Visualizing the Origin of Elements
Most of us are familiar with the periodic table of elements from high school chemistry. We learned about atoms, and how elements combine to form chemical compounds. But perhaps a lesser-known aspect is where these elements actually come from.
Today’s periodic table showing the origin of elements comes to us from Reddit user u/only_home, inspired by an earlier version created by astronomer Jennifer Johnson. It should be noted that elements with multiple sources are shaded proportionally to reflect the amount of said element produced from each source.
Let’s dive into the eight origin stories in more detail.
The Big Bang
The universe began as a hot, dense region of radiant energy about 14 billion years ago. It cooled and expanded immediately after formation, creating the lightest and most plentiful elements: hydrogen and helium. This process also created trace amounts of lithium.
Low Mass Stars
At the beginning of their lives, all stars create energy by fusing hydrogen atoms to form helium. Once the hydrogen is depleted, stars fuse helium into carbon and expand to become red giants.
From this point on, the journey of a low and a high mass star differs. Low mass stars reach a temperature of roughly one million kelvin and continue to heat up. Outer layers of helium and hydrogen expand around the carbon core until they can no longer be contained by gravity. These gas layers, known as a planetary nebula, are ejected into space. It is thought that a low mass star’s death creates many heavy elements such as lead.
Exploding White Dwarfs
In the wake of this planetary nebula expulsion, a carbon core known as a “white dwarf” remains with a temperature of about 100,000 kelvin. In many cases, a white dwarf will simply fade away.
Sometimes, however, white dwarfs gain enough mass from a nearby companion star to become unstable and explode in a Type 1a supernova. This explosion likely creates heavier elements such as iron, nickel, and manganese.
Exploding Massive Stars
Massive stars evolve faster and generate much more heat. In addition to forming carbon, they also create layers of oxygen, nitrogen, and iron. When the core contains only iron, which is stable and compact, fusion ceases and gravitational collapse occurs. The star reaches a temperature of over several billion kelvin—resulting in a supernova explosion. Astronomers speculate that a variety of elements, including arsenic and rubidium, are formed during such explosions.
Exploding Neutron Stars
When a supernova occurs, the star’s core collapses, crushing protons and neutrons together into neutrons. If the mass of a collapsing star is low enough—about four to eight times that of the sun—a neutron star is formed. In 2017, it was discovered that when these dense neutron stars collide, they create heavier elements such as gold and platinum.
Cosmic Ray Spallation
The shockwaves from supernova explosions send cosmic rays, or high energy atoms/subatomic particles, flying through space. When these cosmic rays hit another atom at nearly the speed of light, they break apart and form a new element. The elements of lithium, beryllium, and boron are products of this process.
Supernova explosions also create very heavy elements with unstable nuclei. Over time, these nuclei eject a neutron or proton, or a neutron decays into a proton and electron. This process is known as radioactive decay and often creates lighter, more stable elements such as radium and francium.
Not Naturally Occurring
There are currently 26 elements on the periodic table that are not naturally occurring; instead, these are all created synthetically in a laboratory using nuclear reactors and particle accelerators. For example, plutonium can be created when fast-moving neutrons collide with a common uranium isotope in a nuclear reactor.
Discoveries Yet to be Made
There is still some uncertainty as to where elements with a middle-range atomic number—neither heavy nor light—come from. As scientific breakthroughs emerge, we will continue to learn more about the elements that make up the mass of our solar system.
The Shape of the World, According to Old Maps
What did ancient maps look like, before we had access to airplanes and satellites? See the evolution of the world map in this nifty infographic.
The Shape of the World, According to Ancient Maps
A Babylonian clay tablet helped unlock an understanding for how our ancestors saw the world.
Dating all the way back to the 6th century BCE, the Imago Mundi is the oldest known world map, and it offers a unique glimpse into ancient perspectives on earth and the heavens.
While this is the first-known interpretation of such a map, it would certainly not be the last. Today’s visualization, designed by Reddit user PisseGuri82, won the “Best of 2018 Map Contest” for depicting the evolving shapes of man-made maps throughout history.
AD 150: Once Upon A Time in Egypt
In this former location of the Roman Empire, Ptolemy was the first to use positions of latitude and longitude to map countries into his text Geographia. After these ancient maps were lost for centuries, Ptolemy’s work was rediscovered and reconstructed in the 15th century, serving as a foundation for cartography throughout the Middle Ages.
1050: Pointing to the Heavens
The creation of this quintessential medieval T-and-O Beatine map is attributed not to an unknown French monk, but to the Spanish monk Beatus of Liébana. Although it shows several continents—Africa, Asia, and Europe—its main objective was to visualize Biblical locations. For example, because the sun rises in the east, Paradise (The Garden of Eden) can be seen pointing upwards and towards Asia on the map.
1154: The World Turned Upside Down
The Arabic geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi made one of the most advanced medieval world maps for King Roger II of Sicily. The Tabula Rogeriana, which literally translates to “the book of pleasant journeys into faraway lands”, was ahead of the curve compared to contemporaries because it used information from traveler and merchant accounts. The original map was oriented south-up, which is why modern depictions show it upside down.
1375: The Zenith of Medieval Map Work
The Jewish cartographer Abraham Cresques created the most important map of the medieval period, the Catalan Atlas, with his son for Prince John of Aragon. It covers the “East and the West, and everything that, from the Strait [of Gibraltar] leads to the West”. Many Indian and Chinese cities can be identified, based on various voyages by the explorers Marco Polo and Sir John Mandeville.
After this, the Age of Discovery truly began—and maps started to more closely resemble the world map as we know it today.
1489: Feeling Ptolemy and Polo’s Influences
The 15th century was a radical time for map-makers, once Ptolemy’s geographical drawings were re-discovered. Henricus Martellus expanded on Ptolemaic maps, and also relied on sources like Marco Polo’s travels to imagine the Old World. His milestone map closely resembles the oldest-surviving terrestrial globe, Erdapfel, created by cartographer Martin Behaim. Today, it’s preserved at the Yale University archives.
1529: A Well-Kept Spanish Secret
The first ever scientific world map is most widely attributed to the Portuguese cartographer Diego Ribero. The Padrón Real was the Spanish Crown’s official and secret master map, made from hundreds of sailors’ reports of any new lands and their coordinates.
1599: The Wright Idea
English mathematician and cartographer Edward Wright was the first to perfect the Mercator projection—which takes the Earth’s curvature into consideration. Otherwise known as a Wright-Molyneux world map, this linear representation of the earth’s cylindrical map quickly became the standard for navigation.
1778-1832: The Emergence of Modern World Maps
The invention of the marine chronometer transformed marine navigation—as ships were now able to detect both longitude and latitude. Jacques-Nicolas Bellin, a French geographer, was responsible for the 18th century’s highly accurate world maps and nautical charts. His designs favored functionality over the decorative flourishes of cartographers past.
Finally, the German cartographer and lawyer Adolf Stieler was the man behind Stieler’s Handatlas, the leading German world atlas until the mid-20th century. His maps were famous for being updated based on new explorations, making them the most reliable map possible.
Is There Uncharted Territory Left?
It is worth mentioning that these ancient maps above are mostly coming from a European perspective.
That said, the Islamic Golden Age also boasts an impressive cartographic record, reaching its peak partially in thanks to Muhammad al-Idrisi in the 11th century. Similarly, Ancient Chinese empires had a cartographic golden age after the invention of the compass as well.
Does this mean there’s nothing left to explore today? Quite the contrary. While we know so much about our landmasses, the undersea depths remain quite a mystery. In fact, we’ve explored more of outer space than we have 95% of our own oceans.
If you liked the visualization above, be sure to explore the world’s borders by age, broken down impressively by the same designer.
The Extreme Temperatures of the Universe
From the Big Bang to the Boomerang Nebula, this stunning data visualization puts the extreme temperatures of our universe into perspective.
The Extreme Temperatures of the Universe
For most of us, temperature is a very easy variable to overlook.
Our vehicles and indoor spaces are climate controlled, fridges keep our food consistently chilled, and with a small twist of the tap, we get water that’s the optimal temperature. Of course, our concept of what’s hot or cold is actually very narrow in the grand scheme of things.
Even the stark contrast between the wind-swept glaciers of Antarctica and the blistering sands of our deserts is a mere blip on the universe’s full temperature range. Today’s graphic, produced by the IIB Studio, looks at the hottest and coldest temperatures in our universe.
But First: What is Temperature Anyway?
Before looking at this top-to-bottom view of extreme temperatures, it helps to remember what temperature is actually measuring – kinetic energy, or the movement of atoms.
Hypothetically, atoms would simply stop moving as they reach absolute zero. As matter heats up, it begins to “vibrate” more vigorously, changing states from solid to gas. Eventually, plasma forms as electrons wander away from the nuclei.
With that quick primer, let’s dig into some of the hottest insights in this cool data visualization.
Highs and Lows on Planet Earth
Earth’s lowest air temperature, -135ºF (-93ºC), was recorded in Antarctica in 2010. Since then, scientists have discovered that surface ice temperatures can dip as low as -144ºF (-98ºC).
The conditions need to be just right: clear skies and dry air must persist for several days during the polar winter. In surroundings this cold, human lungs would actually hemorrhage within just a few breaths.
On the other end of the spectrum of extreme temperatures, the hottest surface reading on Earth of 160ºF (71ºC) occurred in Iran’s Lut Desert in 2005. In fact, the Lut Desert clocked the highest surface temperature in 5 out of 7 years during a 2003-2009 study, making it the world’s hottest location. The desert’s dark pebbles, dry soil, and lack of vegetation create the perfect conditions for blistering heat.
There are very few organisms that can withstand such temperatures, but one fascinating phylum makes the cut.
The Amazing Tardigrade
Commonly known as a “moss pig” or “water bear”, the one-millimeter long tardigrade is extremely resilient. While most organisms need water to survive, the tardigrade gets around this by entering a “tun” state, in which metabolism slows to just 0.01% of its normal rate.
When water is scarce, the creature curls up and synthesizes molecules that lock sensitive cell components in place until re-hydration occurs. Beyond dry conditions, the tardigrade can also survive both freezing and boiling temperatures, high radiation environments, and even the vacuum of space.
This video courtesy of TEDEd explains more about the hardy critter:
Testing the Limits
For better or worse, humans have pushed the limits of temperature here on Earth.
At MIT, scientists cooled a sodium gas to half-a-billionth of a degree above absolute zero. In the words of the Nobel Laureate Wolfgang Ketterle, who co-led the team: “To go below one nanokelvin (one-billionth of a degree) is a little like running a mile under four minutes for the first time.”
Not all experiments are conducted out of simple curiosity. Conventional bombs already explode at around 9,000ºF (5,000ºC), but nuclear explosions take things much further. For a split second, temperatures inside a nuclear fireball can reach a mind-bending 18,000,000ºF (10,000,000ºC).
The highest man-made temperature ever recorded is 9,900,000,000,000ºF (5,500,000,000,000ºC), created in the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland. It was achieved by accelerating heavy lead ions to 99% the speed of light and smashing them together.
Highs and Lows of the Universe
While humans have been able to manufacture extremely hot and cold temperatures, the universe has created these extremes naturally.
Undoubtedly, the creation of the universe is made of the hottest stuff of all. The temperature of the universe at 10⁻³⁵ seconds old was a whopping 1 octillion ºC. Moments later, it “cooled down” to 1,800,000,000ºF (1 billion ºC) when the universe was less than two minutes old.
On the other end of the spectrum, the coolest natural place currently known in the universe is the Boomerang Nebula at -457.6ºF (-272ºC). It’s found 5,000 light years away from us in the constellation Centaurus, and it is currently in a transitional phase as a dying star.
As space exploration goes further than ever, these extreme temperatures may one day reach even hotter or colder heights than we can imagine.
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