Friday, 21 March 2014

Beautiful Science

A wonderful exhibition, entitled Beautiful Science: Picturing Data, Inspiring Insight is currently on at the British Library in London, and shows how, useful, beautiful and elegant scientific data visualisation can be.

In some ways it is a shame that the exhibition was constrained to three areas: evolution, weather and disease - I would have liked to see some Chemistry and Physics in there too, as I am sure beautiful examples exist in all disciplines - but restricting it given the limited exhibition space, makes sense.

The first exhibit we came to was a visualisation of the currents across the world's seas and oceans - NASA's Perpetual Ocean. Although I knew some of the locations where I would expect bigger, faster moving currents (from news stories and general geographical knowledge) seeing them swirling across the globe illustrates the size of these areas far better than any words.

The interactive Tree of Life was excellent - and really brought a smile to my face once we realised you could start at the beginning and watch the tree grow and branch. The biggest limitation was my ability to zoom in quick enough to watch each little tendril I was interested in grow. Exhibited alongside illustrations of other evolutionary trees and taxonomic representations of species this shows what technology now allows and does so well - moving through time - and allowing the presenter, or interesting observer to pause at point of interest. In the case of the Tree of Life you can choose to delve deeper - find out more about the status of the species of interest, or continue to see where that branch split and evolved in to. Take a look for yourself at OneZoom.

Seeing Florence Nightingale's "Rose" diagram charting the incidence of deaths in the Crimean War due to "preventable, or mitigable zymotic diseases", "wounds" or "other causes", alongside Understanding Uncertainty's interactive version, where you could choose between the "rose", a bar graph or icons, really illustrated how effective her novel way of displaying the data was. The accompanying text provided a reminder that she was a keen Statistician - something which I'm sure I should have recalled, but didn't come to mind immediately.

Other highlights were
Epidemic Planet which let you model the outcome of an infectious disease. Is is Summer or Winter? Where did it start? How infectious is it?
- Circles of Life  by Martin Krzywinski showed genetic similarities between species by, if I remember correctly, linking common genes, each pair of chromosomes shown on its own Circos diagram.
-Weather Sentiment vs Reality,  a comparison of tweets about the weather compared with the actual weather conditions in the Netherlands. I think seeing this for the UK would be even more interesting as we as a country are supposedly obsessed with the weather.

Whilst observing the ships logs, one including a beautiful illustration of a duck, it felt like you were looking at important documents. Whether they were viewed this way at the time or not, I don't know, but the obvious time taken over their preparation, possibly combined with few distractions at sea in those days, contrasts with what I imagine is a very slim likelihood that anyone takes time to record an entry in anything using beautiful copperplate script today. It often feels we barely have the time to scribble a shopping list in modern society, so a careful recording of the weather conditions, or the days notable events seems almost alien. Yet what is inspiring is that the care taken is now being utilised, and the meticulously recorded temperatures, wind speeds and locations, combined with other records from all over the globe to chart and model the changes over centuries. Will all of our digital recording be so accessible in 200 years time I wonder?

In my opinion, the real power of data visualisation is it can take thousands of observations, or a dry table of values, and turn them into something beautiful *and* meaningful.

You can take a look at a gallery of images from Beautiful Science on the Guardian website.

What's your favourite example of beautiful scientific data?

1 comment:

  1. This looks a great exhibition - thanks for writing about it. Earlier this week at the end of Newsnight there was a sequence sowing all the world's plan journeys as light trails which was very beautiful. I love scientific models, drawings and data and often put them in my art sketchbook - something about the juxtaposition of precision and randomness.