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The infographic I thought would be easiest to create was the hardest

Here is my chronicle of the 2-month journey to finishing the graphic you see below: Fundamental Particles of the Universe, Ranked by Size. The process took many turns, hit a few dead ends and ultimately ended up with a satisfactory data visualization (if not a bit on the busy side). Still, my perfectionist brain says… Hmm, can we do better?

From 2008–2018, I operated a small business called The Particle Zoo in which I created a brand of plush toy characters based on the subatomic particles of the universe. It was my brainchild, my one great idea. The toys were handmade and in the decade I had the business, I made and sold over 60,000. Yes, I had carpal tunnel syndrome. In 2018, I sold the business. It still exists:

I have always been intrigued by the spectrum of sizes of the different particles, from electron-neutrino to top quark. So I thought it would be fun and probably not too hard to make a graphic comparing particle sizes because the data is a hard-and-fast number, right? One number for each particle. Not so fast…

I found that finding consistent data in particle mass was not the easy task. To begin with, there are many different values for the masses of the particles because it is a difficult procedure to measure something so small. I looked at various reputable websites from particle labs around the world. The numbers all varied. I bought several recent books on the subject written by physicists in the field. Again, the numbers varied.

Add to that, the difference between the smallest particle (electron-neutrino) and the largest particle (top quark) is an order of magnitude in the millions, so this made it challenging to encapsulate that enormous chasm in one static graphic. I also wanted to make the design relatable to someone who has never heard of anything beyond the familiar proton, neutron and electron most people study in high school chemistry class.

My first idea was to include real-world analogs for the spectrum of particles, from a tiny virus to Mt. Everest. I painstakingly calculated what size the particles would scale up to and looked for relatable objects. This occupied the greater part of a week. But the metaphors soon got overwrought. After trying to make it work, to my dismay, I had to scrap the idea. Instead, I decided it would be even easier to understand if I kept the analog comparisons to just a range of animals. I did many calculations comparing the weight of the largest mammal (whale) down to a mosquito and decided on each particle’s counterpart in the animal kingdom. But when I drew the visualization in Illustrator, it was again just too busy and overdone.

Once again, I had to start over. I was trying to show too much in too small a space. This project taught me that it’s better to lean toward simplicity when designing an infographic.

The next idea was to make jumps in scale using arrows and relative sizes of colored spheres. I used RAWGraphs, an open source tool for data visualization, to calculate the actual size differences of the particles using circle packing. I vertically aligned the circles on a shared baseline for easy comparison. But because the top quark is so many millions of units larger than an electron-neutrino, it became unwieldy and confusing. I just wasn’t happy with the results. I was constantly critiquing my graphic through the eyes of a layman. Would this make sense to someone?

To add another enlightening data point, I wanted to add a timeline of the particles’ discovery dates and see how they related to their sizes. Even though it made the graphic busier, I couldn’t resist including a color-coded timeline on the bottom… it just looked so pretty! And I thought readers might find it interesting to disover that generally speaking, the heavier the particle, the more recently it was discovered. Please take these graphics with a grain of salt. They are in an unfinished state and may have graphical errors. Basically, they are not finessed. But you get the idea, the broad strokes are what we are after.

But something was bothering me. I looked at other infographics online that compared the very small with the very large and they were impactful because they retained the actual scale. How could I do this if the smallest particle would not even be a spec on the page? I realized now that the story I really wanted to tell was the vastness of size differences. If the reader walked away with one idea, I wanted it to be how goddamn small an electron-neutrino is compared to a top quark.

I consulted a friend who works in the communications department at CERN in Geneva, site of the Large Hadron Collider which is basically the world headquarters for particle physics. He pointed out that I had composite particles (proton, neutron) mixed in with fundamental particles and that wasn’t right. He also said that the “size” of particles is tricky because at that level, they don’t really have size, they are more “pointlike” and what we are actually comparing is “rest mass.” We aren’t comparing “girth,” so to speak. Ugh.

So I had to step back and rethink the whole thing. He carries a PhD in particle physics and has worked at the collider for 40 years, so I held his expertise in high regard. Stick to the data! My physics knowledge is limited to my general interest. Ultimately, for the final numbers, I ended up relying primarily on Symmetry Magazine, published by Fermilab and Quanta Magazine. (Both are awesome sites, by the way, with great art and visualizations of many complex subjects).

Just keep trying, it's the only way to learn. I was determined to nail it! I know, why don't we make it more complicated and add a timeline? Because the particles were discovered in a different order from their sizes, I found the timeline made for a compelling visual display. But was I falling into the trap of trying to show too much information?

In the end, I opted to display all the particles ranked by actual size, as spheres. For the smallest ones, I just made them the smallest size visible to the eye allowable by the program (0.01” or something like that). In actuality, they would be less than a pixel. And the photon and gluon have NO mass! As if everything else weren’t tricky enough, I had to show something that isn’t something… but is.

The whole thing was a wild challenge and a wonderful exercise. And I can say it was all done with just Adobe Illustrator and a calculator. (With a little help from RAWGraphs).

As one final addition, I decided to add the Five Mysteries of Particle Physics to make the graphic less obtuse and niche, in an effort to boost excitement and show that the tiniest things in the universe can lead to answers about the biggest things in the universe. And maybe studying particle physics can possibly enlighten a few medium-sized things in between… like you and me.

I hope you enjoy the graphic and learning about my process. These slides show the evolution of the piece back in time to first ideas. Many of them are in-progress stages just to show how much it changed from beginning to end. Heck, I still might not be done with it!

I'm happy to say that because of this piece, I have started a collaboration with infographic designer Pablo Carlos Budassi, who does incredible vizzes on astronomical topics. He was adapted my particle chart to be in his line of posters. Check out Pablo's store!

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