Lady and the lamp: Florence Nightingale formulated her famous diagram following her time in Scutari hospital. Photo: Getty Images
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Beautiful Science at the British Library: a history of the portrayal of data

A highlight is Florence Nightingale’s rose diagram, showing how dirty hospitals were killing more soldiers than war.

A new exhibition at the British Library – its first ever science-based display – showcases some of the most striking visualisations of scientific data. One of the highlights is Florence Nightingale’s rose diagram, the graphic showing how dirty hospitals were killing more soldiers than the Crimean battles that had put them there.

Visualisation has always been vital to scientific progress. We are far better at spotting patterns or anomalies in pictures than in tables of numbers. The economists Arthur Briggs Farquhar and Henry Farquhar summed this up in 1891. “A heavy bank of figures is grievously wearisome to the eye,” they wrote, “and the popular mind is as incapable of drawing any useful lessons from it as of extracting sunbeams from cucumbers.”

When Crick and Watson were struggling to work out the structure of DNA, it wasn’t a table with a list of atomic co-ordinates that gave them the insight they needed; it was Rosalind Franklin’s X-ray crystallography. Her images provided a pictorial interpretation of the way DNA’s molecules are arranged in a double helix, and garnered Crick and Watson (though not Franklin) a Nobel prize.

In an era when data is cheap and plentiful, visual analysis plays an important role. There are pitfalls to pretty pictures, though. Data can be represented in various ways, and someone somewhere makes a choice. Sometimes, the chosen representation can obscure as much as it reveals.

Take a 1951 graphic showing the efficacy of three antibiotics on 16 kinds of bacteria. The way the designer chose to show the information emphasised the comparative effectiveness of the drugs. But the power of this representation masked a scientific insight. If it had been presented slightly differently, it would have been obvious that one of the bacteria had been classified wrongly. It took another 33 years for this oversight to be discovered, delaying effective treatments for some infections.

Today, we should be cautious of the brain scanning technique known as functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. This provides a way of comparing blood flow in various parts of the brain as a person thinks about specific things – perhaps a moral quandary, the face of a loved one, or a childhood memory. It seems that different types of thought cause blood flow to increase in some regions of the brain and to decrease in others.

Researchers hope that this technique will offer a way to read people’s minds; already in US courtrooms, it is being held up as a way of detecting lies. The trouble is, the reference fMRIs are usually an average over many individuals – and are gathered in artificial situations, such as students being paid to sit in scanners and tell lies. It remains unproven whether you can infer anything reliable from one person’s fMRI scan.

We need not even see the picture to be fooled. Research carried out in 2008 showed that people were more likely to believe a statement prefixed with “Brain scans indicate . . .”.

This was true even when the people observed were neuroscience students and the statements were scientifically flawed. What’s more, the pretty colours of fMRI scans make it easier for them to bypass the critical faculties of our picture-loving brains. Show a jury a picture of a scan, and they see it as scientific and convincing. In some fields, for all the help they are to many scientists, the road to hell is paved with visualisations. 

“Beautiful Science” is at the British Library, London NW1, until 26 May

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 26 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: a special issue

Photo: Getty
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Winning tears: Chad Le Clos is a great swimmer, but his display of emotion shows real strength

The South African Olympian and his parents offer something we rarely see.

Headlines from the swimming world championships might well have been stolen by Adam Peaty’s world records and golds, but Chad Le Clos’s reaction to winning the 200m freestyle last night had a victory all of its own.

South African Le Clos was visibly moved to tears during the awards ceremony, unafraid to appear emotional after having left the world’s best in his wake. His parents Bert and Geraldine were also filmed wiping away tears in the stands.

Bert had already gone viral at the 2012 Olympics in a BBC interview with Claire Balding, during which he described his son as “the most down-to-earth, beautiful boy you’ll ever meet in your life”. If “beautiful” doesn’t quite chime with expectations of a chiselled, Adonis-like athlete like Le Clos, perhaps even more refreshing was Bert blowing his son a kiss from the commentary perch, saying through the TV: “I love you”.

Last night’s tears were all the more emotional given both Bert and Geraldine are receiving treatment for cancer. It was something weighing on Le Clos, who said that it was “an emotional race, before, during and after it".

Men being so openly affectionate in public is still rare. But it comes during a week in which ITV aired Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy, with Princes William and Harry talking about their love of their mother.

When interviewed before the programme, William said: “I think it's been quite cathartic for us doing it. It's been at first quite daunting – opening up so much to camera... but going through this process has been quite a healing process as well."

The Le Clos family might be leagues away from the upper reaches of fame occupied by the Princes, but they both speak to something wider – that it is perfectly fine for men to be emotional, either in times of triumph or of difficulty.

Jack Urwin made the point for Vice and, later, in his book Man Up: Surviving Modern Masculinity, that “the stubborn lost-husband-refusing-to-ask-for-directions might be a handy caricature – one that's helped people like Martin Clunes sustain a career in television for over 30 years – but it's also rooted in a very real, very destructive notion of masculinity. We're conditioned from an early age to believe that acknowledging weakness is somehow a weakness in itself.”

It is relevant when considering that suicide is the leading cause of death in 20 to 34-year-old men in the UK. The epidemic of young male suicide in the UK cannot be simplified as having one defining cause, or one defining solution. But preventing male suicide and being more willing to accept very natural male tears, are two concepts which stem from the same roots: expression, communication, and destigmatising emotion.

The emotion shown by the Le Clos men is not, however, born out of difficulty – it is born out of happiness and, at the risk of being trite, love. “The Le Clos only cry when we win,” Bert told Sport24 after the Olympics. “We don't cry when we lose and that's the bottom line.”

The reality is that everyone loses as often, if not more often, than they win. Yet in being so willing to display their love for each other, the Le Clos men continue to set a bold precedent. Any criticisms of a snowflake generation, or even predictably crass tweets citing Dunkirk as evidence of 21st century men’s weakness, are spectacularly missing the point.

Yes, Chad Le Clos’s performance in the Budapest pool was muscular, powerful and dominant – but in his tears and his admission that his “family's health is more important than gold medals," he showed another form of strength.