Popular science writer highlights “Reactions” at planetarium lecture

Photo by Tom Warner |  Theodore Gray presents his lecture “Reactions” at the Staerkel Planetarium on Nov. 3.

Photo by Tom Warner |
Theodore Gray presents his lecture “Reactions” at the Staerkel Planetarium on Nov. 3.

David Saveanu 

Staff Writer

Theodore Gray, co-founder of Wolfram Research, co-founder of app developer Touch Press, and international best-selling science author, visited Parkland’s William M. Staerkel Planetarium on his book tour, showcasing his new book, “Reactions.”

Gray came in as the speaker for one of Parkland’s World of Science Lecture series, which happens each month, given by different local scientists.

Gray’s book is the third in a trilogy. The series includes “The Elements,” “Molecules”, and “Reactions.”

“I wrote about what I thought was interesting at the time,” said Gray, regarding his inspiration for his books.

Gray began his lecture by talking about a misunderstanding he had when reading the book “Uncle Tungsten” by Oliver Sacks that caused him to become consumed with the idea of a “periodic table table.” Upon realizing that a table in the shape of a periodic table did not exist, Gray decided to build one and fill it with all of the elements.

The talk revolved around Gray’s fascination with molecules reacting with one another. He showcased these with different visuals that he and his photographer, Nick Mann, created.

Slow motion videos and very detailed photos of each element, molecule or reaction filled the slides, as Gray explained what he found interesting about the reactions, especially fiery reactions.

Gray sought to make subjects that are usually thought of as boring, like “watching paint dry, watching grass grow, and water boiling,” exciting and aesthetically pleasing, by showing off colorful and dynamic reactions that are part of these processes or closely related to them.

He showed videos and photos of different paints and how they are chemically close to some explosive materials. One example he gave was of oily paint rags, which are known to spontaneously catch fire under the right conditions.

Gray also showed an animated video of the enzymes that make grass grow and a photo explaining one theory of how water evaporates.

The different experiments shown were performed by Gray, while Mann made sure they were captured in appealing ways.

At the end of the talk, Mann then went through some of the more difficult photos and videos, and the techniques he used to make the photos more appealing to the public, to truly capture the beauty of the reactions.

“It’s a talk for the community,” Leake said about the lecture series.  “Even though we’re a planetarium we try to make it so it’s not just astronomy.”

Gray’s talk was about chemistry but every month tends to be a different topic. Leake tries to make the talks relevant to what’s going on in the world.

“I think of hot topics,” Leake said. “Is there a hot topic in chemistry? Is there something big going on in biology?”

If there is a natural disaster or new discovery Leake “tries to find a speaker to talk about that.” This keeps the community interested and gives them an accessible place to learn about real world events.

Gray recently released his book, and being an internationally bestselling author that resides in Urbana, he was requested to come give a lecture.

The talks happen at the William M. Staerkel planetarium at 7 p.m. on the first Friday of each month that classes are in session. The lectures are open to the public and cost $2. For the schedule of The World of Science Talks, visit  parkland.edu/planetarium and click on “Lectures” under “What’s playing.”

For more information on Gray and his work, visit his website at theodoregray.com