Articles

Accessing Data through Design in the History of Visualizing Science

by Allison Meier on March 26, 2014

Great Chain of Being, Robert Fludd, Utriusque Cosmi majoris scilicet et minoris ... Oppenheim; Frankfurt, 1617   Download file( .JPG, 2.1MB ) The ‘Great Chain of Being’ is an ancient Greek concept that classifies life on earth into a hierarchical order with respect to the rest of the universe. In this diagram, the oldest exhibit in the exhibition, the chain starts with Sophia, goddess of wisdom, and extends downwards to animals, plants and minerals.

Robert Fludd, “Great Chain of Being” (1617) (detail) (all images courtesy British Library)

As much as data can tell us about our planet, rattling off the numbers can often sound like static. An exhibition at the British Library in London is showing how art and design are essential to conveying scientific ideas and statistics.

Circles of Life (c) Martin Krzywinski, Circles of Life, 2014   Download file( .PNG, 5MB ) Specially commissioned for Beautiful Science, these striking ‘Circos’ diagrams picture the genetic similarities between humans and five other animals: chimpanzee, dog, opossum, platypus and chicken.

Martin Krzywinski, “Circles of Life” (2014) (detail), picturing genetic similarities between humans & five other animals: chimpanzee, dog, opossum (shown here), platypus, & chicken. (click to view larger)

Beautiful Science: Picturing Data, Inspiring Insight opened last month with examples of scientific visualizations from 17th century engravings to modern animated infographics. As lead curator Johanna Kieniewicz explains, “As big data is becoming a topic of such huge interest, we particularly wanted to show the important connections between the past and the present. Data that is centuries old from collections like ours is now being used to inform cutting edge science.”

That connection is both in laying out the data of the past so we can better understand the future, as well as in the way of turning data into a narrative. The earliest example is Robert Fludd’s 1617 “Great Chain of Being,” wrapping the hierarchy of the universe in concentric circles all linked back to Sophia, goddess of wisdom. Each of the works in some way is about an ordering of the world into a better understanding of it.

The “Rose Diagram” (1858) by Florence Nightingale, who is known for her work in nursing but was also the first woman to be a Royal Statistical Society member, successfully showed that in the 1850s Crimean War more soldiers perished due to disease from poor hospital conditions than actual battle wounds. In Beautiful Science, a contemporary take on the “rose” is animated by Cambridge University researchers. John Snow’s 1855 map “On the Mode of Communication of Cholera” zeroed in via disease data on a water pump as the contaminating source. Popular sentiment at the time believed cholera was an airborne epidemic, and the exhibition also includes believer William Farr’s charts of temperatures. Although he was wrong about cholera’s transmissions, Farr’s charts are still strikingly contemporary in their data presentation.

Alongside are Martin Kryzwinksi’s comparisons of the human genome to other species, HMS Beagle captain Robert FitzRoy’s pre-satellite air current charts, the most comprehensive to date bird family tree from Yale, and a clever mashup of 2011 weather data from the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute contrasting the real weather to the reactions on social media. It all shows how quickly a compelling visual can convey complicated information, and why good design and science are powerful together.

Great Chain of Being, Robert Fludd, Utriusque Cosmi majoris scilicet et minoris ... Oppenheim; Frankfurt, 1617   Download file( .JPG, 2.1MB ) The ‘Great Chain of Being’ is an ancient Greek concept that classifies life on earth into a hierarchical order with respect to the rest of the universe. In this diagram, the oldest exhibit in the exhibition, the chain starts with Sophia, goddess of wisdom, and extends downwards to animals, plants and minerals.

Robert Fludd, “Great Chain of Being” (1617), classifying life on earth in a hierarchical order with respect to the rest of the universe, starting with Sophia – goddess of wisdom – and extending downwards to animals, plants, & minerals. (click to view larger)

Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army in the East Florence Nightingale. Notes on matters, affecting the health, efficiency and hospital administration of the British Army. London, 1858.   Download file( .JPG, 2.5MB ) In her seminal ‘rose diagram’, Florence Nightingale demonstrated that far more soldiers died from preventable epidemic diseases (blue) than from wounds inflicted on the battlefield (red) or other causes (black) during the Crimean War (1853-56).

Florence Nightingale, “Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army in the East – Notes on matters, affecting the health, efficiency and hospital administration of the British Army” (1858), demonstrating that more soldiers died of preventable epidemic diseases (blue) than battlefield wounds (red) or other causes (black) during the Crimean War (1853-56). (click to view larger)

Nightingale’s Rose (c) David Spiegelhalter, Mike Pearson, Ian Short 2011 Download file( .JPG, 153KB ) Cambridge University statistician David Spiegelhalter and his colleagues have taken the data from Florence Nightingale’s ‘rose diagram’ and animated the ‘rose’, as well as picturing the data as a bar chart and icon diagram. This shows not only the lasting relevance of Nightingale’s diagram as a visual icon, but also demonstrates how data can be pictured in different ways, to different effect.

Nightingale’s Rose (David Spiegelhalter, Mike Pearson, Ian Short, 2011), Cambridge University statistician David Spiegelhalter & colleagues took data from Florence Nightingale’s “rose diagram” and animated the  “rose’,” as well as picturing the data as a bar chart and icon diagram.

Air Currents over the British Isles Robert, FitzRoy, The Weather Book: A manual of practical meteorology. London, 1863.   Download file( .JPG, 3.3MB ) Robert FitzRoy, best known as the captain of HMS Beagle aboard which Charles Darwin sailed as a naturalist, is also widely considered to be the grandfather of the modern weather service. This illustration shows how storms and cyclones develop on the border between warm tropical and cold polar air masses and looks remarkably like a modern satellite image.

Robert FitzRoy, “Air Currents over the British Isles Robert” from “The Weather Book: A manual of practical meteorology” (1863), in which the captain of the HMS Beagle which had Darwin as a passenger who was also a significant charter of weather shows the development of storms and cyclones on the border between warm tropical and cold polar air masses.

Perpetual Ocean (c) NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio, 2011   Download file( .JPG, 2.3MB ) This striking animation by NASA visualises the flow of ocean surface currents from June 2005 to December 2007.

NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio, “Perpetual Ocean” (2011), a still from an animation visualizing the flow of ocean currents from June 2005 to December 2007.

Early Ocean Currents, Eberhard Werner Happel, Die Ebbe und Fluth auff einer Flachen Landt-Karten fürgestelt. Ulm, 1685   Download file( .JPG, 5.3MB ) This unusual map of 1685 illustrates ocean currents as understood at the time based on the observations of explorers and mariners. Though necessarily conjectural in many ways, it highlights the remarkable effort made by early cartographers to make sense of an accumulation of data from such reports without the visualisation tools we have today.

Eberhard Werner Happel, “Early Ocean Currents” (1685), showing ocean currents as understood based on observations of explorers and mariners.

The Pedigree of Man. Ernst Haeckel, The evolution of man. London, 1879.   Download file( .JPG, 431KB ) Ernst Haeckel was inspired by the ideas of Charles Darwin and sought to devise trees organising all life on Earth.

Ernest Haeckel, “The Pedigree of Man” (1879), a tree organizing life on Earth inspired by Charles Darwin (click to view larger)

Avian Tree of Life (c) Gavin Thomas, Walter Jetz, Jeff Joy, Arne Mooers, Klass Hartmann, 2012. First published in Nature.   Download file( .JPG, 3.5MB ) This diagram depicts evolutionary relationships of all 9,993 living species of birds, illustrating when individual species diverged. Although modern birds first evolved some 145 – 66 million years ago, this diagram shows that they began to diversify exceptionally rapidly about  50 million years ago. This is particularly apparent for the songbirds, waterfowl, gulls and woodpeckers.

“Avian Tree of Life” created by Gavin Thomas, Walter Jetz, Jeff Joy, Arne Mooers, Klass Hartmann (2012, first published in Nature), depicting evolutionary relationships of all 9,993 living species of birds, including when individual species diverged. (click to view larger)

Temperature and Mortality of London. William Farr, Report on the Mortality of Cholera in England, 1848-1849. London, 1852.   Download file( .JPG, 2.5MB ) In these diagrams, epidemiologist and statistician William Farr plotted cycles of temperature and cholera deaths for 1840-50. He notes that the circular form and colours make ‘the diagram represent the facts in a striking manner to the eye’. At the time, Farr believed that cholera, now known to be caused by water-borne bacteria, was spread by miasma or ‘bad air,’ sourced from evaporation of the Thames. Although this hypothesis was incorrect, Farr left an important legacy. He set up the first national system for collecting statistics, advocated a data-driven approach to public health, and utilised innovative graphic methods to communicate that data.

William Farr, “Temperature and Mortality of London” from “Report on the Mortality of Cholera in England, 1848-1849″ (1852), where Farr plotted cycles of temperature and cholera deaths for 1840-50. (click to view larger)

On the Mode of Communication of Cholera, John Snow. London, 1855

John Snow, “On the Mode of Communication of Cholera” (1855)

Luke Howard, Barometrographia: Twenty years' variation of the barometer in the climate of Britain… London, 1847.   Download file( .JPG, 4MB ) Luke Howard’s daily barometric pressure readings are amongst the earliest consistent scientific observations recorded. In Barometrographia (1847), he recorded the atmospheric pressure readings from 1815 to 1834 at his homes in Tottenham, London and Ackworth, Yorkshire, alongside accounts of the weather.

Luke Howard, “Barometrographia: Twenty years’ variation of the barometer in the climate of Britain” (1847), which recorded atmospheric pressure readings from 1815 to 1834 at Howard’s homes in Tottenham, London, and Ackworth, Yorkshire, alongside accounts of the weather. (click to view larger)

Weather Sentiment vs. Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI) weather data (c) CLEVER°FRANKE, 2012   Download file( .JPG, 766KB ) This chart compares the actual weather to over 700,000 sentiment-analysed social media messages about the weather throughout 2011.

Weather Sentiment vs. Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute weather data (CLEVER°FRANKE, 2012), comparing the actual weather to over 700,000 sentiment-analyzed social media messages about the weather in 2011. (click to view larger)

Bills of Mortality, John Graunt, Natural and Political Observations on the Bills of Mortality. London, 1662.   Download file( .JPG, 1.8MB ) From 1603, London parish clerks began to collect health-related population data in order to monitor plague deaths, publishing the London Bills of Mortality on a weekly basis. John Graunt amalgamated 50 years of information from the bills in Natural and Political Observations on the Bills of Mortality (1662), producing the first known tables of public health data.

John Graunt, “Bills of Mortality” (1662), showing health-related population data aimed at monitoring plague deaths

Beautiful Science: Picturing Data, Inspiring Insight is at the British Library (96 Euston Road, London) through May 26.  

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  • J Gonzalez Ruiz

    art is not just a way of visualizing or ilustrating science, science or tecnique point of view is just one of all of possibles, is not an absolute one, copernicus was wrong, newton was too, etc. quantic theory shows us how common language could not articulate logically the world.

  • J Gonzalez Ruiz

    anyway, love this.

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