Sometimes big concepts are best explained visually. Or taking huge piles of data and graphing them makes them digestible.
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.