Infographics Through the Ages Highlight the Visual Beauty of Science

An exhibit at the British Library focuses on the aesthetic appeal of 400 years of scientific data

Epidemic Planet, ©GLEAMviz Team, 2013: Developed by researchers in Italy and the U.S., the touch-screen program is based upon the Global Epidemic and Mobility model, which researchers used to accurately forecast the 2009 pandemic influenza outbreak. Visitors can change the modeled environment to see how epidemics and anti-contagion efforts play out in certain scenarios. Courtesy of the British Library
In 1603, London parish clerks started collecting health-related population data to monitor plague deaths, publishing the London Bills of Mortality on a weekly basis. These tables, constructed by John Graunt in 1662, represent 50 years of information from the bills and are the first known tables of public health data. Courtesy of the British Library
“Temperature and Mortality of London,” William Farr, Report on the Mortality of Cholera in England, 1848-1849, London, 1852: In contrast to John Snow, epidemiologist and statistician William Farr thought cholera was caused by “bad air,” so he plotted cycles of temperature and cholera deaths in these diagrams, purposefully constructing them in a way that was “striking” to the eye. Courtesy of the British Library
“Great Chain of Being,” Robert Fludd, Frankfurt, 1617: In the ancient Greek concept of the Great Chain of Being, life on Earth follows a hierarchical order. 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. Courtesy of the British Library
“Air Currents Over the British Isles,” Robert FitzRoy, London, 1863: Captain of the HMS Beagle, Robert FitzRoy is widely considered to be the grandfather of the modern weather service. Though a little crude compared to today’s satellite image maps, this illustration shows how storms and cyclones develop on the border between warm tropical and cold polar air masses. Courtesy of the British Library
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). “She did this with a very specific purpose of driving through all sorts of military reforms in military hospitals subsequent to the Crimean War," says Kieniewicz. Courtesy of the British Library
Luke Howard, Barometrographia, London, 1847: Luke Howard recorded daily barometric pressure readings, taken from outside his house in Tottenham, from 1815 to 1834. This circular infographic shows pressure and weather reports from 1815. Courtesy of the British Library
“On the Mode of Communication of Cholera,” John Snow, London, 1855: John Snow used this map of cholera deaths clustered around a local well to convince authorities that the disease was waterborne, instead of airborne. Authorities removed the well handle, and cases dropped. Courtesy of The British Library
"Weather Sentiment vs. Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI) weather data," ©CLEVER°FRANKE, 2012: This chart compares the actual weather to more than 700,000 sentiment-analyzed social media messages about the weather throughout 2011. Courtesy of the British Library
“The Pedigree of Man,” by Ernst Haeckel in The Evolution of Man, London, 1879: German biologist Ernst Haeckel sought to devise trees organizing all of life on Earth based on the ideas of natural selection and evolution put forth by Charles Darwin. Courtesy of the British Library
“Die Ebbe und Fluth auff einer Flachen Landt-Karten fürgestelt,” Eberhard Werner Happel, Ulm, 1685: This unusual map illustrates ocean currents as understood at the time based on the observations of explorers and mariners. Courtesy of the British Library

Tacked on to the appendix of a British government health report in 1858, a rose-shaped diagram presented a striking finding: during the Crimean War, far more soldiers died of disease in hospitals than of wounds on the battlefield.

The diagram’s author, famed mother of nursing Florence Nightingale, had a talent for statistics. Today, her rose diagram remains iconic, but Nightingale certainly wasn’t the first to visualize her data, nor would she be the last. An exhibit at the British Library entitled “Beautiful Science” displays 400 years worth of infographics, each with its own fascinating backstory.

The exhibit contains three sections: public health, weather and climate, and the tree of life. Each section features infographics and data visualizations from past and present—allowing visitors to draw conclusions about how scientific visuals have changed, or stayed the same, over the centuries. 

Obviously, a lot has changed over 400 years. For one thing, technology has made modern visualizations much more dynamic. Though perhaps beautiful individually, maps of ocean currents from the 1700s look a little underwhelming compared to the technological wizardry of computer simulations in NASA’s “Perpetual Ocean,” a swirling depiction of the world’s ocean currents that the library has projected onto a large screen in the exhibit.

NASA | Perpetual Ocean

“The really interesting and exciting difference between then and now is the degree to which we can actually use the data. And in fact, data is no longer static, but it’s actually something through which we can explore our world and interact,” says Johanna Kieniewicz, who curates the exhibit for the British Library.

For example, in the public health section an interactive program called Epidemic Planet (developed by researchers at Northeastern University and the ISI Foundation in Italy) allows visitors to tinker with parameters and see how an epidemic would spread across the globe under different settings.

The tree of life section includes the oldest document in the collection: an image of the ancient Greek concept of the Great Chain of Being, depicted in 1617 by English physician Robert Fludd. The newest items in the exhibit are works such as One Zoom Tree, an interactive program developed by scientists at the Imperial College London that allows users to zoom in and explore different branches of the evolutionary tree.  Another visual called “Circles of Life” by Canadian artist Martin Krzywinski depicts the genetic similarities between humans and other animals, including chimps and chickens, through colorful circle graphics generated by a computer program called Circos.

The visuals might at first seem totally unrelated, but subtle parallels—between the Great Chain of Being, Darwinian evolution, and modern taxonomic trees based on genetic data—show humanity’s continual efforts to classify and understand life and its ties to nature.​

Through a computer program called Circos, you can see how closely related the genes in an animal are to those in human chromosomes. Imagine arched over the top half of each circle is the genome of an animal--in this case a dog. Arched over the bottom half are genes in each human chromosome. The curves between hemispheres indicate similarities between sequences. Image: © Martin Krzywinski
A comparison of chicken and human DNA, as part of "Circles of Life." Image: © Martin Krzywinski
A comparison of platypus and human DNA, as part of "Circles of Life." Image: © Martin Krzywinski
Circos diagrams showing the similarities between human genes and those of an opossum, as part of "Circles of Life." Image: © Martin Krzywinski

In the weather and climate section, the work of amateur 19th-century meteorologist Luke Howard, who obsessively measured barometric pressure outside of his London home every day, doesn’t seem that far off from today’s citizen scientist movement. Like Nightingale’s diagram, Howard’s work also questions the idea that “big data”—the exponential and unstructured growth of observations—is a modern phenomenon. Sure, we have better tools for crunching the numbers today, but datamongers of the Victorian era were equally dedicated to recording all that they could observe.

Infographics have long played a role in scientific endeavors. “These diagrams are both tools of discovery as well as scientific communication, so in a sense [they are] highlighting the importance of data visualization to the overall scientific process,” says Kieniewicz.

She points to an 1855 map of London’s SoHo district by another English physician, John Snow, which shows cholera deaths clustered around a local well. Snow thought that water contamination—not miasma or “bad air,” prevailing ideas at the time—lay at the root of sweeping cholera epidemics hitting the city. The map became an iconic and invaluable tool for Snow to both prove his hypothesis and communicate science to those who doubted him.

In some sense, the exhibit—like the data it shows—is itself a tool for discovery. Kieniewicz hopes that visitors will be inspired to “see how interesting some of these stories actually are and be keen to learn more.”

Moreover, the exhibit shows that science can be a visual pursuit. “There is a beauty that is inherent in the science and that’s something that we should actually celebrate,” says Kieniewicz.

Beautiful Science” will be on view at the British Library through May 26, 2014. 

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