Science blog

13 posts categorized "Data visualisation"

14 January 2020


A handwritten letter from Ada Lovelace to Charles BabbageThe British Library is joining in the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, celebrating and raising the voices of women in science with a one day mini festival. Our events and talks will encourage you to laugh, sing and think. Every few days this blog will look in more detail at the participants and their involvement with the event.

From 1pm drop in to our free Entrance Hall sessions, including fun scientific presentations, hands-on activities and a chance to create your own (bio)selfie using the bacteria swabbed from your cheek. There’s something for all ages and levels of science knowledge. See the full list of activities here.
Then join us for an evening of talks to hear from women about their experiences of working in the sciences. This is a ticketed event and tickets can be purchased from our website.

The British Library holds one of the most comprehensive national science collections in the world, ranging from ancient manuscripts grappling to understand different aspects of the world, prior to the development of science as we know it today, to the latest scientific publications deposited at the Library through the electronic legal deposit every day. The British Library preserves the UK scientific record, supports scientific research and enables access to science for all, which includes supporting equality and diversity in science. During 2020 the Library’s exhibition Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women's Rights will be looking into the struggle for women’s rights in all walks of life which includes an ongoing struggle for equality in all areas of science, technology and engineering. The WISE Festival is an opportunity to start our reflection on women’s rights and to celebrate the achievements of women in science in a way that we hope will be fun, inspirational and thought-provoking.

Join us next time to find out more about Sunetra Gupta.

WISE (WOMEN IN SCIENCE EVENTS) Festival, British Library 11 February 2020.

03 April 2018

Augmented reality - it isn't just for catching mons.

The most recent GREATforImagination post covered an augmented reality app created by Nexus Studios for the US Presidential administration in 2016. Augmented reality is a halfway point towards the more famous virtual reality, in which CGI elements are added to a real-time image of the user's surroundings, using either a mobile device screen or virtual reality goggles. The most well-known applications at the moment are for entertainment, such as the famous game Pokemon Go, or our own use of it in our Harry Potter exhibition.


However, there are some more practical uses for augmented reality in the worlds of science and engineering.

The construction industry still largely uses 2-D documents to indicate what should be built. However, why not create augmented reality images of objects in situ for people to copy? Or why not help utilities workers "see" underground pipes before they start digging holes?

An obvious application is in the world of chemistry, where physical 3-D models of large molecules have been familiar for decades, but can take a long time to build. Digital models can be created much more quickly, and AR equipment allows scientists to interact with them with increasing realism. There's a freeware program to try it yourself, if you have some chemistry and computing knowledge.

AR can also be used in surgery, either for training purposes or to allow surgeons to "see" what they are doing during minimally invasive surgery.

(All the articles linked are open access, so you don't have to come to the Library to read them)

29 August 2014

Seeing Is Believing: Picturing the Nation's Health

Our latest Beautiful Science video looks back a fantastic evening in which we welcomed Professor David Spiegelhalter and Dame Sally Davies to the Library for a discussion with Michael Blastland about the way in which public health messages are communicated.

In our recent Beautiful Science exhibition, we brought together some classics of data visualisation in the field of public health, showing the impact that powerful images can have in transforming the way we think about our own health and that of our society. But is John Snow's map of cholera deaths, or Florence Nightingale's rose diagram of deaths in the Crimean War really better than a table of numbers, like John Graunt’s Table of Casualities, based on his amalgamation of the data contained within the London Bills of Mortality? When it comes to our health, how and why do we make decisions to reform, or not reform our unhealthy behaviours?

Discussing this important question are:

Sir David Spiegelhalter is Winton Professor for the Public Communication of Risk at Cambridge University

Dr. Dame Sally Davies is the Chief Medical Officer for England

Michael Blastland, writer, broadcaster and author of the Tiger that Isn’t



Johanna Kieniewicz

04 August 2014

Beautiful Science 2014: Picturing Data, Inspiring Insight

As regular readers of this blog will know, earlier in 2014 we hosted the British Library’s first science-led exhibition: Beautiful Science. From classic diagrams from the Library’s collections to contemporary digital displays, Beautiful Science explored how the visualisation of scientific data is crucial for making new discoveries and for communicating those discoveries effectively. Nearly 70,000 people visited the Beautiful Science exhibition over its three month run at the Library, with thousands more experiencing the exhibition at Cheltenham Science Festival.

Beautiful Science also comprised a spectacular season of events that ranged from serious debate to comedy, from family fun days to data visualisation workshops, from competitions to hands-on experiments.

If you missed out on the fun, or just want to remind yourself of what happened, then you can watch a highlights video of the season.


Over the coming weeks we will be posting videos from some of the key events in the season so watch this space…

Katie Howe

30 May 2014

Beautiful Science coming to Cheltenham

After a hugely successful three-month run, our Beautiful Science exhibition has come to a close. We'd like to thank everyone who came along to see the exhibition-- we hope you found it thought provoking and enjoyable in equal measure.

Beautiful Science: Picturing Data, Inspiring Insight was an exhibition, hosted in the Library’s Folio Society Gallery from 20 February to 28 May 2014, that explored how picturing scientific data can provide new insight into our lives, our origins and our planet. From classic diagrams from the Library’s collections to contemporary digital displays, Beautiful Science demonstrated how visualising data is fundamental to the ability of scientists to make new discoveries and communicate their findings.


 Next week, Beautiful Science will travel to a British Library tent at the Cheltenham Science Festival. From 3 - 18 June 2014, digital interactives from the exhibition will be on display, alongside high-quality, large-format prints of the physical objects from the St Pancras exhibition. The curators and members of the science research engagement team will be manning the tent over the course of the festival.

CSF14-blueWe are thrilled to have this opportunity to share Beautiful Science beyond London and be a part of what is, according to Brian Cox “without a doubt, the premier Science Festival in the country”. So do please spread the word that Beautiful Science will be at the Cheltenham Science Festival, and come visit us.

You can keep up with our Cheltenham adventures on Twitter @ScienceBL @cheltfestivals #cheltscifest

Johanna Kieniewicz

02 May 2014

Beautiful Weather

Lead Curator Johanna Kieniewicz ponders the weather and climate section in Beautiful Science

Whether dramatic, delightful, dull or dreary, the weather affects us all and is a source of endless fascination and conversation for the British. Monitoring local weather conditions has long interested the public, amateur scientists and national institutes alike. And data about the weather—whether collected by a citizen scientist or national monitoring station—has been central to the endeavour to predict the weather and understand global climate systems. In our Beautiful Science exhibition at The British Library, we explore how by picturing data about the weather, we can connect our individual experience to a much bigger picture—whether that over the course of the year, or across the globe.  In so doing, we also highlight the importance of archives to contemporary science—and explore the importance of the citizen scientist, past and present.

Happel-map-1675 (1)
Early Ocean Currents, Eberhard Werner Happel, Die Ebbe und Fluth auff einer Flachen Landt-Karten fürgestelt. Ulm, 1685

The observations of mariners have been vital to the development of early maps of ocean currents, winds, and air temperatures—and continue to have relevance today. A particularly interesting set of data is to be found in East India Company ships’ journals, over 4000 of which are housed in the India Office Records at The British Library. In 1709, the East India Company ship, the Rochester, sailed from England for China via Batavia (now known as Jakarta, Indonesia). Its captain enlivened his journal with drawings of ships, wildlife and places as well as recording the required information about location, course and weather. On the page displayed in the exhibition from 15 May, 1710 he refers to ‘fresh gales of wind and cloudy weather with squalls and rain as well from the WNW’.


The journal of the Rochester, as displayed in Beautiful Science


Such descriptions of weather in early ships’ journals are still useful to climate scientists although they lack the precision of instrumental data. However, these journals contain not only administrative notes and comments about shipboard life, but also a huge amount of instrumental data about the weather, making them a valuable resource for modern climate studies. Digitised and transcribed, the weather data from 891 of these logbooks has been utilised by the UK Met Office to inform the development of their global climate models.



This use of ‘old weather’ data from archives by the Met Office was not a one-off. They are enormously interested in ‘data rescue’—as participants in the international ACRE project, they aim to facilitate the recovery of instrumental weather data from across the globe. These observations act as ‘ground truth’ data points to underpin global weather reconstructions spanning the past 200-250 years. An important component of this work is the OldWeather project, a citizen science project in which anyone can help with the transcription of ships logbooks. The recording of temperature and pressure at particular locations provides thousands of data points that can be fed into computer models of the atmosphere – from which a weather map might eventually emerge.


Luke Howard, Barometrographia: Twenty years' variation of the barometer in the climate of Britain… London, 1847.

 Citizen science – the engagement of non-experts in the enterprise of science-- is hardly a new phenomenon, despite a new proliferation of efforts—in part thanks to the popularity of Zooniverse projects like OldWeather. Indeed, there are some interesting parallels to be drawn between the roles of amateurs in science in the 21st century, and that which they played in the 19th, particularly in the area of weather observations. Luke Howard, a chemist and amateur meteorologist, made some of the earliest consistent scientific observations recorded. In Barometrographia (1847), he recorded the atmospheric pressure readings from 1815 to 1834 at his homes in Tottenham, London and Ackworth, Yorkshire, alongside accounts of the weather. In Beautiful Science, we display a page from 1815, where he accompanies his barometric pressure measurements with some recollections of the freezing over of the Thames in London….

 “On the 6th of January snow falling in some quantity on the previously formed surface, the air at 33˚-34˚, it was occasionally collected by the wind into a ball which rolled on gathering from beneath until its weight stopped it; thousands of these natural snowballs covered up the fields, up to several inches in diameter. On the 9th the snowy landscape had a bluish tint, and the thermometer fell in the night to 8˚ with us; at Croydon (more exposed) to 5˚. By the 12th the river Lea was firmly frozen and the Thames was become scarcely navigable.” 


The elegance and consistency of Luke Howard’s measurements is impressive. Carried out over 20 years, the circular engravings were mechanically traced by a self-recording barograph over which he plotted the phases of the Moon in an attempt to discern the lunar influence on the weather. While his speculation that the Moon’s gravitational pull influences the weather has been proved wrong, we know that changes in air pressure play a key role, which Barometrographia illustrates. His personal anecdotes give a flavour to the data that the mere observations do not in themselves provide.




It is interesting to contemplate the recordings of India Office ships captains in the light of what meteorology and climate science have become today—behemoths of data—but beautiful nonetheless. Perpetual Ocean, a marvellous visualisation of ocean currents from the NASA Scientific Visualisation Studio derived primarily from satellite data, draws visitors in like flies to lamp; they stand in wonder – both in the complexity and dynamicity of our oceans, but also our ability to picture them.


  Beautiful Science: Picturing Data, Inspiring Insight, sponsored by Winton Capital Management, is on display at the British Library until 26 May 2014 in the Folio Society Gallery. Admission is free. 

The journal of The Rochester has been digitised and can be viewed here.

11 April 2014

The Evolution of Evolution: Picturing the Tree of Life

Johanna Kieniewicz introduces the section of Beautiful Science that explores the Tree of Life.

In our Beautiful Science exhibition, we explore the evolution of evolution, with a section of the exhibition dedicated to the ways in which we have pictured the tree of life—simultaneously image and metaphor for our relationship and connection to life on Earth.

We start out at the beginning, with an illustration of the universe by Renaissance alchemist Robert Fludd. The ‘Great Chain of Being’  is an ancient Greek concept that classifies life on earth into a hierarchical order with respect to the rest of the universe. A great ladder links God and other divine beings to astronomical bodies, man, animals, plants and minerals. Each animal is fixed on a rung in order of perfection (upwards towards man). This sort of hierarchical organisation of life laid the groundwork for the development of biological classification systems and ultimately evolutionary trees.

A complex circular diagram with concentric layers. A nude woman is pictured in the middle, with her right hand raised and holding a staff in her left.
Great Chain of Being, Robert Fludd, Utriusque Cosmi majoris scilicet et minoris ... Oppenheim; Frankfurt, 1617

In On the Origin of Species (1859, 1st ed) , Charles Darwin famously used the metaphor of a tree to articulate his ideas around evolution.

‘The affinities of all the beings of the same class have sometimes been represented by a great tree… The green and budding twigs may represent existing species; and those produced during former years may represent the long succession of extinct species. From the first growth of the tree, many a limb and branch has decayed and dropped off; and these fallen branches of various sizes may represent those whole orders, families, and genera which have now no living representatives, and which are known to us only in a fossil state… As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever-branching and beautiful ramifications.’


A hand-written "tree of life" diagram
Darwin's diagram picturing his ideas of evolution from On The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin, 1850


German scientist (and talented illustrator) Ernst Heckel was greatly inspired by Darwin’s ideas and sought to devise a great number of trees organising all life on Earth. In The Evolution of Man, Haeckel illustrates the evolutionary history of humans with a great tree, whose trunk represents our ancestral history, as our progenitors moved through stages, such as primitive worms, amphibians and apes. This tree reflects Haeckel’s (albeit not terribly Darwinian) belief that evolution was a process of perfecting, and that humans represented the pinnacle of evolution. Although the diagram reflects the attitudes of its time, it may be seen as a link between the early attempts to hierarchically organise life and contemporary approaches based on ancestral relationships and genetics.


Two pages of an open book. The left page shows a diagrammatic family tree, while the right shows a naturalistic, bare tree with labels on the branches.
The Pedigree of Man. Ernst Haeckel, The evolution of man. London, 1879.


Whilst the relationships pictured in early evolutionary trees were generally based on inference and shared traits, today’s phylogenetic trees are based on vast amounts of genomic data. In Beautiful Science, we show a ‘molecular time tree’ depicting the evolutionary relationships of all 9,993 living species of birds, illustrating when individual species diverged. The oldest species diverge closest to the centre of the circle, with more recent diversification closer to the edge.  Although modern birds first evolved some 145 – 66 million years ago, this diagram shows that they began to diversify exceptionally rapidly about 50 million years ago. This is particularly apparent for the songbirds, waterfowl, gulls and woodpeckers.


A multicoloured circular diagram showing families of birds broadening out from the centre.
Avian Tree of Life (c) Gavin Thomas, Walter Jetz, Jeff Joy, Arne Mooers, Klass Hartmann, 2012. First published in Nature.


And, indeed here we are dealing with such vast amounts of information that one might begin to wonder whether there were any way in which we could meaningfully depict all of life on Earth on an A4 sheet of paper. There have been some attempts—but Imperial College London researcher James Rosindell has come up with an ingenious solution. One Zoom Tree, an interactive tree of life, allows viewers to zoom into the tree of life and explore the evolutionary relationships between tens of thousands of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians.  It  uses a branch of mathematics known as fractal geometry to create an attractive visualisation that can be explored by zooming in, to get ever more detail.  The data includes sounds from the British Library’s collections and evolutionary data from scientific literature including the ‘Avian Tree of Life’ showing how the same data can be pictured in different ways.


A section of a "tree of life" drawn in stylised manner as a branching fractal, with labels indicating the name of the group and date of divergence.
James Rosindell, Imperial College London, One Zoom Tree,

Highly engaging, One Zoom Tree shows how far we’ve come in our ability to rationalise our relationship to the rest of life on Earth.  As you move along the trunk of the tetrapod tree, you see where different branches diverge, and can see relationships between different species. Did you know that the elephant’s closest relatives are hyraxes and sea cows?


Darwin wrote at the end of On the Origin of Species,

“It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. . . There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

These new ways of picturing phylogenetic data are allowing us to better understand this beautiful, messy, complex tangled bank of life on Earth- and equip us with new ways for protecting its incredible biodiversity.


 Beautiful Science, sponsored by Winton Capital Management, is on display at the British Library until 26 May 2014 in the Folio Society Gallery. Admission is free.

13 March 2014

I Chart the British Library - Who Ate All the Pie Charts?

Festival of the Spoken Nerd and Special Guest Geeks explore the highs and lows of data visualisation as part of the Beautiful Science events season at the British Library. Rebecca Withers and Allan Sudlow report on the laughs and graphs during an evening for the sci-curious.

Monday night was not a typical night at the British Library. Over 250 self-identifying nerds and geeks poured into the Conference Centre for a night of graphs and gaffs for our data-related science comedy event, "I Chart the British Library". The  show was hosted by our friends Festival of the Spoken Nerd- the phenomenal trio of geeky songstress Helen Arney, experiment maestro Steve Mould and stand-up mathematician Matt Parker- and supported by an outstanding set (collective noun) of guest nerds.

In the first half of the show Steve taught us the difference between Venn and Euler diagrams in classic FOSTN cheeky style, whilst Matt plumbed the depths of bad data visualisation, exposing the eye-watering attempts to make marketing guff look more 'mathsy'. Helen - in wonderful periodic table couture - explored with our very own Richard Ranft (Head of BL Sound & Vision) how wildlife calls had been visualised before recorded sound had been invented, and what new science the analysis of animal vocalisation data can reveal.

Erinma Ochu - one of our special guest nerds - talked about her citizen science projects, including the fantastic sunflower project she worked on with another of our guest nerds, Jonathan Swinton. A current crowdsourcing data project - hookedonmusic - inspired Helen to finish the first half with a song to test with the audience whether she was able to write a catchy tune, or not! 


The interval was crammed with data-tastic activities giving the audience a chance to get hands on, literally in the case of Matt, who was analysing audience arm spans. Steve used social media to capture numbers from the audience for some suprising statistics in the second half of the show. As well as the aforementioned hookedon music and vocal visualisations with Helen and Richard, the audience explored multispectral imaging forensics with Christina Duffy, part of the Conservation Science Team at the BL. We also got a sneak peek behind the scenes tour of the Beautiful Science exhibition with our 'stand-up' curators: Johanna Kieniewicz and Nora McGregor.


After the break, we were treated to some analytical mayhem from the Nerds and Jonathan, as we examined some of the graphs and gaffs generated during the break. Graphing dangerous animals and a mathematically accurate love song were a perfect way to end the show.


We'd like to thank Helen, Matt, Steve and all our wonderful guest nerds for an evening of statistically significant silliness.

Please keep an eye out for highlight vidoes of the Beautiful Science events as they appear on our blog over the coming months....

21 February 2014

Beautiful Science-- Now Open!

Johanna Kieniewicz can finally get some sleep, but not before she puts up this blog post!

With great fanfare and much twittering (#BeautifulScience), our Beautiful Science exhibition opened yesterday. Beautiful Science: Picturing Data, Inspiring Insight looks at the past and present of data visualisation in science, telling stories of both discovery as well as the way we think about the information that makes up our world.



 Thus far, the exhibition has received some wonderful coverage. Rather than repeating what others are saying about the things that the exhibition contains, we thought we'd highlight a few informative and interesting posts about the exhibition.


"An august institution, yes of course, our national library, so I suppose I was rather expecting a staid parade of the editiones principes of the great masters, leavened with the odd choice manuscript, and a morning of gentle savouring and genteel pleasure.  Not a bit of it.  The modern BL has fully embraced digital." 

We couldn't agree more. We are both a physical and digital library. Our science collections range from the depths of history to the present day, and we are keen to provide access to digital old things and physical new things (and vis versa of course!)


  • On the Guardian H-Word blog, Rebekah Higgit asks the very valid question of what makes a science exhibition. After all, science has been embedded in various guises in previous library exhibitions. She picks up on the fact that this is not really a history of science exhibition-- but something that comes from a contemporary perspective, looking back. She notes:

"The British Library is the perfect institution for discussions between science, arts and the humanities to take place. While defined as a “science exhibition”, visitors to the display and participants in the accompanying events programme should be encouraged to see the aethestic and the historical in it too – just as the science of the Tudor or Georgian eras should be recognised as part of their history."




  • In The Observer, Nicola Davis highlighted how data visualisation has changed life and saved lives. Touching on exhibits, such as Florence Nightingale's Rose Diagram and John Snow's Cholera Map, she highlights the very tangible importance of data visualisation.

"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."


  • Writing for Forbes Magazine, Jonathon Keats takes interest in the works by John Snow and William Farr highlighted in the exhibition.  He argues that

"Technological advances clearly distinguish the new visualizations, many of which are interactive and all of which benefit from stores of data that Victorian scientists could scarcely have imagined. Yet the older charts and maps ­– especially those of William Farr and John Snow – remain pertinent in the age of cloud computing precisely because they are more limited in scope. While Google Flu Trends is vast and ever-changing, we can easily assess what Farr and Snow were doing. Their successes and failings can help inform how we produce and consume contemporary data visualizations."


  • Similarly, on the Nature Of Schemes and Memes blog, Alex Jackson latches on to what I said about the parallels between today's explosion of infographics and something similar that happened in the Victorian era.

Informative pieces featuring some of the fantastic graphics from the exhibition have also been featured in The Independent, The Daily Mail and The Londonist. If you are not UK-based, you can also take a look at this piece that featured on the BBC World Service.

So far, it has been fascinating to see the exhibition through the eyes of others. Those of us involved in the exhibition have been so immersed in it for so long that it sometimes seems as though we can't see the forest for the trees. It is really interesting to see fresh perspectives on the exhibits we've selected that provide new insights on the exhibition as a whole, as well as individual displays. We do hope you come along to Beautiful Science-- and be sure to let us know what you think!


Beautiful Science: Picturing Data, Inspiring Insight is on display in The British Library until 26 May 2014. The exhibition is free, and is sponsored by Winton Capital Management

07 February 2014

Visualising Research – let the competition begin

At a workshop held on 24 January at the British Library people from a variety of backgrounds came to hear more about the Visualising Research competition and to be inspired. My previous post explains the background to the competition.

Our interest in data and visualising it is all coming together in Beautiful Science, an exhibition opening on 20 February in the Folio Gallery of the British Library. But this competition gives everyone a chance to visualise research for the public.

At the workshop we had presentations from the sponsors and organisers, which are available from the competition website. It was useful to hear how the Gateway to Research data (the vital data required for a competition entry to be considered) is both supplied by and used by the Research Councils and informs their decision making by providing a picture of the research funding landscape in the UK.

Richard Jones from Cottage Labs gave us the technical lowdown on the Gateway to Research data and how to get it. Anyone deciding to enter will need a fair degree of technical know-how to get at this data and manipulate it in order to reveal the story they want to tell the public. So we encourage all the designers and artists to find themselves a techie partner for this competition!

Tobias Sturt and Adam Frost from the Guardian Digital Agency gave a great joint presentation on how to develop a visualisation. The key messages from them were:

  • Data - everything rests on the data.
  • Story - think about the audience, what do they care about, what will resonate with them?
  • Charting - what is the best way to represent the data? You may need an analyst to explore different ways of representing the data (and not all bar charts are boring!).
  • Design - although everything is about design, once you have the basis of your visualisation, you need to consider how you will use colour, what layout works best, and how to make it beautiful.

And they reminded us again that collaboration is key to successful data visualisation. 

Some inspirational examples were shown:

The True Size of Africa - it’s bigger than you thought!


Bloomberg billionaires - a bit addictive this one.

Nathan Yau's blog and Flowing Data web site was recommended.

And for some examples of dynamic visualisations, the following are worth checking out:

Kepler’s Tally of Planets

If the earth were 100 pixels wide

Then for a view of how data can be used to give reality to the sometimes extraordinary inconsistencies of our world –  particularly in the way that money is distributed - we were enlightened by Andrew Steele physicist, TEDx presenter and instigator of  Rather than summarising his talk – have a look at him presenting his findings here.

The competition is open now. The closing date is 21 March. You could win £2,000. There are great judges who will see your work. And there will be kudos for the winners. 

Lee-Ann Coleman


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