The Periodic Table

Last week the Economist published a fascinating read that uses one of the fundamental information design pieces there is. The piece talks about the history of organising within the field of chemistry and the most well-known…elements in it: the elements. I am, of course, referring to the Periodic Table.

This was just genius.
This was just genius.

The piece starts actually in revolutionary France, a history I did not know, and walks through how that led into the eventual development of Mendeleev’s table. It then briefly runs through the history of the concept of the atom and how that evolved to define the refined table we see today. (And in so doing it includes a nice graphic showing the shell model of the atom’s electron orbits.)

I often work in data visualisation—surprising exactly nobody given this blog—and one thing I often say is that while graphics are for showing and storytelling, tables are for organising. The Periodic Table organised information known about atoms both known and unknown, creating holes for future chemists to place their discoveries. It is the chemistry we all know and love—or perhaps hate—today. It is a classic piece of information design.

And the reason why I bring it up? The Economist pointed out that last week it turned 150 years old.

Credit for the piece goes to the Economist graphics department.

Opportunity Lost

Last summer NASA’s Martian exploration rover Opportunity went dark as its solar panels, needed to power the golf-cart sized explorer, were covered in dust from a planet-wide dust storm. Everyone hoped that over the following months the light Martian winds and dust devils would wipe clean the dust from the solar panels and the rover could recharge its batteries, turn on its heaters, and resume contact with Earth. It hasn’t. Consequently, on Wednesday NASA called Opportunity’s mission complete. And thanks to xkcd we have a proper little farewell.

So much science
So much science

Credit for the piece goes to Randall Munroe.

Walnut Pancakes in Space

One of the really neat things about space exploration has been the New Horizons probe that raced past Pluto, giving us the image of the now famous heart shape on the dwarf planet. But as it raced past a Kuiper Belt object named Ultima Thule on New Year’s, we received some tantalising first images of a snowman in space. Basically, two spheroid bodies fused together like a snowman or a peanut.

Except it’s not.

It probably doesn't taste like a walnut pancake, though…
It probably doesn’t taste like a walnut pancake, though…

This is a fascinating graphic produced by the science research teams that show how the latest downloaded photographs from New Horizons—it will take many more months for the full set—show Ultima Thule is not very snowman-like in its shape. Instead, it is far flatter and more, in their words, shaped like a dented walnut and a pancake.

The article has some additional material that show how that spin axis changes the view. They are short videos, but if you are interested in space things, it is neat to see. We are accustomed to seeing spherical objects in orbit around the sun. Not pancakes.

Credit for the piece goes to NASA, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, and Southwest Research Institute.

Where is the North Pole?

We have two North Poles. The most commonly known is the geographic north pole that sits at the top of the world. We also have the magnetic north pole, which is where your compass points when you are lost in the woods. But, the magnetic north pole is not static and in fact moves. (In Earth’s past, the north and the south pole have actually flipped so north is south and south is north.)

In this piece from the New York Times, we have a nice map from Jonathan Corum that shows the movement of the magnetic north pole over time. The map is a nice orthographic projection centred on the geographic north pole.

No matter where you go, there you are.
No matter where you go, there you are.

Of course the centre of the displayed map is not the north pole, as the designer cropped it to show the movement from Canada towards Siberia. What I really like is that the line is actually a series of dots. Of course we do not know if each dot is an actual measurement or an interpolation of the determined magnetic north pole, and that should be made clearer. But, I like to think that each dot is a point in the movement of the pole.

Credit for the piece goes to Jonathan Corum.

Arctic Chill

The Arctic air mass that has frozen the Midwest continues to spread and so today will be a tad chilly in Philadelphia. Yesterday, however, the Guardian had a piece that used data from NASA to show how the air masses over the Northern Hemisphere have been disturbed by unusually warm air.

The Arctic plunge.
The Arctic plunge.

One theory to how this all works is that the reduced polar sea ice means water absorbs summer heat instead of being locked in the ice. But then that heat is basically released come winter. (I’m oversimplifying this.) That warms the air, which disturbs the polar vortex. As the Guardian then explains, the destabilised air mass can wobble and spill some of its frigid air down into the lower latitudes. (It takes a little while because the polar vortex is in the upper atmosphere and the air needs to sink to the ground.)

Point is, bundle up and stay warm.

Credit for the piece goes to the Guardian graphics department.

Cold, Dangerous Cold

It’s cold out in Chicago. And not just the usual winter cold, but record-setting cold. And when the temperature gets that low, when you mix in a little bit of wind, it can become dangerous very quickly. In an article about the weather conditions in the Midwest, the BBC included this graphic at the end.

You don't want to be in the lower right
You don’t want to be in the lower right

Even the slightest bit of wind decreases the time one has before frostbite sets in. So wrap up and stay warm, everyone.

Credit for the piece goes to the BBC graphics department.

Asteroids on the Moon

I hope everybody enjoyed their holiday. But, before we dive back into the meatier topics of the news, I wanted to share this serpentine graphic from the Guardian I discovered last week. Functionally it is a timeline charting the size of 96 known large asteroid impact craters on the Moon, between 80ºS and 80ºN.

Impacts on the Moon
Impacts on the Moon

The biggest question I have is whether the wrapping layout is necessary. I would prefer a more simplistic and straightforward, well, straight timeline, but I can imagine space constraints forcing the graphic into this box—either for the digital version and/or the likely print version.

The transparencies help to give a sense of density to the strikes, especially in the later years. And the orange ones highlight important or well-known craters like Tycho.

I do wonder, however, if the designer could have added a line at the 290 million years point. Since the graphic’s title calls that year out in particular, it might help the audience more quickly grasp the graphic’s…impact. In theory, the reader can more or less figure it out from the highlighting of the Ohm impact crater that is listed as 291 million years old. But a small grey line like those for the 250 million year increments could have been a nice little touch.

Overall, however, it’s nice to see a compact and helpful space graphic.

Credit for the piece goes to the Guardian graphics team.

The Atom

We made it to the end of the week, everyone. And that is worth celebrating. Today’s post is for all the scientists out there and anyone who has ever been interested in the atom. You know, the little things that make up matter. xkcd put together a chronological history of several different models of the atom that attempt to explain its structure.

I have to love that 538 model.
I have to love that 538 model.

Credit for the piece goes to Randall Munroe.

New Plans for Old Subways

The New Yorkers among my readers know about the whole planned shutdown of the L train for repairs owing to Hurricane Sandy (tangentially mentioned in the graphic I commented upon yesterday). For those of you who don’t know, basically the salt water from the storm seriously damaged the tunnels and a whole lot of work needs to be done to repair them. The plan was that a segment of the line would be shut down, to no obvious insignificance to commuters along the route, and it would reopen in a year and a half.

Then the state governor realised that might be bad optics and since he controls the agency running the New York subway system, he cancelled the shutdown so engineers can look at a different type of design.

I love pieces like this one from the New York Times. They are not crazy and wide-ranging, instead we have illustrations to compare the plans. They do a really nice job complementing the story without overwhelming it.

The proposed design
The proposed design

Plus, I’m a sucker for train and infrastructure stories.

Credit for the piece goes to Anjali Singhvi and Mika Gröndahl.

Anak Krakatau

During my winter holiday to London the volcano Anak Krakatau erupted, sending enormous amounts of material sliding into the ocean. The displaced water had to go somewhere and travelled as a tsunami that devastated the Indonesian coastline.

Of course Anak Krakatau is one of several remnants of the much larger volcano of Krakatoa that erupted several times, perhaps most famously in 1883. Anak Krakatau specifically emerged in the late 1920s and has been building ever since until it collapsed almost two weeks ago. But by how much did it collapse?

Until just a few days ago, the skies above the volcano have not permitted detailed photography. But within the last day or so we have started to get images and the BBC put together this piece that looks at Anak Krakatau before and after.

Before on the left, after on the right
Before on the left, after on the right

It is a fairly common convention these days, the slider overtop the two images. But conceptually it shows clearly how the shape of the island has changed, in particular the new bay that has emerged. The other remarkable feature is the extension of land to the presumably east (right) of the image.

Credit for the piece goes to the BBC graphics department.