The periodic table of elements, iPad-style


So the word among my friends is that the iPad, which, as Stephen Fry noted, may be the closest thing humanity has yet produced to a Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, might just be worth buying -- if only as a stunningly cool toy and not, alas, the tablet many of us wanted. For example, I give you TouchPress' ebook The Elements for iPad, by Theodore Grey:


As the first really new ebook developed from the ground up for iPad, The Elements beautifully shows off the capabilities of this lovely device. It is impossile to describe in words the experience of seeing and almost feeling over 500 examples of the chemical elements in virtual form, but to give you an idea of the astonishing depth and beauty of the ebook, you can see a preview of all the individual pages from the ebook. Keep in mind that in the real thing, essentially every one of these objects can be spun around a complete circle with the slightest touch of your finger, and can even be seen in stereo 3D using glasses.


View more shots from the preview and drool.

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Very nice but still bound by the rigid boxiness of the old Mendeleev table. Have you seen the Chemical Galaxy which now hangs in most of the school chemistry labs of the UK? Its organic shape and intuitive ordering of the elements make it a much more aesthetic object and probably the best amongst a 'zoo' of possible renderings of the periodic table. An amazing compilation of these synthesic works of science and art is here:
It would be lovely to combine a new vision of the Table with the interactiveness of the i-Pad...

By Kattato Garu (not verified) on 07 Apr 2010 #permalink

"Very nice but still bound by the rigid boxiness of the old Mendeleev table. Have you seen the Chemical Galaxy..."

Yes, it's very pretty, but it's still bound by the rigid spiralness of the desperate rush to change for the sake of change.

I'm mainly with Ian here - while reimagining the periodic table in new ways is great, I don't think such reimaginings automatically devalue the old versions. As you can likely tell from my blog, I enjoy old-fashioned/vintage science nostalgia, even if it's outdated. Also, what you consider "intuitive" is largely socially constructed.

It looks very nice, I freely admit -- but really, is this a significantly better experience than visiting Theodore Gray's website?

IAnW I think you are being disengenious: the elements are arranged in a periodic sequence i.e. cutting them into rows' is a conventional shortcut for 2 dimensional representation. That does not make it 'right'. Mendeleev himself thought the ideal representation would be a spiral (in 3 dimensions), and various such attempts have been made, but none very easy to use. The boxiness of the classic table has a number of design flaws e.g. leaves the lanthanindes and actinides hanging. So chemists have in fact been 'desperately rushing' to change the Table ever since it was first published! Now we all know that Mendeleev's table isn't likely to be replaced by one of the many possible alternatives - just as we know that the qwerty sequence of the typewriter keyboard isn't likely to be replaced, even though it was actually designed to slow down typing (according to SJ Gould). Too many people know and use to old version in their work to make an alternative version viable. Now you can't compare the experience of a picture and a fully interactive website - but since we can actually use and manipulate 3D so easily now, shouldn't we be open to more imaginative ways of representing the elements?

By Kattato Garu (not verified) on 07 Apr 2010 #permalink

Kattaro, you can't have your cake and eat it too.

My original post is saying "look! this iPad app is a cool way of visualizing the elements!" Your first comment then denigrated the app because the periodic table representation it incorporates doesn't fit your conception of what the periodic table should look like. So forgive me if I have a hard time when, in response to Ian's comment, you rebuke him for not "be[ing] open" to new ways of representing the elements. If you're so "open" to imaginative visualizations of the elements, you wouldn't have made your first comment - you're clearly only "open" to visualizations that YOU approve of.

Hi Jessica, If I have offended, I apologise. Mea culpa, I should have started my *first* post by saying that this looks like an awesome tool for learning about the elements and maximising the visual and tactile power of a great new technology; anything that makes chemistry more accessible and which can open new vistas is great news.
But please don't come down on me so hard - the app is about the properties of the elements, not their spatial arrangement. HOWEVER with this cool new technology it doesn't have to be either/or, and in that spirit (if expressed too hurriedly) I posted a link to a cool if low-tech website with DOZENS of highly ingenious and imaginative visualisations of the Periodic table, many of which might appeal to your vintage science aesthetic, and - I believe - more apt to to inspire than the 'classic' Table. This is constrained by 2D representation needs and fails in major ways to convey the continuum of the elemental progression (One of the main advantages of the classic table is that you can fit lots of text and data into contiguous square boxes: you can't put much readable text in the spiral or 3D forms).
In an ideal world, we'd be be combining the most beautiful representations of natural order to learn and inspire. Keep up the good work ;)

By Kattato Garu (not verified) on 08 Apr 2010 #permalink

... but alas, my rebuke to IanW stands. Baumhauer published the first spiral representation of the elements in 1870 and at least 5 other spiral versions are over a century old!!

By Kattato Garu (not verified) on 08 Apr 2010 #permalink

Kattato: how does the fact that the spiral representation is old mean "your rebuke stands"? Whether or not you meant it that way - and I appreciate that your previous comment sounds like you didn't - basically, you're telling Ian and me that we aren't allowed to enjoy the iPad app because it's not using the "better" organization framework you prefer. I don't think that stands.

Here's the deal: even if you're correct, I reserve the right to enjoy those representations that are less effective than the optimal version, if they are presented creatively, and aesthetically, as this one is. Your apparent brand of perfectionism would constrain the productive ferment of the artistic community by giving only optimal representations longevity and attention - and inviting a contentious debate indeed over who gets to control the definition of "optimal"!

I have to say that I'm not feeling bad for spending the 14 dollars to get that app for the iPad. It's quite entertaining to go through the elements a few at a time. I was surprised to see it use Wolfram Alpha for some data calculations, though! It makes sense, just wasn't expecting that. Anyway, thanks for the heads up on that one, I don't know if I'd have found it.

By mylasticus (not verified) on 08 Apr 2010 #permalink

Hi Jessica, indeed I *really* didn't mean to imply that you're not 'allowed' to enjoy this beautifully presented exploration of the elements, on the contrary I think it looks fabulous, and I thank you for giving me a reason to think that the iPad might actually be a new sort of creative platform rather than a glorified DVD player! I certainly wouldn't dream of constraining the productive ferment of the artistic community. If I was that sort of person, I wouldn't be visiting your blog. I'd probably be at a Tea Party. I have to admit I was irked by Ian's comment, which is factually incorrect and which I read to be snarky, but as my initial post seems to have got both your backs up, I see I wrote in haste and I might have deserved it. As for optimal versions - I don't think in this case there is such a thing. There are more elegant and less elegant solutions for visual representation: the crux is that Mendeleev's Table is a work of genius but *personally* I find the boxy Table doesn't have the visual appeal of other solutions (as a kid I had utmost trouble understanding why the actinides and lanthanides were just hanging there and it put me off extremely!!). I chose to highlight a personal 2D favourite (Stewart's 'Galaxy') amongst many competing designs dating back to Mendeleev's day, but in the brave new world of interactive and 3D art there is scope for a thousand flowers to bloom ;) (Actually on the downside, amongst the spiral versions the 'periodic spiral' (dot com) and Benfey's version - both on the second link I gave) are frankly ugly and inelegant solutions to the same problems but that's another story!).
I fervently hope that a more brilliant mind than mine will eventually do a 3D version with as much panache as Theodore Gray's table :)
However, much more seriously indeed. That heart with the clockwork bits in it. Really, it's fundamentally flawed. The blood would just pump out of the hole! The clockworky bits would lacerate the muscle! It shouldn't be allowed!

By Kattato Garu (not verified) on 08 Apr 2010 #permalink

I must admit that you are absolutely right that the clockwork heart has major design flaws - even worse than the traditional periodic table (horrors!)

It probably was just an internet-no-tone of voice misunderstanding. No worries, we all like pretty science objects. :)


I've been a Mac user for well over a decade and a half, so I have some pretty strong opinions about interface design, so I sort of see where you're coming from. But I also think you're coming off as a wee bit of a crank -- while your preferred representation is certainly pretty, it has the somewhat unfortunate property of not compressing very well to a normal page size. The traditional periodic table design does a somewhat better job of it, and therefore is rather more suitable as a general reference table.

Point taken, Brian - if you want the Table to be a general reference Table - i.e. to be a chemist's working tool full of extra data to accompany the elemental symbols, then it makes sense to have a set of contiguous square boxes because that's a reasonably efficient way of packing data. If you want to represent the interrelationships of the elements in a simple, universally accessible way then - and this is a personal opinion, if it makes me a crank so be it - there are other arrangements that do it better. Whilst the spiral versions, by necessity, have more empty space, they can also help to raise questions about the more conventional arrangements - a point Martin Kemp made in his Nature comment on this subject a few years ago. And the scaling really isn't a big issue - I bought a Galaxy mousemat from the website, which is smaller than A4 size and perfectly legible. DD - the Tetrahedron's really interesting and I am struggling to understand whether it's possible thanks to a mathematical artifact, or whether it actually tells us something more fundamental!

By Kattato Garu (not verified) on 12 Apr 2010 #permalink