The Style of ElementsPosted by +Daniel Smilkov, Software Engineer
Data doesn't have to be big to be complex. In 1869, Mendeleev created the first "periodic table"--an arrangement of elements based on fewer than 70 data points. In fact, the most interesting thing about the original periodic table might have been the data it didn't
include: the "holes" in the original chart turned out to be a kind of treasure map, pointing the way to undiscovered elements.
Although the periodic table is one of the classic visualizations, it still provides a chance for designers to play with new ideas. The Big Picture visualization group (http://goo.gl/vxsUdU
) was fascinated with this version (http://goo.gl/8ozrj8
), which allocates elements bigger or smaller areas to give a qualitative picture of how common they are in the Earth's crust.
Because the numbers behind that chart were only approximate, we decided to design a precise, quantitative view. (We're going to get into the weeds on this--visualizers gonna visualize--but you can skip to the last paragraph if you don't want to read the details of the design.) We quickly discovered that using area to represent abundances didn't give a good sense of the differences between elements: they covered so many orders of magnitude that all but the most common elements disappeared entirely. (The earth's crust has 170,000 times as much oxygen as uranium.) Using a logarithmic scale had the opposite effect: it flattened out the scale so that differences didn't seem as significant.
But we found that using volume to represent size produced a readable and interesting result. It also felt natural and direct when we looked at other data related to the elements. After all, how better to show the volume of 1 gram of an element than by volume itself?
Those experiments led to the visualization you see at http://goo.gl/5RCSmj
. For fun, we let you choose between representing data with length or with volume, so you can see for yourself the difference the encoding makes. And as a bonus, we've added a view of electron shells, so you can see how Mendeleev’s visualization beautifully reflects atomic structure.