourself using nothing you don't already have at homeright now. Go ahead, try it: I bet you in less than an hour, you can have a bottle full of 99% pure hydrogen gas without leaving the house. (My website, under hydrogen, will tell you exactly how.)
When you do it yourself, it becomes a part of you. It becomes something that you are master of, because you made it happen from scratch. There's something indescribably powerful about that feeling.
Watching my own kids, I see them having this kind of experience just about every day, sometimes twice before breakfast. What fun that must be! At age 3, a pond and a room full of tools provides plenty of opportunities for advancement.
But what about when they grow older?
In the past a child could make a wagon, or a cake, or a whatever as good as any you could buy. Children could feel a real sense of accomplishment knowing that they really could do as well as the grown-ups around them. From this could spring the genuine belief that they too would one day take their place in the world, and that is the very definition of self-confidence.
But the intricacy, sophistication, and sheer technical finesse of the everyday objects surrounding our children have raised the bar for meaningful contribution. Have you ever looked inside a laptop computer? It's scary.
How any child is supposed to imagine growing up to build things like that is beyond me. We crossed a threshold of sorts when the working parts of many common household items, including the average doll, become invisible to the naked eye (and today have sunk below the wavelength of visible light for crying out loud).
You might say that the man-made objects in a child's environment have become almost as opaque to understanding as the biological ones, their working bits nearly as tiny, intricate, and seemingly beyond human perception. Yet someone made these things. That must be pretty intimidating, once a child is old enough to comprehend it.
But kittens aren't intimidating, and technology doesn't have to be either. We just have to find the levels at which it can be understood, then deepen those layers bit by bit.
In one of those coincidences that beg to be followed up on, I finished reading Uncle Tungsten literally the night before the first rehearsal session for a keynote address to be given by Steve Jobs. (I had been asked to give a little demonstration of my company's Mathematica software during Jobs' talk so I probably should have been preparing instead of reading, but I just couldn't put it down.)
During his talk, he played a short but lovely mini-movie that had been created by a couple of 13-year-olds (using Apple's new iMovie software, of course). His point, which he made directly and with feeling, was that this technology allowed these boys for the first time to speak in the primary visual language of their generation. They could make a short movie better than much of what you see on television (OK, maybe that's not saying much, but to them it is saying a lot).
I think the most important thing here is that after they finished their movie, they surely never looked at television the same way again: The process of creating a movie had become for them a process they could understand and internalize. They had taken a step in the direction of seeing adult producers of television as peers rather than elders.
Jobs has given (well, sold) a certain group of children a tool that lets them participate in their own growth. I like that.
There's a lot of talk these days about the problems with our schools and our children (perhaps there should be more about the problems with our parents), but in my opinion not nearly enough is being done to address the fundamental question: What's a kid to do these days? How can we give them the tools to let them see a path from here to there?
You can't buy a decent chemistry set, the pin spacing on integrated circuits has gotten too close to solder by hand, if you try to buy sulfur and saltpeter they'll probably call the police, and you read in the news that having batteries and wires in your garage is grounds for suspicion! There's no field out back with a stream you can dam, your parents won't let you explore the park after dark to learn what squirrels do at night, and up in your bedroom there's a killing game your parents gave you for Christmas so you can spend hours in front of a screen pointing a gun into photo-realistically rendered human faces and pulling the trigger in exchange for points and a satisfying splatter of blood.
Is it any wonder we have problems?
I realized about half way through the essay under hydrogen that I had found something, maybe just a little thing, but something I could do to answer the question, what's a kid to do today?
By writing up exactly what I did, and presenting it in the primary language of information exchange for the educated youth culture of today, the web page, I think I can reach a few of them. I don't know how many, and I never will, but I think it's going to be enough to make it worthwhile.
What's the best style for addressing the youth of today? Should you try to use their language? Only if you're the same age as they are, otherwise it sounds stupid. The way to reach anyone of any age or generation is to speak directly, clearly, and in your own voice about things you know and care about.
That's what I've tried to do with my website, and I've included everything, including the things I probably shouldn't have done, because this is about reality, not television. In reality, people do stupid things, people do dangerous things, people do even boring things.
If you're excited about what you're doing and you let it show, a few readers will get it, and a few is all you need. Maybe some of the others will think you're a dork, but who cares? I certainly don't, because my concern is with the ones who get it, not with the ones who don't.