Science blog

Exploring science at the British Library

20 January 2014

Beautiful Science Preview

Johanna Kieniewicz spills a few beans on the upcoming British Library exhibition

We are now just a month out from the British Library’s first science exhibition: Beautiful Science: Picturing Data, Inspiring Insight. Life in our team right now is a whirlwind of writing captions, finalising commissions, testing interactives and liaising with our press office. But all for a good reason. Opening February 20th, Beautiful Science will highlight the very best in graphical communication in science, linking classic diagrams from the Library’s collections to the work of contemporary scientists. The exhibition will cover the subject areas of public health, weather and climate and the tree of life, telling stories both of advances in science, as well as look at the way in which we communicate and visualise scientific data.


Picturing Data

Data is coming out our ears. From data collected by our mobile phones and movements about the city to the data acquired by scientists when sequencing genomes or smashing subatomic particles together, the quantities are vast. While a simple table of numbers is a form of data visualisation in itself, our human ability to scan, analyse and identify patterns and trends is limited.

William Farr, 1852, Report on the Mortality of Cholera in England 1848-1849

Whilst today we see a proliferation of data visualisation, it is hardly a new phenomenon, and might even be considered a rediscovery of the ‘Golden Age’ of statistical graphics of the late 19th century. Like today, the Victorian period featured a confluence of new techniques for data collection, developments in statistics and advances in technology created an environment in which data graphics flourished. In Beautiful Science, we highlight a number of graphics from this period—some of which are well known, others of which may prove to be more of a surprise, such as this piece on cholera mortality by epidemiologist and statistician William Farr.


Inspiring Insight

The very best visualisations of scientific data, do not merely present it, but also inspire insight and reveal meaning. Data visualisation is both a tool through which we can analyse and interpret data, but also functions as a method by which we communicate its meaning. It is most powerful when it does both.

Circles of Life, Martin Krzywinski, 2013

In curating Beautiful Science, we were keen to highlight the ways in which the visualisation of data is integral to the scientific process, as well as the way cutting edge science is communicated. The Circos diagrams used to display genomic data do this very well. In Beautiful Science, you can examine a comparison of the human genome with both closely and distantly related animals. Here, you see that we are quite closely related to the chimpanzee (though we presume you knew that already). But what about a chicken or a platypus? You’ll have to come to the exhibition and see for yourself.



Beautiful Science

Should we impose an aesthetic upon the presentation of scientific information? Or is beauty indeed in the eye of the beholder? We take a rather agnostic position in this debate, and rather seek to inspire the exhibition visitor with both intriguing images and inspiring ideas. What is clear, however, is that scientists should take care and be thoughtful when producing their graphics. In a world where research impact is ever more important, producing images that compellingly communicate discoveries is of increasing importance.

NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio

Compelling imagery is something at which the NASA Scientific Visualisation Studio excels. Something like a model of ocean currents might potentially be quite dry and dull. Originally developed for a scientific purpose, would not colour coded vectors increasing and decreasing size not do the job? With a leap of insight, they developed a visualisation that is both informative and inspiring. We hope you will watch it with awe in the entry to the exhibition, tracking the Gulf Stream as it moves water northwards towards the British Isles, bringing us our temperate climate.


Even More Beautiful Science

A fantastic programme of events will also accompany the exhibition. From serious debate to science comedy shows, competitions, workshops and family activities, we’ve developed a programme that’s designed to make you think. Please join us!


Beautiful Science runs from 20 February to 26 May, 2014, is sponsored by Winton Capital Management, and is free to the public.


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