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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.

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.

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)

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 (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.

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.

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.

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

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” 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)

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)

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

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 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)

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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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

2 replies on “Accessing Data through Design in the History of Visualizing Science”

  1. 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.

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