Periodic Spirals—and the Third Dimension

I ran across an image similar to the above on page 86 of Philip Ball’s marvelous little The Elements: A Very Short Introduction, part of an impressive series from Oxford University Press. (I highly recommend these wee volumes, which offer a lot of bang for the buck, at least in the limited selection of titles I’ve perused.)

Anyway, the image. It shows the “lemniscate spiral” of a certain William Crookes (not exactly a household name, but an interesting fellow nonetheless). I have previously blogged about the periodic table, but I find this attempt particularly intriguing. Crookes was trying to visualize the relationship between various elements in three dimensions, which is the kind of thing we do without thinking nowadays, but in the late 19th Century… Of course you’d have to try constructing a convoluted contraption to convey your idea!

That’s what I find interesting about the image: a 19th-century scientist would use an image depicting the hypothetical three-dimensional object in physical terms. Because the abstraction of three dimensions could not (easily) be conveyed pictorally without reliance on real-world elements to suggest the construct extending outside the plane of the printed page. Honestly, I have no idea whether Crookes physically constructed his “lemniscate spiral” or not, but I’m guessing not. Which is what makes me think this the image is a way of communicating the idea.

Whereas modern tools allow us to visualize data in three dimensions and, at some level, conceive of things in three dimensions, such virtual luxuries were unavailable to Crookes and his contemporaries. Thus the conceit of the physical object.

Interestingly, I know of no modern three-dimensional visualizations of the periodic table. Perhaps someone can point me to something…? But if they exist, I bet they aren’t depicted as physical objects.

Periodic Spiral

The image above shows a version of the periodic table of the elements, visualized by Jeff Moran. I ripped the image from a PDF offered up on his website, which also links to a piece of software that uses the above image as a basis for exploring the periodic table—lots of information is given on each element, although you have to shell out $50.00 to get the fully functional version.

Moran’s software ain’t new, but for some reason, the New York Times chose to highlight it in today’s Science Times, along with other ways of arranging the elements to highlight relationships that the typical rectangular arrangement misses. (The article also references Edgar Longman’s “Chemical Galaxy” image, for which I have great fondness.)

What I love about these re-imaginings of the familiar (well, familiar to some) is that they make one look at things differently. I can’t claim to have mcuh of an intuitive sense of the structure of the periodic table, but what I understand, I see more clearly in these newer versions. And I feel compelled to note that what I do understand of the periodic table, I gleaned from P.W. Atkins’s brilliant Periodic Kingdom, which describes the familiar, rectangular table as a landscape of different attributes—binding energies, specific heats, and other such measurable quantities.

So… Take the Times’s lead and take aother look at the periodic table!