Infographics really are all the rage these days. Gone are the days when a simple news story or feature would suffice: in 2014 it’s all about data journalism. Information has to be displayed pictorially, with facts and figures presented in a colourful, quirky and user-friendly fashion.
The British Library’s Beautiful Science exhibition doesn’t overtly draw on this internet-era phenomenon, but it might as well do. Focused on how scientists have visually represented data throughout history, it intersperses text, video and graphics to delve into how we have mapped trends in public health, science and human understanding.
There’s a broad selection of ‘beautiful science’ on show, from a colourful diagram outlining the avian tree of life, to a map showing the spread of pandemic diseases, to representations of seemingly more humdrum facts and figures, including a map showing the spread of fast food outlets around Britain (the explanation points to additional factors beyond simply a predilection for McDonald’s in some parts of the UK, such as deprivation levels or tourism).
From an animation by NASA depicting the flow of ocean currents over a two-year period that looks like the result of an acid trip gone awry to a series of vibrant depictions of genomes, which I can’t pretend to have understood, there’s plenty to explore.
Personally I enjoyed browsing the graphics from days gone by, such as the diagram of the ‘Great Chain of Being’ from 1617, depicting the ancient Greek understanding of the links between Gods, man and these beneath them, or another detailing weather pattern data extracted from the 18th century journals of sailors on East India Company shops, or the chart plotting cycles of temperature and cholera deaths in 1840s London. That last, compiled by pioneering statistician William Farr, who later set up the first national statistics collection system, brings home that data imaging was a fact of life long before the internet era.
Appropriately for an exhibition focused on what one can do with data, there are a number of interactive displays, for example one enabling viewers to zoom in and examine in more detail the impact of Florence Nightingale’s sanitary reforms during the Crimean War.
If much of what’s on show is beyond the comprehension of the laymen – or beyond the comprehension of this layman – not all of it is. I loved, for example, a graphic contrasting weather sentiment with the reality, based on an assessment of social media messages. If you’ve ever been on Twitter during a sudden snowfall, you’ll be aware of the level of hyperbole that prevails.
A small exhibition, this is barely a taster of how and why numbers can be and are turned into pictures. But in an era when we worry about Google accessing our personal details, are unnerved by supermarkets familiar with our eating habits, and ourselves constantly put out new data in the form of emails and tweets, this is a timely reminder of how humans have always tracked facts and figures – and what they have been able to do with it.
Beautiful Science: Picturing Data, Inspiring Insight
Until 26th May 2014 at the British Library. Admission is free.