The Elements: Enthralling Scientific Visualization

For most people, science classes were a memorable part of their education, but the reasons for this differ from person to person. Some individuals found the talk of nuclei and cell structures to be some of the most engaging and relevant information they had ever encountered. Others simply appreciated it as a good background to some of their most engrossing and creative daydreams.

Both camps could, in general, agree on one point, however — science is better seen than read. Obviously, practical considerations prevent the classroom dissection of a whale, or the physical inspection of lava. Modern technology can provide the next best thing, though, in the form of interactive on-screen experiences.

A shining light in this field has been an iPad app, named, quite simply, The Elements, which provides detailed descriptions, interactive 360º imagery and high quality videos of the periodic table’s constituent parts. Now, it has arrived in the OSX App Store, priced at $19.99. Given that a major part of the original iOS app’s appeal was the ability to “touch” elements on a display, can the desktop environment really provide the same, insightful experience?

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Introduction

As an AppStorm writer, I review a lot of apps. Very few — certainly none that I can think of — have stopped me in my tracks with their introduction. The Elements did, however.

Rather than the usual “how it works” tour, this app begins with a song: “The Elements”, a 1959 patter song composition by entertainer and lecturer Tom Lehrer, in which every known element is sung, to music, at great speed, is played on first opening the app. And if that isn’t modern enough for you, a J-Pop version is also on offer.

The opening song is great fun, and it introduces all of the elements well.

The opening song is great fun, and it introduces all of the elements well.

This may not be a feature, as such, but it provides an entertaining introduction to every element.

The Table

Not that you’ve come here for music. This app, lest we forget, is very much a high quality science resource.

The main menu is actually the periodic table, with each element’s box containing an animated representative image or video clip. The result is the most visually appealing scientific diagram you’re ever likely to encounter. The idea is to select the element which interests you to view its digital Filofax of information, although the iPad roots of The Elements make themselves apparent here, as you’re asked to touch the element you wish to view.

That's one stunning periodic table.

That’s one stunning periodic table.

Elemental, My Dear Watson

Element selected, you’re thrust into a mass of statistical and visual information. The signature of The Elements on both platforms is its bespoke, high-resolution 360º imagery, and the majority of the window (or screen, if you’re in full screen mode) is filled with the element’s featured image. This photo rotates automatically, but it’s a joy to rotate it manually with a click and drag of the mouse.

The 360º imagery brings the elements to life, and it is accompanied by plenty of Wolfram Alpha-sourced information.

The 360º imagery brings the elements to life, and it is accompanied by plenty of Wolfram Alpha-sourced information.

Alongside are the vital statistics — stuff like boiling point and atomic mass – which are all taken directly from the all-knowing digital brain that is Wolfram Alpha, itself the product of Theodore Gray, who created the original web version of The Elements. In fact, a Wolfram Alpha badge is placed at the bottom of every element, which allows the geekier types among us to see Wolfram’s output directly, within a pop-up.

On the far right of screen are two thin, vertical graphs, both of which are temperature relevant. The first is the atomic emission spectrum, which illustrates the wavelengths, or colours, of light which the element emits at the given temperatures. The second provides a simple scale of the temperatures at which the element is solid, liquid and gaseous.

Using the right arrow key, or by using its on-screen counterpart, you can slide right to reveal each element’s textual description. These have been well written, balancing ease of comprehension with a lack of condescension, something with which many apps in the education genre struggle.

The textual description aren't desperately long, but they are well written.

The textual description aren’t desperately long, but they are well written.

Accompanying each description is a selection of relevant imagery, again usually in the interactive 360º format. These images can be rotated in place, or double-clicked to open a full-page gallery, allowing a closer look.

The 3D function here, though not an exclusively in-app feature, must be noted. Purchase the inexpensive stereoscopic goggles available via the Theodore Gray-built periodic table website, and The Elements will provide you with a truly eye-popping 3D view of the objects on display. Yes — this really is the closest to holding a lump of thallium (not a good idea, so I’ve discovered) you’re going to get.

The multimedia appeal of The Elements continues, as you flick to the last page of each substance’s profile, home (usually) to a demonstration video. These are often only a few seconds long, but they provide another layer of tangibility to their subject matter, as well as the necessary dynamism to portray chemical reactions.

Chemical reactions are illustrated by high quality videos.

Chemical reactions are illustrated by high quality videos.

Conclusion

For so long, high quality print has been unrivaled as the best format for education. Apps such as The Elements are truly challenging that, providing the written material of a book, and combining it with the best of modern, high-resolution photography and app interactivity.

That said, The Elements is not ready to replace a great book, and that’s mostly because it more closely resembles an educational picture book than an in-depth read. Equally, this OS X edition is very obviously a port of the iOS version, and a bulky (2.91GB download), fairly expensive one at that.

Picture book app it may be, but that’s not really a consideration when you come to use The Elements – it’s gorgeous, and if you have the smallest interest in science, or even an interest in what our planet is made of, you’ll find it, quite simply, enthralling.


Summary

Simple it may be, but The Elements is a scientific feast for the eyes. And it's an iPad app port that actually still works good — most of the time, anyhow — on the Mac.

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