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Infographics: Truth is beauty

Daniel Cressey views the British Library's first science exhibition — a celebration of scientific illustration.

Beautiful Science: Picturing Data, Inspiring Insight

British Library, London. Until 26 May 2014.

Isaac Newton may have long presided over the British Library in the form of Eduardo Palaozzi's vast sculpture at the library's entrance, but only now is the London institution hosting its first science exhibition. Beautiful Science catalogues attempts to make sense of the world through visualizations from the seventeenth century to today, drawing on the vast archives of the United Kingdom's national library. On show are graphics from alchemist Robert Fludd's 1617 work Great Chain of Being — which attempts to explain the Universe from stars to animals, vegetables and minerals — to a huge collection of modern Circos diagrams used to visualize genetic information and highlight relationships between species.

Ocean currents swirl and eddy in a visualization of NASA satellite data, on show at the British Library. Credit: NASA/SVS

“Infographics are now a staple of every newspaper in the country. In many ways this seems like a new phenomenon,” says curator Johanna Kieniewicz. “What I was really keen to show is that it actually has a very interesting and rich history.”

The graphics have a many-layered power. “The visual representation of science can increase both the engagement of fellow researchers [and] the public,” says Kieniewicz.

Perhaps the exhibition's most famous expression of this is Nightingale's Rose, from the 1850s. A pioneer of modern medicine, Florence Nightingale demonstrated the value of improved hospital hygiene by showing that during the Crimean War, more British soldiers died as a result of poor sanitation in hospital than from enemy action. The image she drew to illustrate this point, says Kieniewicz, has “changed science, changed the way in which things are done”.

Less transformative but no less impressive is William Farr's failed 1848–49 attempt to determine the cause of a cholera epidemic. His huge Temperature and Mortality of London plots these two variables in circular graphs. Farr's contemporary, John Snow, was more successful in using epidemiological mapping to pin cholera down as a waterborne disease; yet Farr's diagram stands as a monument to the difficulties of trying to tease causation out of huge data sets. Farr eventually came around to Snow's views, in part thanks to Snow's data presentation.

Beautiful Science shows that good data presentation is timeless. Witness Luke Howard, the meteorologist who named the three basic cloud types — cirrus, cumulus and stratus. His diagram of the weather recorded in 1815 at his home in Tottenham, north London, sits next to a strikingly similar display of weather data from 2011. The latter is given a modern twist through an overlay of social-media commentary by design firm CleverºFranke of Utrecht, the Netherlands.

As science generated more complicated data, the methods needed to visualize them also became more complicated. Evolutionary theorist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck's 1809 table of the relationships between mammals, fish, reptiles, crustaceans and other animals can be understood easily by anyone with the most basic knowledge of French; much more parsing is needed for an avian tree of life published in Nature in 2012 that sits next to it. The exhibition reveals how seriously scientists need to take data presentation to convey meaning. Most of the pieces displayed were arduously plotted and coloured by hand. Says Kieniewicz of today's spreadsheet tools for chart production: “They make it too easy. You don't end up putting much thought into graphs.”

Modern scientists, although liberated from painstaking drafting and shading, can gain from thinking hard about their audience, and about precisely what and how they want to communicate. A graph in a research paper today could be at the British Library in years hence, forming part of what Kieniewicz calls scientists' “visual legacy”.

Science, the exhibition reminds us, is all about beautiful ideas. The trick is finding the aesthetic that maintains both meaning and elegance.

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Cressey, D. Infographics: Truth is beauty. Nature 507, 304–305 (2014).

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