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The Periodic Table, a challenge in information organization

Reader Chris P. points me to this article about the design of the Periodic Table. I then learned that 2019 is the “International Year of the Periodic Table,” according to the United Nations.

Here is the canonical design of the Periodic Table that science students are familiar with.

Wiki-Simple_Periodic_Table_Chart-en.svg

(Source: Wikipedia.)

The Periodic Table is an exercise of information organization and display. It's about adding structure to over 100 elements, so as to enhance comprehension and lookup. The canonical tabular design has columns and rows. The columns (Groups) impose a primary classification; the rows (Periods) provide a secondary classification. The elements also follow an aggregate order, which is traced by reading from top left to bottom right. The row structure makes clear the "periodicity" of the elements: the "period" of recurrence is not constant, tending to increase with the heavier elements at the bottom.

As with most complex datasets, these elements defy simple organization, due to a curse of dimensionality. The general goal is to put the similar elements closer together. Similarity can be defined in an infinite number of ways, such as chemical, physical or statistical properties. The canonical design, usually attributed to Russian chemist Mendeleev, attained its status because the community accepted his organizing principles, that is, his definitions of similarity (subsequently modified).

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Of interest, there is a list of unsettled issues. According to Wikipedia, the most common arguments concern:

  • Hydrogen: typically shown as a member of Group 1 (first column), some argue that it doesn’t belong there since it is a gas not a metal. It is sometimes placed in Group 17 (halogens), where it forms a nice “triad” with fluorine and chlorine. Other designers just float hydrogen up top.
  • Helium: typically shown as a member of Group 18 (rightmost column), the  halogens noble gases, it may also be placed in Group 2.
  • Mercury: usually found in Group 12, some argue that it is not a metal like cadmium and zinc.
  • Group 3: other than the first two elements , there are various voices about how to place the other elements in Group 3. In particular, the pairs of lanthanum / actinium and lutetium / lawrencium are sometimes shown in the main table, sometimes shown in the ‘f-orbital’ sub-table usually placed below the main table.

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Over the years, there have been numerous attempts to re-design the Periodic table. Some of these are featured in the article that Chris sent me (link).

I checked how these alternative designs deal with those unsettled issues. The short answer is they don't settle the issues.

Wide Table (Janet)

The key change is to remove the separation between the main table and the f-orbital (pink) section shown below, as a "footnote". This change clarifies the periodicity of the elements, especially the elongating periods as one moves down the table. This form is also called "long step".

Mg32190402_long_conventional

As a tradeoff, this table requires more space and has an awkward aspect ratio.

In this version of the wide table, the designer chooses to stack lutetium / lawrencium in Group 3 as part of the main table. Other versions place lanthanum / actinium in Group 3 as part of the main table. There are even versions that leave Group 3 with two elements.

Hydrogen, helium and mercury retain their conventional positions.

 

Spiral Design (Hyde)

There are many attempts at spiral designs. Here is one I found on this tumblr:

Hyde_periodictable

The spiral leverages the correspondence between periodic and circular. It is visually more pleasing than a tabular arrangement. But there is a tradeoff. Because of the increasing "diameter" from inner to outer rings, the inner elements are visually constrained compared to the outer ones.

In these spiral diagrams, the designer solves the aspect-ratio problem by creating local loops, sometimes called peninsulas. This is analogous to the footnote table solution, and visually distorts the longer periodicity of the heavier elements.

For Hyde's diagram, hydrogen is floated, helium is assigned to Group 2, and mercury stays in Group 12.

 

Racetrack

I also found this design on the same tumblr, but unattributed. It may have come from Life magazine.

Tumblr_n3tbz5rIKk1s3r80lo3_1280

It's a variant of the spiral. Instead of peninsulas, the designer squeezes the f-orbital section under Group 3, so this is analogous to the wide table solution.

The circular diagrams convey the sense of periodic return but the wide table displays the magnitudes more clearly.

This designer places hydrogen in group 18 forming a triad with fluorine and chlorine. Helium is in Group 17 and mercury in the usual Group 12 .

 

Cartogram (Sheehan)

This version is different.

Elements_relative_abundance

The designer chooses a statistical property (abundance) as the primary organizing principle. The key insight is that the lighter elements in the top few rows are generally more abundant - thus more important in a sense. The cartogram reveals a key weakness of the spiral diagrams that draw the reader's attention to the outer (heavier) elements.

Because of the distorted shapes, the cartogram form obscures much of the other data. In terms of the unsettled issues, hydrogen and helium are placed in Groups 1 and 2. Mercury is in Group 12. Group 3 is squeezed inside the main table rather than shown below.

 

Network

The centerpiece of the article Chris sent me is a network graph.

Periodic-bonds_1024

This is a complete redesign, de-emphasizing the periodicity. It's a result of radically changing the definition of similarity between elements. One barrier when introducing entirely new displays is the tendency of readers to expect the familiar.

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I found the following articles useful when researching this post:

The Conversation

Royal Chemistry Society

 

Comments

Dominic Brown

Very nice piece—the link to Mark Careaga’s Tumblr, in particular. One slip:

Helium: typically shown as a member of Group 18 (rightmost column), the halogens, it may also be placed in Group 2.

Group 18 elements are the ‘noble gases’, so called for their unwillingness to form bonds with any other elements. Group 17 elements are the halogens—fluorine, chlorine, bromine, etc.

Kaiser

DB: Thanks for the catch. Fixed!

Steve MacKenzie

This is my favourite visualisation of the periodic table, a timeline by date discovered.

https://images.app.goo.gl/fWfTGvRHv49smHgC6


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