(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Visualization

“Taxonomy is described sometimes as a science and sometimes as an art, but really it’s a battleground”*…

The periodic table of elements, in the form introduced by Dmitri Mendeleev, is something that many of us take for granted. But as Philip Ball explains, there are a number of different visualizations making claims for our attention…

The Periodic Table was conceived as a scheme for bringing order to the elements. When there were deemed to be only four of these—the earth, air, fire, and water of the Greek philosopher Empedocles (it was just one of the elemental systems proposed in ancient times, but enjoyed the weighty advocacy of Plato and Aristotle)—things seemed simple enough. But during the Renaissance, natural philosophers were increasingly forced to accept that the metals then known—copper, iron, lead, tin, mercury, silver and gold—were not as interconvertible as the alchemists believed, but seemed to have an elemental primacy about them, too. More and more of these became recognized—zinc, bismuth, cobalt, and others—along with other new elements such as sulfur, phosphorus, carbon, and, in the late eighteenth century, gaseous elements like nitrogen, hydrogen and oxygen. When the French chemist Antoine Lavoisier (who named those latter two) drew up a list of known elements for his seminal textbook Traité élémentaire de chemie in 1789, he counted 33—including light and heat, which he called caloric.

The list didn’t seem to be arbitrary though. In the early nineteenth century, several scientists noted that some elements seemed to come in families, resembling one another in the kinds of reactions they engaged in and the compounds they formed. Some claimed to see triads: the halogens chlorine, bromine and iodine for example, or the reactive metals sodium, potassium (both discovered by English chemist Humphry Davy in 1807) and lithium (identified in 1817). Was there a hidden pattern to the elements?

The Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev, working at Saint Petersburg University, is usually credited with discovering that pattern. A Siberian by birth, with Rasputin-like dishevelled hair and an irascible manner, he published his first Periodic Table in 1869. It is “periodic” because, if you list the elements in order of their mass, certain chemical properties seem to recur periodically along the list. The table is produced by folding that linear list so that elements with shared properties sit in vertical columns (although Mendeleev’s first table had them instead in rows, effectively turning today’s table on its side)…

Still, it’s a weird kind of periodicity. At first, chemical properties seemed to recur every eight elements. But in the row that starts with potassium, there’s an interlude of ten metals—the transition metals—and so it continues thereafter, creating a periodicity of 18. And after lanthanum (element 57), chemists discovered a whole series of 14 metallic elements with almost identical properties that have to be squeezed in too—frankly, these elements, called the lanthanides after the first of their ilk, all seem a bit redundant. There’s another block like this after radioactive actinium (element 89), called the actinides. In most Periodic Tables, the lanthanide and actinide blocks are left floating freely underneath so the table doesn’t get stretched beyond the confines of the page. (Some insist that this long-form table is the only proper one.) Why this odd structure?

The answer became clear with the invention of quantum mechanics in the early twentieth century. The chemical properties of New Zealander Ernest Rutherford showed that atoms comprise a central, very dense nucleus with a positive electrical charge, surrounded by enough negatively charged electrons to perfectly balance that charge. Rutherford imagined the electrons orbiting the nucleus like moons, but in the quantum-mechanical description they occupy nebulous, smeared-out clouds called orbitals. Using quantum mechanics to describe the disposition of electrons shows that they are arrayed in shells. The first of these can contain just two electrons—this is the only shell possessed by hydrogen and helium, the two lone elements at the tops of the towers—while the next has eight, and then 18. The shape of the periodic table thus encodes the character of the quantum atom.

All clear? Not quite. Even now, there’s no consensus about how to draw the Periodic Table…

Read on to explore some fascinating alternative depictions: “Picture This: The Periodic Table,” by @philipcball in @PioneerWorks_.

* Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything


As we ruminate on relationships, we might spare a thought for Vladimir Vernadsky; he died on this date in 1945. A Ukrainian mineralogist and geochemist, he is considered one of the founders of geochemistry, biogeochemistry, and radiogeology. He also co-founded and served as the first President of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences (now National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine).

Vernadsky is probably best remembered for his 1926 book Biosphere, in which he popularized the concepts of the biosphere and the noosphere, arguing (after Eduard Suess) that in the Earth’s development, the noosphere (cognitive life) is the third stage in the earth’s development, after the geosphere (inanimate matter) and the biosphere (biological life). Just as the emergence of life fundamentally transformed the geosphere, the emergence of human cognition will fundamentally transform the biosphere. In this theory, the principles of both life and cognition are essential features of the Earth’s evolution, and must have been implicit in the earth all along (a position Vernadsky held was complementary to Darwin’s theory of evolution). Indeed, within the last 200 years, humanity has been a powerful geologic force, moving more mass upon the earth than has the biosphere.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 6, 2023 at 1:00 am

“Space is to place as eternity is to time”*…

Josh Worth (@misterjworth), with a mesmerizing interactive reminder that space is vast: “If the Moon Were Only 1 Pixel.”

Joseph Joubert


As we scrutinize scale, we might recall that it was on this date in 1988 that NASA, undaunted by distance, launched the Space Shuttle Discovery (which had been out of service for three years), marking America’s return to manned space flight following the Challenger disaster. By its last mission in 2011, Discovery had flown 149 million miles in 39 missions, completed 5,830 orbits, and spent 365 days in orbit over 27 years.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 29, 2022 at 1:00 am

“A picture is a poem without words”*…

Truth, trend.

A collection of pithy illustrations…

Generalist, specialist.
Numbers obscure nuance.

Many more artistic aphorisms at Visualize Value.

* Horace


As we picture it, we might send aesthetic birthday greetings to Rene Ricard; he was born on this date in 1946. A painter, poet, actor, and art critic, he was a seminal figure in the New York art scene of later 20th century. After dropping out of school in Boston, he moved to New York City, where he became a protégé of Andy Warhol (and appeared in the Warhol films Kitchen, Chelsea Girls, and The Andy Warhol Story). He was a founder of Theater of the Ridiculous (with John Vaccaro and Charles Ludlam). He was a regularly-published poet. And from the early 90s, he was a widely-exhibited artist. But he was perhaps ultimately most influential in his art criticism (and his contributions to gallery and exhibition catalogues)– especially a series of essays he wrote for Artforum magazine in which (among other impacts) he launched the career of painter Julian Schnabel and helped bring Jean-Michel Basquiat to fame. Andy Warhol called Ricard “the George Sanders of the Lower East Side, the Rex Reed of the art world.”


“Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under”*…

The majority of countries are democracies, but how many people enjoy what we think of as democratic rights? A nifty interactive map from Our World In Data charts the changes in political regimes across the globe, country by country, over the last 200 years. By way of explaining its categories:

• In closed autocracies, citizens do not have the right to choose either the chief executive of the government or the legislature through multi-party elections.

• In electoral autocracies, citizens have the right to choose the chief executive and the legislature through multi-party elections; but they lack some freedoms, such as the freedoms of association or expression, that make the elections meaningful, free, and fair.

• In electoral democracies, citizens have the right to participate in meaningful, free and fair, and multi-party elections.

• In liberal democracies, citizens have further individual and minority rights, are equal before the law, and the actions of the executive are constrained by the legislative and the courts.

As Visual Capitalist observes…

Do civilians get a representative say in how the government is run where you live?

While it might seem like living with a basic level of democratic rights is the status quo, this is only true for 93 countries or territories today—the majority of the world does not enjoy these rights.

It also might surprise you that much of the progress towards democracy came as late as the mid-20th century

An interactive look at the state of democracy around the world, and how it has evolved. From @OurWorldInData, via @VisualCap.

* H. L. Mencken


As we ruminate on representation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1933, the day after an arsonist ignited the Reichstag building, home of the German parliament in Berlin (and four weeks after Nazi leader Adolf Hitler had been sworn in as Chancellor of German), that Adolf Hitler attributed the fire to a conspiracy of Communist agitators.

Marinus van der Lubbe, a Dutch “council communist”, was the apparent culprit; but Hitler insisted on a wider network of villains. He used it as a pretext to claim that Communists were plotting against the German government, and induced President Paul von Hindenburg to issue the Reichstag Fire Decree suspending civil liberties, and to pursue a “ruthless confrontation” with the Communists. A court later found that van der Lubbe had in fact acted alone. But Hitler’s orchestrated reaction to the Reichstag Fire began the effective rule of the Nazi Party and the establishment of Nazi Germany.


“Round and round she goes, where she stops, nobody knows”*…

Low Earth Orbit Satellites are objects that orbit the earth at lower altitudes than geosynchronous satellites, usually at between 160 km and 1000 km above the earth. They’re primarily used for imaging (think Google Maps/Earth, military reconnaissance, spying, and the like) or communications (signal relay, a la Starlink‘s new satellite internet service).

Even as there are concerns about the proliferation of objects in the sky at that altitude– ranging from the occlusion of the view into space through privacy to the accumulating layer of junk that defunct satellites could become— the rush to launch is on.

Leo Labs (@LeoLabs_Space) is a platform that aims to support developers and operators of LEOs. They provide a handy (and mesmerizing) real-time visualization of all of the LEOs aloft.

* a recurring line on Major Bowes Original Amateur Hour, a radio show that aired from 1934-1948 (then became Ted Mack Original Amateur Hour on television).


As we look up, we might recall that it was on this date in 1962 that President John F. Kennedy (and Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson) visited newly-minted American hero John Glenn at Cape Canaveral to congratulate Glenn on becoming the first American to orbit the earth. Piloting Friendship 7, he had orbited the earth three times before splashing down in the Atlantic.


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