Woodstock’s Jeff Moran helps write new guide of the elements

Jeff Moran

Jeff Moran

Software developer and former Woodstock town supervisor Jeff Moran has an unusual passion: the elements, as in the Periodic Table. “I’m not a scientist, chemist or teacher. I come to it from a design and philosophic standpoint and hands-on experience,” he said.

Moran first got interested while working with precious and industrial metals as a metalworker many years ago in his native Midwest. The fascination grew when he worked in historic preservation in New York City, inventing artificial granite, brownstone and other materials to restore historic buildings.

In 1991, the year he moved to Woodstock, Moran designed a spiral version of the Periodic Table of the Elements and posted it online. It has been attracting attention ever since: In 2006, the design was featured in The New York Times, and the spiral is etched in granite on the floor of the entry portico at Mount Holyoke College’s Kendade Hall Science Center. “I thought the spiral had more potential to show the interrelations of the elements than the Periodic Table,” he said. “The arrangement could get at the underlying philosophy as to why some elements attract other elements, why some are useful in conversion and why some are useful for protection.”

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In the meantime, Moran has made his debut in print as one of the authors of a new book, 30-Second Elements: The 50 Most Significant Elements, Each Explained in Half a Minute. Published in the US by Metro Books and in the UK by Ivy Press, the book, which features eight contributors, most of whom are British (Moran is one of the two Americans), is part of the 30-Second series, aimed at making obscure scientific subjects accessible to the layperson.

When the publisher contacted Moran, there were 11 remaining elements, out of a total of 50, to be covered. Moran chose copper, aluminum and gadolinium, a rare earth element. “I wanted to stick to metals – not ones that exist for nanoseconds,” Moran said, noting that ferromagnetic gadolinium is used for temperature-sensitive applications. He also chose tellurium and thallium, the latter “because Agatha Christie used it in one of her early novels. One of the characters murdered somebody with thallium.”

Each entry consists of 200 words plus 25 words for an overview. “We’re trying to make it intelligible to the nonscientific, by being very quick and not dense,” said Moran. “It was a real challenge, but once I got into it, lots of fun.”

Opposite the text are illustrations, with which Moran said he is very pleased. For his entries, they include depictions of the Statute of Liberty (whose fittings are copper), recycled aluminum cans and a before-and-after picture showing a hirsute Victorian Era gent with and without hair (illustrating the toxicity of thallium, once used as a rat poison).

Moran has also been hard at work on a book proposal about his spiral design: a time-consuming process involving multiple passes with groups of experts and re-drafts incorporating their comments. “It’s a great process, because it makes you hone your ideas,” he said. “In publishing they don’t look for reasons to publish a book, but reasons not to.”

Moran said that the book would explain the spiral’s structure, the subatomic physics used in his design, why the elements are ordered the way they are and the underlying philosophy. “It’s not random. There’s something really deep we can all access if we understand it,” he said, noting that the first spiral arrangement of the elements dates from 1862, before there was a Table. Unlike that design, which was incredibly elaborate, Moran’s spiral fits on a letter-sized piece of paper and doesn’t require a magnifying glass: features that account for its popularity.

Moran took a course in silversmithing in high school, and enrolled in the Sheet Metal Workers’ Union apprentice program when he was 19. He came to New York City to work in the film business. After tiring of making commercials and industrial films, he got involved in architectural historic sculpture work through a friend.

When the business shifted from historic buildings to casinos and theme-park structures, Moran lost interest and started a software company, Electric Prism. Today the company specializes in interactive applications online, such as mapping and a history atlas. “I try to learn all the time, and enjoy it when I do,” said Moran.

30-Second Elements: the 50 Most Significant Elements, Each Explained in Half a Minute is published by Metro Books.