The biggest table ... period
Whether it's in the pages of Popular Science magazine or on the wall of Uni High's third floor, 1982 alum Theo Gray's scientific imagination can be seen playfully, brilliantly at work. The latest example? A poster of the periodic table that has garnered national attention.
By Andrew Lovdahl
Gargoyle staff reporter
Posted Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2006, The OG, features
AN EXPANSE OF wall on the third floor once characterized by peeling white paint is now home to something decidedly more aesthetically pleasing: a giant, colorful, pictorial periodic table.
Created and donated by Theodore Gray (Uni High Class of 1982), the poster features visual representations of all the known elements, from humble hydrogen to mysterious ununoctium. Most elements feature a picture of the element in its naturally occurring state, while some of the more dangerous and radioactive elements have photos of the scientists who discovered them.
Almost everyone can agree that the poster is visually stunning. On his Web site Gray says that “every element has a pretty side, and in this poster I have tried to give each one a chance to show off what makes it unique and beautiful.”
Elements 112 through 118 are displayed as human silhouettes emblazoned with a large question mark to indicate that they have yet to be discovered or observed in sufficient detail. “Who knows, some day that might be one of you,” chemistry teacher David Bergandine tells his sophomore students, indicating the anonymous figures.
The poster on the third floor came into being in 2005 when Gray and a filmmaker from England collaborated to make informational videos about the periodic table for the Discovery Channel.
While exhaustively photographing the array of elements from all angles on a black background, Gray realized that he could make “a poster that might look really good,” he said in an e-mail interview with the Gargoyle.
He worked on a computer to assemble the best images he had in archive and had a final image finished by March of 2006.
Gray enlisted a Pennsylvania-based company to print the posters, which he has made available to the public on his Web site.
Almost immediately, he received a torrent of requests from teachers worldwide. The magazine Popular Science ran a piece on the table in its December issue. However, he was also struck by the desire to make a larger poster — a considerably larger poster.
After it was printed on high-quality paper with equally high-quality ink, the approximately 33-foot-by-4-foot poster was mounted on a stiff backing and installed at Uni after Labor Day weekend. Gray is expected to visit Uni after winter break for a belated “unveiling” ceremony.
Gray is an interesting character who has a long history with the elements. After graduating from Uni in 1982, he attended the University of Illinois and majored in chemistry.
After a short stint at the University of California at Berkeley, he co-founded Wolfram Research (developer of Mathematica) with five friends, just two years after finishing college.
He is probably best known, at least in the Uni community, for his “Periodic Table Table” — an actual physical table that stands on four legs in his Champaign office and contains element samples in a grid of recesses organized according to the rows and columns of its two-dimensional counterpart.
This innovation attracted mild interest, and he was recruited to make a number of similar installations at museums and universities. For his original table, in 2002 he received the honor of being an “Ig Nobel Laureate,” a tongue-in-cheek title given out by the scientific journal Annals of Improbable Research.
“It is without a doubt the highest honor for which the Periodic Table Table is eligible,” Gray writes on his Web site.
Besides his work at Wolfram, Gray writes a monthly column for Popular Science magazine, “Gray Matter.”
Bergandine, who has met Gray on several occasions, describes him as “a creative genius” and describes the new poster as “a work of art.” Director/Principal Kassie Patton, who was somewhat familiar with Gray's work before coming to work at Uni, is similarly impressed by the eye-catching pictures. Both Patton and Bergandine note that Gray had a strong desire to give back to the Uni community.
There is just one thing observers should remember about the poster: Look with your eyes, not your hands.
“With the combination of pigment inks, acid-free paper, and certified preservative spray, the poster should last between 100 and 200 years before any visible fading occurs,” Gray said. “Unless, of course, someone ruins it with scratches or dents … I decided to take a chance on Uni students being kind enough not to destroy it too quickly.”
— Theodore Gray's Web site
— Theodore Gray's monthly column for Popular Science magazine: Gray Matter
— News-Gazette: Wolfram co-founder breathes new life into Periodic Table