The Elemental Origins Tracer

“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.” – Carl Sagan

The Elemental Origins Tracer is a machine that helps people grasp the expansive idea of the origins of the elements that make up our environment and ourselves. The scanner demonstrates the cosmic chance by which these elements formed, floated through space helped form the earth and everything on it, and end up in our frying pans, our soda cans and even our table salt. 

I designed and built the installation in collaboration with the Indian Institute of Astrophysics and Indian Institute of Science. It was exhibited at the Jawaharlal Nehru Planetarium Bangalore, during the Kalpaneya Yatre 2010, commemorating the International Year of Astronomy.

Sandeep Mathew
Concept Development 
Processing Code
Arduino and Physical Computing
PCB Design
Industrial Design
Permanent Exhibit @ Jawaharlal Nehru
Planetarium, Bangalore
Showcased at IGNITE 2010 by the National
Innovation Foundation, IIM Ahmedabad

How it Works

A given object is placed on the Elemental Scanner, it analyses its chemical composition and throws up the result, displaying its major element and the star that element came from.

A concealed RFID chip was placed in each object (A) The Tracer itself was comprised of a computer (B), a custom designed PCB which integrated an Arduino and an ID 20 RFID Sensor (C), It also had two arrays of LED’s (D). When the object is placed on the Tracer, it triggers the LED arrays (D) to produce feedback of analysis. Then, based on each unique chip, identified by the RFID Sensor (C), the relevant information is retrieved and displayed by a Processing sketch, and shown on the Display.


As Arthur C Clark puts it, “science or technology, if sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic.” By using mundane and everyday objects around us, and demonstrating the possibility that the elements that create them came from distant stars, The Tracer often compelled people to question their own origins by placing their hands on it.

The Tracer, urged people to consider their own origins, and the unfathomable scale of the universe. The Kalpaneya Yatre Festival ran from November 26th 2010 to December 5th 2010 with nearly 8000 visitors daily.

Further Development

The Tracer was further conceptualised into a tangible learning tool for children. In order to validate the idea, we designed a public testing toolkit, which included illustrating scenarios of the Tracer in use in different contexts and mapping different people’s reactions and sentiments through facial expressions. This iteration was then showcased at NIF’s IGNITE 2010 an Exhibition for grassroots innovation, held at IIM Ahmedabad.