Science Book a Day Interviews Theodore Gray


Special thanks to Theodore Gray for answering 6 questions about his recently featured book – Molecules: The Elements and the Architecture of Everything

Theodore Gray, BAFTA and IgNobel winning author of The Elements, A Visual Exploration, Founder of Touchpress (an App publishing company), stitchcoder at PaleGray Labs (an embroidery automation company / art project), and co-founder of Wolfram Research, Inc (makers of Mathematica and Wolfram|Alpha). – Adapted from Theodore’s Homepage

Theodore’s Homepage:
Theodore’s Twitter:

#1 – What was the impetus for Molecules?

Since before I started writing my first book, The Elements, I’ve thought there should be a trilogy: Elements, Molecules, Reactions. It just seemed like a very natural set of topics that together cover the subject of chemistry comprehensively. I’m 2/3 of the way through.

#2 – Following on your previous book The Elements, what did you want to do differently? What did you want to do the same?

The big difference is that with The Elements, my table of contents was pre-determined. There were going to be 118 short chapters, no thinking required. With Molecules there is absolutely no possibility of being comprehensive. Even covering all the categories of different kinds of molecules is a can of worms, and not interesting to me. So I had to break free of the yoke of completeness. I decided to just write about what I found most fascinating. And instead of 100 different topics, I picked about a dozen larger topics and showed how many molecules fit together in a common theme.

#3 – The book has so many wonderful photos in it. How did the photographs add to the text? Or vice-versa?

My books are totally dependent on the photography (by Nick Mann, my long-time collaborator). It’s all well and good to write about this stuff, but you’ve got to SEE it to believe it in many cases. We photograph everything on a turntable, so in the iPad/iPhone App version of the book you can spin everything around to see it from all sides. And, new for Molecules, we also shot a lot of video, which is shown in the App as short loops that you can scrub back and forth with your finger. It’s fun to watch things like solvent fountains and dyes being injected into water.

Having nice looking pictures is crucial, but at the same time, just a collection of pictures leaves a lot out. Often the story behind an object makes you see it in a whole new light. So I’ve tried to combine pictures and stories in a way where each enriches the other.

#4 – Was it difficult to assemble the examples of each material? How long did the research/work on the book take?

It took about a year to write and photograph the book. A great many of the examples came from eBay. It’s really quite remarkable how many things, including very technical products, can be found on that universal marketplace. You can get pure indigo leaf extract shipped by air direct from India, which is quite a change from the days when you had to wait for a sailboat to arrive.

#5 – How did you decide what to keep and what to reject?

I kept what I thought was interesting. It’s purely 100% based on my own fascinations. That’s how I decided what to put in The Elements, and I figure that the audience that book found must like the same kind of stuff I do, so I should keep up with that practice. There were a couple of topics, like explosives, that I find very interesting, but I decided to leave them for the next book, because in the next book they will get to actually explode, rather than just be talked about as physical substances.

#6 – Are you working on any new projects/books you can tell us about?

Reactions! The third and last book in the trilogy will be out for xmas 2016. It will be about all the interesting things that happen when you combine multiple molecules with each other.

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