Public Appearance at BookCon, NYC, June 4th, 2017

From time to time I get asked if I do public talks and the like. The answer is, yes, sometimes, but not a lot, and usually I forget to announce them in advance. This time I'm trying a new approach: Actually letting people know about it!

I will be appearing on a panel with two other authors at BookCon 2017 in New York this June 4th at 2:30PM at the Javits Center. Here's a page with the details:

Hope to see you there! (And if you ask nicely after the show, I'll probably let you look through a hand-printed copy of my new Reactions book. It won't be in stores until probably October, but I have laboriously printed and glued up one precious copy.)

Award-Winning Fan Mail

There's fan mail and there's award-winning fan mail....

As much as I appreciate receiving them, and as much as I have a fragile ego in need of constant stroking, I don't normally write a blog post when I get an email from someone who enjoyed my book. But this one is special.

Here's the email I got, followed by the text of said award-winning fan letter.

Dear Mr. Theodore Gray,

   In December of 2016, I had submitted a letter to contest, called the National Letters about Literature Contest. Letters submitted to the contest were about a book that had  changed your life, mine was your book The Elements. At the beginning of March I received an email stating that my letter had won for the state of Nebraska in the high school level. As of today (April 23, 2017) I have not received any notification regarding my letter's status on the national level. I have attached the letter, in the hopes that you would enjoy reading it.

Thank you,

Matthew P. Heaney

I course I immediately replied that, why yes, I did enjoy reading it, and would he mind if I put it on my blog! Here it is in all its state-level award-winning glory:

Dear Theodore Gray,

            Your every word, your every personal anecdote in your book The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom of the Universe was an atom of solder that created for me a connection to my own life goals. My life is like an incomplete calculator: there is a battery with a copper wire connected to it, and a silicon circuit board. All I needed was some tin solder to connect that wire to the circuit board. The solder I needed was your book. As I was reading I gradually started to make connections. Your book brought back pieces of my past and connected them to the present. Soon after making these connections I would understand my life goal.

            In our seventh grade yearly book fair, my science teacher came up to me and pointed at your book. I skimmed though some of the first few pages and then rashly bought the book. At home after I read your precaution to not drop the book on my foot, I became confused with the names of groups in the periodic table. Although too technical for me to understand quantum mechanics, it became something of a challenge and although I did not comprehend it the first few times, I kept at it. Unfortunately, I eventually had to give up and move on to the elements.

            Needless to say I was happy once I got to hydrogen, since I actually understood some parts of it. My grandfather used to print off astronomy pictures of the day and he would show them to me. I was reminded of these pictures by your choice to use the Eagle Nebula in your representation of hydrogen. My first practical application occurred when I was able to find boron samples around my house – Silly Putty and a boron carbide lock. Now every page became a new discovery to me. With carbon you mentioned that diamonds could make your lip feel cold since it was such a good conductor of heat. When my mom got home that night I told her I wanted to make sure her ring had a real diamond in it. I later assured her that it was. With that success I decided to melt objects to get their base components.

            Farther into the book I started picking up on low melting point metals and how you had melted zinc down on the kitchen stove as a child from scrap zinc roof flashings. However, as you well know in the 21st Century, not as many roofing products are made of zinc, and unfortunately there are no scrapyards near my house. I began to look for expendable (or so I thought) objects that were in my house. The only way I would find out if they were zinc was if I melted them in a pot over the stove. My first choice was a monopoly character piece because they sure looked like zinc, but to my disappointment they would not melt despite my best efforts. I tried to do some level of research as to find distinct characteristics of zinc versus other similar metals, and fortunately I also discovered that zinc, when molten and in contact with water, explodes. My mom is not fond of explosions so I read further, searching for some other metal that I could melt.

            I came across gallium, but its lack of applications in household items precluded further experimentation. Zinc and gallium were a depressing no but tin proved to be the experiment! I wanted to make a cast of something out of clay, similar to the tin soldier you made, so I used clay to make a rough cast of my finger. I placed solder in this basic cast, closed up the hole with some more clay so I could lay the cast on its side, waited for it to dry, and put it in a heated oven. It did not take long for the clay to start popping and shooting shrapnel all throughout the oven. I quickly turned off the oven, and was disappointed when the cast had cooled off only to find that none of the solder had melted. For the third attempt since I had determined that clay would pop and explode if it got hot, I used aluminum foil. I folded and shaped the aluminum around a pencil, and removed the pencil, then put a plastic funnel at the top. You probably know where this was headed. First the plastic funnel melted, and second, my completely exposed hand was right below the melting plastic. I immediately stopped, once I felt the really hot sensation in my hand. I was lucky that only molten plastic touched it, as the burn would have been far worse had metal touched it. My singed fingers and the mess in the oven dictated no more experiments.

            With that I came to the conclusion you had the resources that I did not, so I decided to observe things. With consistency and dedication I began to notice everyday objects differently. Sometimes on occasion when there was a sample picture in your book similar to something I had seen in my life, questions would start popping up, “Is that really vaseline glass containing uranium or is it just dye? Does this magnet have samarium in it or not?” These questions satisfied my ever growing curiosity. I began to love verbalizing these questions and was always intrigued to find the answers. In high school chemistry class I soon learned to love the experiments even more, and I realized how I could answer some of these questions by performing experiments safely.

            Also in my chemistry class I started to reread your book. I started using your book for reference and answers to questions I had which developed skills to find the answers on my own. By my sophomore year I was asked the question what I wanted to be. In nothing short of an epiphany the skills I had developed, this mindset of asking questions, my constant longing for knowledge and an affinity to chemistry, all came together and my "calculator" gave me my answer: chemist. The word resonates in my head. The idea of working with elements, and compounds, finding out what makes them do the things they do, makes me elated.

            Now I could simply tell you that in that moment my brain released a good amount of dopamine and some oxytocin mixed in that made this feeling so amazing, but it probably has also a large amount of non-chemistry related reasons too. I am a junior, I love chemistry, and I plan to go to college and major in chemistry, and then work towards a doctorate. This accomplishment would make me the first person in my family with the title doctor to be in the research field. The book that I had bought 4 years ago is no longer in my possession as it had become so worn down that there was no binding left, and was just a pile of pages. I have since acquired two more copies of your book. Your book is iconic to me as it plays a constant role in my life. It consistently keeps me going and reminds me of what I want be every day. When I am a chemist your book will still be with me in my mind and in my hands, but not on my feet.


Matthew Heaney, Grade 11

NOVA Kickstarter: Want to See Me In (Another) NOVA Show?

Just launched a few days ago is an exciting new concept: Getting people to pay for a NOVA show in advance through the Kickstarter platform, instead of nagging people to pay for it after the fact, during annual pledge drives!


I really hope you'll consider contributing now to see a better future (i.e. one containing this show, rather than the alternate future in which this show doesn't exist because you didn't contribute).

I don't think I need to tell any of you what a great pedigree this show has. NOVA is the classic science show. It's been running longer than many of you reading this have been alive, but times are changing and people need to step up and really wrap their heads around the fact that a lot of good things in the world are going to stop existing unless people actually do something about it. This is something you can do.

OK, enough guilt tripping.

I also want the show to get made so I can be in it! I was in the predecessor NOVA show, Hunting the Elements, and, much as my books Molecules and soon Reactions are follow-ons to my book The Elements, this new show is a follow-on about...molecules and reactions.

Speaking of me in NOVA shows, I was also just briefly in another one about batteries, which aired last week. You can see it online now:


I feel kind of bad about it because I couldn't get the batteries to explode as well as they used to. A lot of lithium ion batteries are actually much safer than the older types. They went elsewhere to find the more dangerous kind. At least good old lithium put on a surprisingly lively show! 

Anyway, back to the point of this post: Go give some money to and then feel good about yourself for helping make the world a better place.

Last New Elements Finally Named!

If you follow elements news, you already know that elements 113, 115, 117, and 118 now finally have absolutely final approved (by IUPAC) names. There is really no scientific significance to this announcement: The elements were all discovered years ago, and anything to be learned from them has already been learned (or at least is not dependent on what they are named). It was only the names that people were still arguing about.

So the real significance of the recent announcement is that we all (by which I mean all people who are in the business of printing periodic tables) finally don't have to worry about printing a new version ever again! After 140+ years of annoyingly having new elements added to it every few years as they were discovered and named, it is now complete, filled-in, finished, done, and never going to be changed ever again, period.

Unless someone starts discovering elements beyond 118, which would require a whole new row to be added to the design, completely messing everything up in an unimaginably annoying way. Please, if you are a scientist working on post-118 elements, please just stop. Go home, hug your kids, and find a new line of work. Global warming is a big problem, maybe you could work on that instead?

I'm kidding, of course, feel free to keep discovered new elements, because there's no way anyone is going to add space for them in the periodic table's standard layout. We'll just add a footnote somewhere in small type. That's what happened last time (in the mid-1900s) when the first element in a new row was discovered. It wasn't until that row was half-full that people finally proposed to actually start printing the table with that row included (thanks Glen Seaborg).

There is virtually no chance of enough elements beyond 118 being discovered to justify a new row. My secret belief is that the only reason people try to create these supremely impractical elements is so that they will get to name them. Once the researchers realize that the printers aren't actually going to give them new slots in the periodic table, interest in the enterprise will fall off.

For those of you with now-obsolete periodic tables from me, you can either (1) ignore it since who really cares, (2) wait until I print new versions, or (3) use this page to download images of the new element tiles to print and paste onto your poster. The only product you can actually currently buy from me that's been updated is the wonderfully soft and up-to-date Periodic Table Quilt (which you should get someone for x-mas anyway). Others will get updated as I and/or my publisher do new print runs over the coming months.

Further details on my Chinese Talks

Here are further details of the time and place of my two talks in China.

清华大学国际创客教育高峰论坛 (Tsinghua University International Maker's Education Summit)

26 November 2016, 8.30 AM, Tsinghua University, Lee Shau Kee Science Center, A278





关于“中国科大传播论坛”之西奥多•格雷先生报告会的通知 (Talk at University of Science and Technology, Hefei)

26 November 2016, 19:00, Lecture Hall, Central Capital Tower, Eastern District


作为“中国科大传播论坛” 暨高水平学术前沿讲座系列报告会之四十一,美国沃尔夫勒姆研究公司(Wolfram Research)创建人之一西奥多•格雷(TheodoreGray)先生做题为《Elements and Molecules: Communicating about Chemistry to the Public》(《元素和分子:将化学的魅力传播给大众》)的报告,欢迎感兴趣的广大师生积极参加。




Public Appearances in China Next Week

I will be giving two public talks next week in China, one in Beijing and one in Hefei.

First, on the morning of Saturday, November 26th I will speak at the "2016 Tsinghua Maker's Day International Summit" at the invitation of my friend Prof. Ben Koo. I don't have exact details yet, so I will post an update when I know the exact time and location of this talk. There is a whole day of "maker" activities scheduled, as I understand it.

My talk there will be short (20 minutes) and I intend to speak mainly about computational thinking and how deep knowledge of a computer language changes your perspective on the world, much as knowledge of multiple human languages allows for a wider view. I expect to hang out at the Maker Day for the rest of the time it's open, and would be happy to speak to anyone who wants to talk about chemistry instead of computers.

Second, at 19:00 on Monday, November 28th I will speak at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei. I'd tell you where exactly, but I don't speak Chinese so I can't read the poster below. Hopefully if you're interested in coming to the talk, you do speak Chinese and you can read all about it in the poster.

This talk will be about elements and molecules, and what I've learned about how to speak to the public about chemistry.

How Does the Car Know Which Way You Want to Turn?

I had an experience last night that reminded me of something I first learned from Jerry Glynn several decades ago.

I was giving a ride home to a six-year-old. As we were driving along, making several turns in a row, she asked, with some hesitation, as if she was afraid this was a stupid question:

    “How does the car know which way you want to turn?”

I proceeded to explain that the steering wheel was connected to a gear and some rods that make the wheels tilt left or right, depending on which direction you turned the steering wheel. I asked her to watch how the front wheels on other cars tilted, which she agreed was clearly visible and explained the turning behavior of cars. Mission accomplished!

But then she said:

    “No, I mean how does it know which way you’re going to turn?”

Hm, now I’m confused.

    "How does it know to make that clicking sound and blink the lights before you start turning?”

She had, apparently for much longer than just this car ride, been observing the behavior of the turn signal lights, but never noticed that the driver was flipping a lever at the same time they started flashing (probably because the signal stalk is on the left of the steering column, blocked from view).

So this poor confused child had constructed an elaborate theory of car ESP around the idea that cars have a  psychic ability to predict the driver’s intentions several seconds before they start turning the wheel. She was asking for an explanation of how this ESP system works.

Apparently no one had yet figured out what her confusion actually was. She had obviously asked the question before, and not gotten a satisfactory answer. Who knows how many times someone had explained the steering mechanism, without realizing that this was *not* the part of the system she was confused about.

The moral of the story is, students are far better than you are at figuring out new ways of misunderstanding the world. This is one reason having an experienced teacher on the team is so important when writing for students. Only they will have had contact with the enemy long enough to have built up a list of the specific confusions that come up, and how to deal with them.

Then the problem is that there’s no way you can possibly address all of them without turning the text into something ten times too long which insults the intelligence of the other 90% of the students who don’t have that particular confusion. Imagine a child—one who *has* noticed the driver flipping the lever—having an adult explain that the car is not psychic, when they were actually asking about how the rack-and-pinion gear works.

It’s a hard problem. Much better to assign an experienced, insightful teacher to each class, someone who knows the subject matter very well, but can also listen carefully and figure out what each student's unique confusion is. 

Sadly, that would require a sensible educational policy and teacher training system. This is at present impossible because the people in charge, much like my companion that day, are very confused about some aspects of how the world works and are focusing their energies on addressing many things that are not the real problem. 

Theodore Gray, June, 2016

P.S. I also explained that, by the time she could drive, cars would actually know ahead of time which way to turn, because they would be self-driving and you'd just tell them where you wanted to end up.



It has happened before. It will happen again. And it can happen here.

I don't normally comment on the issues of the day, but everyone has a breaking point, and this is mine. I don't want to wait until it's too late to say something, and I'm far from the only one who feels this way. You know things are getting bad when even sensible business people and cynical politicians decide that they need to be on the right side of history, no matter the cost.

It’s not often that you read something written by the CEO of a major corporation that took real courage to write. Not the sort of courage you get talked into by a PR consultant who says you need to look tough. Real courage, in the face of real danger.

America has done good things in the world. It has fought just wars and it has sheltered those no one else would. America rebuilt a shattered Europe and elected a black man president. These are not small things. But neither are they a guarantee or a moral blank check.

I believe in the essential goodness of people. I believe that very few people get up in the morning wishing to make the world worse. But history tells us that good people, solid citizens, and well-meaning leaders can take their countries to the depths of hell in a frighteningly short time. 

It has happened before. It will happen again. And it can happen here.

America has always been at its best when we have been courageous, not when we have cowered in fear. And let’s make no mistake about it: When a country commits outrageous, population-wide violations of long-held rights and freedoms—in response to attacks by individuals and small armed groups that pose no threat to the nation as a whole—that country is acting out of blind fear.

It is beneath the dignity of the great country I live in to act this way. 

The FBI, for reasons that it no doubt considers to be noble and necessary, has recently tried to play to our darkest fears. In the Bureau’s zeal to prosecute a criminal case, a murderous rampage, it is telling us that we are not safe in our homes if we do not give it the power to walk unseen into those homes and watch over us. 

In the case of the San Bernardino iPhone, the FBI is asking for the power to, at any time and without our knowledge, place listening devices and cameras on our bedside tables, in our back pockets, in our children’s bedrooms, and yes, in our bathrooms.

Of course they don’t put it quite that way, but no one should be under any illusions on this subject. If the FBI is permitted to compel Apple to create the backdoor they are asking for in this case, they will ask for it again, and they will ask for more and more powerful access, for less and less serious crimes. 

If they can ask Apple to disable the password protections on an iPhone, they can ask Apple to turn on the microphone or the camera. On any iPhone, anywhere, in any home in this country. And you would never know. 

Some years ago one could have argued that there would be restraint in the use of such powers. But no one can seriously make that case anymore. We all know they would do that sort of thing if they could, because we’ve all read of too many cases where they have.

Once the tool exists, it will be abused. I really wish I could say otherwise. I wish I lived in a country where law enforcement acted with the square-jawed nobility of a comic book FBI agent. I used to think I did live in such a country, but in recent years I have been forced to realize that I don’t. I think that, in your heart, you know it too. 

And if you happen to like the party in power today, just remember, every tool you give them is inherited by the next guy. Think of the worst possible outcome of the next election, the worst new president, the worst new congress you can imagine (whichever one that might be for you). Do you want those people to have the power to look and listen to anyone they please, anytime, anywhere? To search at will through recordings of our most personal moments? To use a rubber stamp warrant to gather dirt on someone who insulted them? To review the browsing history of anyone who annoys them publicly enough? 

Fear is the tool of choice for bringing a free people under the yoke. Fear is the great equalizer between the unlimited power of the people to act in their own interest, and the pitiful weakness of a would-be despot.

Do not give these people the tools that only fear can buy them.

The work of courage belongs to everyone. We each have a role to play in our own corner of the world. Right now there is only one thing standing in the way of a nightmare coming true in the domain of the iPhone. That one thing is the good word of Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple Computer. And if that doesn’t scare the living daylights out of you, I don’t know what would.

I do business with Apple. I like Apple. I liked Steve Jobs. I don’t know this man Tim Cook, but I respect his courage in standing up to a bully government. His words set an example, and for that we all owe him a debt. I think it's a debt that is best paid forward.

We should all look to our own lives and ask, against what injustice, great or small, am I the last defense? What requires my courage? When they come knocking, whose example will I follow?

Theodore Gray