Periodic Blasphemy

Marketing expert Rick Liebling sketched a Periodic Table of Social Media Elements, which is garnering a lot of interest in the blogosphere. In it, Liebling gives each elemental square an abbreviation representing a particular well-known face on Twitter, LinkedIn, Flickr, Facebook etc.

Social Media really is a lot like chemistry. There is a huge pool of elements you can choose from and an infinite variety of combinations you can create.  Twitter + sharing + commenting will give you a different result than blogging + LinkedIn + Flickr.

It looks like a bit of fun, but as a viral marketing exercise it has really taken off and is getting Liebling a lot of traction. Some of the people included in the table have expressed their pleasure but have described the Table as a total mystery. That’s not surprising because in the context of the real PT it is meaningless.

I hadn’t realised, until I read a critique elsewhere, that this is meant to be a “serious” project. I thought it was just a bit of fun. It certainly has no real relevance to chemistry or science, not even social science. The classification, color scheme, and layout may resemble the chemistry Periodic Table, but they’re as valid as the postures in the Periodic Table of Yoga and the classic PT of Sexual Positions. In other words, they’re not valid at all. Liebling admits as much in the post and in his follow-up defensive post. I’m not particularly concerned by his apparent hijacking of our sacred manuscript 😉

All the “fun” examples of periodic tables are just that, fun, there’s nothing particularly useful or informative in emulating the PT for other subjects. The reason? Well, they always, always, always overlook the critical component that makes the PT so important to our understanding of the world. And, I mean important in the same sense that the natural is important in natural selection and understanding evolution and the big is important in the concept of the Big Bang and our understanding of the universe. That word “Periodic” is there for a reason!

Fundamentally, Liebling has created a nice graphic in the shape of the Periodic Table. It’s acted as a clever piece of link bait for his site (see, it even worked on me), got him lots of comments on his blog, some critical, some supportive, many confused by chemistry and science.

Sadly, his use of the graphic and the majority of comments point to a woeful lack of understanding of one of the most elementary principles of nature. It’s quite unfortunate how many people are amused by their own ignorance of science, most of them would not find it funny if they didn’t understand Facebook or Twitter, but which is more important? After all, if it weren’t for the quantum mechanics inherent in the periodicity of the elements there would be no semiconductor technology and without that there would be no computers, no Facebook, no Twitter, and no blogs…

7 thoughts on “Periodic Blasphemy

  1. Howdy. I too, was sidetracked a little by the cuteness of this period table. It is very interesting when applied to social networking. Fun, certainly.
    A question regarding the ‘regular’ periodic table. How can it be considered periodic when a couple of slices of it have been taken out and tacked on the bottom, ‘god’s footnotes’? Surley it is no longer periodic?

  2. Ahem, yes, the “periodic” table fits the scheme very nicely if you don’t count the actinides and lanthanides…

  3. @Chris:

    The Actinide/Lanthanide series are, IIRC the result of the addition of an additional orbital (f-orbital, I think — I tend to stick more with O-Chem so this is a little out of my realm of expertise here).

    There are some visualizations of the PT that cut out the Lan/Act series, bend them into a teardrop shape, and then attach the teardrop shape to the PT (pointy end pointing towards the table) so that it extends out into 3-d space. Other visualizations use a spiral curve that results in a tall tower-looking 3-d structure.

    The periodicity of the table is the result of trends of atomic mass, melting/boiling points, electronegativity, etc. The Lan/Act series being at the bottom simply makes those trends more evident (unless you extend them into 3-d space — which would be a great replacement if it wasn’t so unwieldy)

    Nice post, Reactive. :) I’m glad to see other people “get it”.

  4. David,

    Couple of things:

    1. I’m Rick Liebling, not Robert Rubin. No biggie, I’m sure it was an innocent mistake.

    2. “Serious project” Hmm, serious in the sense that I hoped it would get people to think about Social Media, ok. Serious in the sense I thought I had created some sort of Social Media equivalent to the Periodic Table of Elements? Of course not. That wasn’t my point. I never claimed that any of my SocMed elements had unique or distinct properties that I was quantifying scientificially.

    3. Linkbait? I covered that in my follow up post with a ‘yes, but.’ I linked to all those people and things so that my main audience could easily discover ‘elements’ that they were unfamiliar with.

    I appreciate your input, both on my blog and here. I also appreciate that I have treaded into an area that I am not an expert in – science. Where I’m a little disappointed is that the response from people far smarter than me has been to knock me down, rather than try to educate me.

  5. Rick…thanks for dropping by…I can’t believe I got your namecheck wrong…that’s early morning blogging for you! Fixed.

    My post was meant to be a bit tongue-in-cheek, sorry if that didn’t come across, but I thought given my comments on your blog itself it would have. I think what you’ve done is certainly a bit of fun. It seems that the critiques elsewhere seem to have assumed you were “serious”. I did not. I think it would have been more entertaining if you’d found some patterns among the names and places you used in your PT…might have provided lots of new insights.

    As to linkbait, I’m not sure why that word has such negative connotations, you’ve been very successful at reeling in lots of commenters and readers, hats off. I wish I could achieve the same level of marketing with some of my science posts.

    Regarding the treading in an area with which you’re not familiar…it’s not as if most of us do the exact same, who hasn’t quoted Shakespeare out of context or referenced Leonardo (da Vinci) and which marketer or journalist could succeed without visual metaphors of the kind you used to discuss social media?

  6. While I broadly agree with David Bradley’s saying,

    “After all, if it weren’t for the quantum mechanics inherent in the periodicity of the elements there would be no semiconductor technology and without that there would be no computers, no Facebook, no Twitter, and no blogs…”

    this raises an interesting question about the relationship between chemistry and physics. Is the periodic table nothing but quantum mechanics or is there more to it. As I argue in my recent book, the periodic table only partly reduces to quantum mechanics. The explanation is incomplete so to claim that quantum mechanics ‘drives’ the periodic table and chemistry in general is to claim too much in my view.

    See, Eric Scerri, The Periodic Table, Its Story and Its Significance, Oxford University Press, 2007.

  7. “Will the real Periodic Table please stand up!”
    Aaron has seen my Alexander Arrangement of the Elements, which, he points out; cuts “out the Lan/Act series, bend them into a teardrop shape, and then attach the teardrop shape to the PT (pointy end pointing towards the table) so that it extends out into 3-d space. Other visualizations use a spiral curve that results in a tall tower-looking 3-d structure.”
    True enough for the AAE – both teardrop & tower – and the d-block gets the teardrop treatment also. However, the “tall tower-looking 3-d structure” is, surprisingly, basically the very first periodic table, not merely a recent innovation. I employ the teardrop loops to contain elements of later discovery/creation, which are attached to continue the unbroken numerical sequence made possible by the spiral in the p-block. The “Lan/Act” loop was OKd by Glenn Seaborg – who sent the Actinoids off with the Lanthanoids from the common flat periodic table to avoid the REAL long form of the flat table during WWII.
    The 3-Dness of the de Chancourtois periodic table preceded, not only the development of quantum physics, but Mendeleev’s flattened version as well – by almost a decade.
    (details at allperiodictables.com)

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