16 May 2014

Beautiful Science at the British Library is a little gem

I went to the British Library for the main exhibition on comics but first I went upstairs for a coffee and that took me past the Beautiful Science exhibition. Coffee over, I gave it a look.

This exhibition space is really just a corridor that is just wide enough to put displays either side yet the British Library have managed to do some fine things in this space, including Children's Illustrated Classics and An A-Z of Crime Fiction.

Beautiful Science was about infographics, a new world for an old technique.

A very old example, and one that surprised me, was the charts that Florence Nightingale kept of hospital deaths. She marked the number of deaths for each month in the categories death by injuries sustained on the battlefield, preventable diseases and other. From this she was able to demonstrate that preventable diseases were the biggest killer and this helped her cause for improving hospital improvements.

Another medical example was John Snow's plotting of the 1854 London cholera infections on to a map which famously led him to identify the water pump in Broad Street as the source of the infection.

My favourite display was The Tree of Life produced by OneZoom.

This was an zoomable display based on fractal technologies, i.e. the shape of the tree always looked the same but the details of the leaves and branches changed as you moved along and in to it.

A sign on each branch indicated when it diverged from the main tree and how many species were in that branch, e.g. the 11 species of elephant  first appeared 75.8 million years ago.

The use of fractals is what made this approach work for me. Other versions of the Tree of Life that I have seen get too busy in the detail in trying to show as many species as possible at the same time whereas this approach hides the detail until you zoom in.

There was more to Beautiful Science than this, including a section on weather, and, as before, a small exhibition managed to suck me in to it for longer than I expected, and that is always a good sign.

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