“You can sell your cats because you won’t be needing them anymore.”
Theodore Gray is an innovator, scientist, and writer, but when writing about the warmth generated by acrylic fibers he misses the point of cats. We get cats for entertainment when the electricity goes out.
Luckily, I got quite a bit of entertainment after I got an email asking me if I wanted to test out the new iPad/iPhone app from Theodore Gray, Molecules. A few days, and many hours of staring spellbound at the glowing, wiggling molecules on my iPad, later, I was on the phone with Theodore talking about the Food Babe, homeopathic plutonium, and artificial sugar packets.
First, who is Theodore Gray? He studied post-grad theoretical chemistry at UC Berkeley. He left the PhD program partway through to co-found Wolfram Research. He amassed an impressive collection of thousands of visual samples of the elements in the Periodic Table. Theodore’s other projects include Mathematica, PaleGray Labs, and Elements.
So clearly he was totally in need of my help, a snarky loudmouthed science blogger whose biggest claim to fame is getting Rob Schneider fired and a viral video swallowing some sugar pills. Clearly.
So what is Molecules? From the end user perspective, after playing with it both on my iPad and iPhone, it’s a bit like a 21st century pop-up book on science.
I can’t stop playing with it. I was at Disneyland last night and I was playing with the wiggling molecules while I was in line for rides. It’s a few hundred pages of beautifully written, easily accessible information plus wiggling, glowing molecules. All the pictures spin and several graphics show molecular interactions. I love everything about this.
Did he use glutamic acid just for me? I’ll pretend he did. Well played, sir.
The graphics are stunning, interactive, and had a room full of scientists with masters degrees and PhDs at my office entranced when I started playing with the app. At the same time, Theodore told me that when he gives talks, about half of his audience tends to be 8-10 year olds. He writes in terms that manage to be conversational without talking down to the audience, and are engaging and informative even for a working scientist. Theodore says he hesitates to deem the book a children’s book (and I can see why as I really dig it), but it’s a book that adults can really enjoy and can get a child hooked on science. It’s an excellent educational tool and, in a lighter vein, a fun toy.
Picture a group of scientists staring at the molecules going “oooh, colors.” Yep. Our parents are proud.
Theodore’s first app was Elements. This is the logical second app in that series, and is to be followed in 2016 by ‘Reactions.’ There are countless molecules that could have been chosen to be featured in this app. As I do on Science Babe, subjects were chosen by what piqued his interest. When we spoke on Saturday morning, he said he’s already had someone ask ‘why wasn’t chlorophyll covered?’ As I’ve found running a science communication site, you won’t be able to cover every topic that everyone wants to hear, but when, as a scientist and writer, you find something captures your imagination, it’s often times a hit with your readers.
Improvised a bomb? I want this story.
My favorite chapter is “I Hate That Molecule,” on ‘evil’ chemicals, molecules that have been demonized or otherwise misunderstood. The molecule he opens up with? Thimerosal, the mercury containing preservative in vaccines. He explained some heavy hitters, from CFCs to carbon dioxide. He even tackled the ‘yoga mat chemical,’ azodicarbonamide, which was yanked from Subway’s bread last year after a campaign by the Food Babe from her stance of ‘if you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it.’ He also has a chapter on natural versus artificial, where you can see that vitamin B12 is cyanocobalamin. By the Food Babe’s standards, this also renders it inedible.
How’s that whole “statements not evaluated by the FDA” thing sound now?
Most of the molecules can be tapped to pop out and have the energy and speed of movement adjusted. You can change them from 2D to 3D space filling. It quickly turns a book that’s already fun and informative into a bit of a toy that can give someone of any attention span… HEY! SCIENCE DOG! STOP EATING THE PILLOW!
He’s a fan of James Randi and in his website he rails against pseudoscience like, one of my favorites, a homeopathic plutonium treatment (what does it cure? how would they even procure the plutonium?). We had a few laughs while we were talking about some of the nonsense we’ve seen online. He’s a wonderful scientist and has made such a fun combination of learning tool and e-book in Molecules. For $13.99, you’re getting a few hundred pages of information and an interactive learning tool with beautiful graphics. I hope that you, and if you have them, students and children, enjoy it as much as I have.
But please, keep your cat.