Expert on the elements to be featured on PBS series

Expert on the elements to be featured on PBS series

CHAMPAIGN — Theo Gray has shared the wonders of the chemical elements with the public through a book and through iPad apps.

On Wednesday, he'll get to share them with a national TV audience as a featured guest on "Nova."

The two-hour episode of the PBS science series — to air at 8 p.m. Wednesday on WILL-TV — is called "Hunting The Elements."

New York Times technology columnist David Pogue travels the world to expose fascinating facts about 118 chemical elements, about 90 of which are naturally occurring.

Among Pogue's stops is Champaign County, where he interviewed — and participated in outrageous experiments with — Gray, author of the 2009 book "The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in The Universe."

Gray is also co-founder of Wolfram Research in Champaign and founder and creative director of Touch Press, which issued an iPad app of "The Elements."

He's also the author of "Mad Science: Experiments You Can Do at Home ... But Probably Shouldn't" and the Gray Matter column in Popular Science magazine.

Gray said "Nova" spent about four days of filming here, including a day-and-a-half at his rural compound, where he and Pogue poured liquid oxygen on charcoal and took part in sodium explosions.

"It was far away from anywhere else," Gray said. "We had fun doing it."

The rest of the filming was done in his office at Wolfram Research, "going through some of the basics — how the periodic table is put together, how the basic elements relate to each other — explaining it in language that makes sense to people who are not chemists," he said.

The most recent visit was just a month ago, he added.

Gray said he was first contacted "six to eight months ago" about participating in the show but didn't know then how he happened to be asked.

He said he met "Nova" senior executive producer Paula Apsell a couple years ago at a party. Earlier this year, he had dinner with her in California and learned she had been given a copy of his book.

"I do wonder why she did the show with somebody else," he said, referring to Pogue being recruited as host.

But he said it probably did make sense to have someone who wasn't an expert on chemistry asking the questions.

As of late last week, Gray hadn't seen a final version of the show, only some excerpts on YouTube. But he predicted viewers "will certainly be entertained."

"People will get an appreciation of what makes the elements interesting — how they combine with each other to form virtually everything," he said.

As for Gray's viewing plans, he said he aims to watch the show on someone else's TV.

He said he canceled his cable service a year ago because his kids watched all their programming on Hulu and other Internet venues.

"They don't understand (the concept of) TV occurring at a certain time," he said.

"This is the first time in a year that I've wanted to watch a show at a certain time. I want to see it live, so I'm going to go to a friend's house."

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