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.
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.