Without a doubt, the most fun thing I’ve worked on in my five-plus years at PopSci is the Gray Matter column. Nearly every month since mid-2002, contributor Theo Gray has come up with new ways to illuminate the world of elemental chemistry, often by setting things on fire. But far from your average YouTube-loitering pyromaniac, Gray combines sharp, lively writing with a gifted professor’s knack for making the complex simple. And he never fails to find an original spin on a demonstration: explaining the power of rapid evaporation by making ice cream with a fire extinguisher, or showing how a self-heating soup can works by making a self-heating hot tub, or illustrating the energy locked up in bacon by building a steel-cutting bacon torch.
So I was thrilled when, last summer, we realized that we were finally approaching the 50-column mark that we always said would trigger a book. And I was even more excited when Gray sold his publisher (Black Dog and Leventhal) on the idea of expanding and redesigning all the columns to better show off the stunning photography that too often gets crowded with words and shrunk to postage-stamp size in the issue. We also added how-to steps for almost every experiment, from making glass in a charcoal grill to shattering glass drops into a billion pieces with your finger.
The book, Theo Gray’s Mad Science: Experiments You Can Do at Home but Probably Shouldn’t, is packed with things that can actually maim you, as well as projects you’d let elementary-school kids do unsupervised, with crystal-clear warnings for each along the way. I’m thrilled at the way it turned out. And if you don’t care what I think, here are some of the early blurbs from people smarter than me:
“This is a fabulous book, and a real education, too — a beautiful introduction to hands-on chemistry. Theo Gray brings us dozens of experiments in minute, clear, and loving detail, and each one becomes a door onto the marvels of how chemicals react. Whether he is showing us how to make table salt from its violent elements, or, in a quieter vein, to make one’s own nylon thread or ‘lead’ pencils, Gray’s encyclopedic knowledge and contagious enthusiasm transport us to deep intellectual realms, while never sacrificing a sense of wonder and, above all, fun.”
— Oliver Sacks, author of Awakenings, Musicophilia, Uncle Tungsten, and many others
“I’ve spent 22 years working with Theo Gray on creating software, seeing him find simple ways to do the seemingly impossible. You’re in for a treat here when he applies the same creativity and insight to revealing the science of everyday things.”
— Stephen Wolfram, creator of Mathematica® and author of A New Kind of Science
“What a magnificent book. It’s gorgeous, playful, and draws you in. Every single photo shows not only a deep love of science in the abstract, but also a tinkerer’s love of the STUFF of science; the tools and glass, the clay and metal, and all the things that make science accessible to everyone.”
— Adam Savage, star of MythBusters
“What good is this Nobel Prize around my neck if it doesn’t produce admiration for science writers such as Theo Gray, whose skillful work helps convert young students into serious researchers.”
— Leon Lederman, winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physics
“Theo’s Mad Science is destined to inspire and spark the imaginations of the next generation of makers, tinkerers, engineers and mad scientists!”
— Phillip Torrone, Senior Editor of Make magazine
“Theodore Gray has attained a level of near superhuman geekery that the rest of us can only mutely admire.”
— Cecil Adams, The Straight Dope