Periodic Table display makes the elements more than elemental

Periodic Table display makes the elements more than elemental

Theodore Gray likes to say, probably only half jokingly, that anything worth doing is worth overdoing.

So the gleaming display case replicating the Periodic Table of the Elements, sitting at the top of the pristine staircase in the new wing of the Percy L. Julian Science and Mathematics Center at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., should really come as no surprise.

And yet, it's so big. Wall-sized in fact.

And each of the elements looks so good, illuminated by tiny, bright light-emitting diode spotlights, generally with a sample in its natural state and an example of a real-life product containing the material.

The elements that stand still, anyway. Those that quickly dissipate are properly represented by mini portraits of the scientists they're named for, Nobel Prize-winning chemist Glenn Seaborg for seaborgium and the like.

The noble gases light up glass receptacles in the shape of their symbols on the Periodic Table, showing clearly why neon signs, not helium or krypton, ended up brightening the windows of taverns everywhere.

There are calcium sea shells, copper wiring, a silicon wafer from which computer chips get stamped.

"This is certainly more impressive than I ever imagined," DePauw chemistry Professor Bridget Gourley, who came up with the idea, said recently as she gazed at the display.

Then again, she didn't know Theo Gray, Max Whitby and their colleagues when all this started.

Gray, co-founder of Wolfram Research in Champaign, is the guy who read a book in which he thought someone had made an actual table of the Periodic Table, was disappointed to find they actually hadn't and, so, built one himself.

A conference table no less, for the group he heads working on Mathematica, the software that is Wolfram's flagship product.

For that he received international attention in 2002 and an Ig Nobel Prize, the amusing and geek-coveted award given by the journal Annals of Improbable Research at a Harvard ceremony each year, for science projects designed to make people laugh but also to think.

Gray is also the kind of guy who has a workshop, at his farm in southern Champaign County, with seemingly any tool needed to make anything. The kind of guy who haunts auctions for, say, a stack of cherry wood from a failed lumber mill because it might come in handy some day. The kind of guy who knows where to get a deal on a silvery ingot of indium.

Meanwhile, his Web site about the Periodic Table table attracted the attention of Whitby, whose London, England, The Red Green & Blue Company makes a brief case-sized collection of the 92 naturally occurring elements for schools, among other things.

Kindred spirits – the element collection came about after Whitby decided to assemble his own on a lark – the two began exchanging e-mails and talking about doing an element-oriented project and business venture together.

They considered a coffee-table book on the elements but decided the printing costs made it too risky. They mulled over a museum gift shop version of Whitby's collection for schools but figured it couldn't be priced low enough to be an impulse buy.

Then, along came DePauw, a well-endowed private university with a pot of money for artistic and scientific displays in the public spaces of the new wing at its science and math center.

The Chemistry Department needed a display. Surfing the Web, Gourley's colleague Hilary Eppley came across Whitby's company's boxed set of elements.

Gourley began corresponding with the Englishman and Gray about building a larger version, which culminated in the display case that began turning heads at the Indiana school last month.

"The modern physics class came up and had a field trip to it last week," Gourley said. "Everybody's incredibly pleased."

"When we first put it up, nobody walked by without looking," Gray said.

In short, it smokes the other displays in the new building, even the $11,000 Tyrannosaurus rex skull.

All the more impressive because it was assembled in a few weeks, in Gray's workshop, after Whitby came over from England for the purpose.

Whitby said all they had when they started in mid-October was boxes of element samples. The 10-by-7-foot cabinet, the electronics, the software to run a touch computer display with details about the elements, and to administer the whole thing via the Internet, had to be put together in time for the DePauw building's rededication Nov. 1.

Colin McCoy, an Illinois Wesleyan history professor, Gray friend and ace carpenter, helped with the woodwork.

"I think we did about two months 'normal' work in two weeks," Whitby said. "Several times we ended up working 21-hour days." Whitby called Gray "an extraordinary person to work with" and attributed many of the creative ideas in the DePauw display to him.

"He is skilled in more areas than I have even heard of," Whitby said. "He is also someone who works incredibly hard and he has a good sense of humor ... which is a truly rare combination."

For his part, Gray said he thinks science displays, often boring, should be beautiful as well as informative.

The DePauw display may only be a beginning. Gray and Whitby hope it's the prototype for a number of others they will build for universities, science museums, foundations and corporations worldwide.

Gray says it's a scandal that the historic Noyes chemistry lab at the University of Illinois doesn't have an even better one. He's probably only half joking.

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You can reach Greg Kline at (217) 351-5215 or via e-mail at

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