From John Graunt’s ‘bills of mortality’ to Florence Nightingale’s revolutionary ‘rose charts’, the distillation of information into graphics has been a vital tool for scientists
The Observer, Saturday 15 February 2014
Big data, infographics, visualisations – the pop words of a modern phenomenon. But while information accumulation has become a 21st-century obsession, our generation is not the first to discover that a picture is worth a thousand words, as a new British Library exhibition will reveal.
Revelling in the power of illustrations, tables and figures, Beautiful Science charts the course of data dissemination across the centuries, from the grim ledgers of death recorded by John Graunt in the 17th-century “bills of mortality” to the digital evolutionary tree dreamt up by an Imperial College researcher, complete with a mind-boggling zoomable function. “You can use almost fractal-like patterns to explore all of life on Earth,” says Dr Johanna Kieniewicz, lead exhibition curator.
But diagrams can also be agents of change. Indeed, Florence Nightingale’s talent at wielding data to push for health reforms shows she was not only the lady with the lamp but the girl with the graphics. “She was actually a very eminent and hard-nosed statistician,” says Kieniewicz. The brutal message of her “rose” charts of mortality, constructed using data from the Crimean war, was both informative and highly influential, showing in stark, uncompromising terms that the numbers of soldiers dying from disease and squalor far outweighed those dying from battle injuries.
And other vivid illustrations are also on show. A map of Soho bearing neat black marks holds the clue to a devastating cholera outbreak that hit the area 160 years ago. Created by medical man John Snow, the black marks track the deaths street by street and, combined with Snow’s theory that cholera was waterborne, pinpoint the root of the outbreak: a contaminated pump in the centre of Broad Street. “One thing that’s incredibly interesting about John Snow’s cholera map is that, in a sense, it’s a tool of discovery as well as communication,” explains Kieniewicz. “This is a way through which he could actually test his hypothesis and show what was going on.”
Split into three sections – public health, weather and climate and trees of life – the exhibition also boasts examples of more contemporary techniques, including the specially commissioned “Circles of Life”, revealing the similarities between the human genome and those of chimps, chickens and platypuses. It is a reminder, perhaps, that diagrams are not only helpful in public communication but are often vital tools for sophisticated research.
From scientists to consumers, there’s no escaping the onward march of big data. But as Beautiful Science shows, if we embrace the power of graphics, fresh insights to modern challenges may be glimpsed. And that could be massive.
Beautiful Science: Picturing Data, Inspiring Insight, runs from 20 February to 26 May at the British Library