Gray Matter: An elemental fascination

Our interactive periodic table showcases 93 element samples from the collection of PopSci contributing editor Theodore Gray, who spent four years assembling and photographing them.
A periodic table poster.
There it is: the poster.

Sometimes the best things in life are just a big mistake. My writing PopSci’s chemistry column the past few years? All based on a complete misunderstanding.

I read in Oliver Sacks’s Uncle Tungsten that Sacks liked to visit a periodic table at the Kensington Science Museum in London, and I actually thought it was a real table with samples sitting on it for people to look at. Disappointed to learn that it was just a wall display, I resolved that I was going to build a proper periodic-table table.

  • Project: building a periodic table
  • Time: 2,000 hours
  • Cost: $25,000
  • Difficulty: sane | | | | | crazy (Editor’s note: 3/5)

It’s been downhill ever since. First, I started collecting elements to go on the table. Then I started writing about them for my website, Then PopSci offered me a column. Pretty soon I was hanging out late at night in the back alleys of the internet, looking for a fix of uranium or another hit of gadolinium.

There is a thrill in discovering pure elements in new and unexpected places, like the solid blocks of magnesium you can find in camping stores (used as fire starters). Or when I finally got my hands on a real bottle of Radithor-brand radioactive thorium-water health tonic, still driving my Geiger counter wild 75 years after it was outlawed (eBay, of course).

The elements are the gateway between the mathematical purity of physics and the messy reality of life. Between you and the ancient supernova in which the stuff of your body was created, there is one link: your elements (really just the nuclei of your elements—the electrons got swapped out long ago).

So to celebrate the astonishing diversity of nature, I decided that after four years of collecting and photographing the elements, I was ready to make the very thing I started by rebelling against: a periodic-table poster to hang on the wall.

This story has been updated. It was originally featured in the December 2006 issue of Popular Science magazine.