Local author combines curiosity, danger in book of experiments

CHAMPAIGN – If you've ever been enthralled by Theo Gray's "Gray Matter" column in Popular Science magazine, you're in for a treat.

The chemistry buff has bundled 55 of his most outrageous experiments into "Mad Science," a 239-page, full-color, hardcover book published by Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers.

How can anyone resist recipes for turning beach sand into steel, making ice cubes that sink or launching toy rockets using energy released from an Oreo cookie?

The subtitle of "Mad Science" is "Experiments You Can Do at Home ... But Probably Shouldn't."

And there are plenty of warnings throughout the book detailing the dangers of the various chemicals and processes involved.

Indeed, Gray writes some of the demonstrations "would be just plain crazy to attempt without the aid of an experienced chemist or someone who has performed the experiment successfully before."

The publisher goes even further, disclaiming responsibility for any loss, injury or damages caused as a result of the experiments or instructions.

"Under no circumstances should any child, under the age of 18, attempt to recreate any of the experiments or activities described within," the publisher states on an opening page.

But Gray himself probably wouldn't go that far.

Explaining why he wrote the book, Gray tells the reader that if you look into the past of any scientist, leader or "anyone who's done something interesting in life," you'll find more curiosity, adventure, hard work and "questionable judgment" than you'll find high marks for neatness.

"For better or worse, the fire, smoke, smells and bangs of chemistry are what inspired scientists to become scientists in the first place."

So, go for it, he suggests, recognizing the dangers of what you're working with and making sure you have the proper supervision.

"Without these experiences, I might have ended up as a stockbroker or worse," Gray said.

Instead, he ended up as co-founder of Wolfram Research in Champaign, the company that developed the Mathematica technical software system.

He's also developed his own business, peddling adaptations of the periodic table of elements in the form of posters and place mats.

"Mad Science," which sells for $24.95, will likely be a hit with "The Big Bang Theory" crowd – geeks who get kicks from building their own light bulbs, watching radioactive material decay and shrinking coins using copper coils, magnetic fields and high energy.

But some experiments appeal even to the non-scientist. Who wouldn't like to see how snowflakes can be preserved in super glue, for example? Or find out how anything can be covered with a lasting coat of gold?

Plus, who can resist reading a chapter titled "Hillbilly Hot-Tubbing?" Gray uses quicklime to raise the temperature of water, and there are photos of him and his family enjoying the results. Resources for the experiment are found at Gray's Web site, www.graysci.com.

Gray does many of the experiments in his workshop on a rural farmstead, a half-mile from his nearest neighbor. That spares his neighbors the booms and bangs that result from chemical reactions.

Black Dog & Leventhal touts "Mad Science" as "the perfect book for anyone fascinated by all things electrical, chemical or explosive and who loves a vicarious thrill."

But Gray clearly hopes his experiments will inspire creativity.

"We are not going to solve the energy crisis, climate change or water shortage by wishful thinking or by watching commercials paid for by lobbyists," he writes.

The only way to solve them is by "using the scientific method to define, study and understand the problem and the solutions," he said.

And if there's madness to that method, so what?

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