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

Home Alone 2: Lost in New York
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The best film soundtracks to help you pretend you live in a magical Christmas world

It’s December. You no longer have an excuse.

It’s December, which means it’s officially time to crack out the Christmas music. But while Mariah Carey and Slade have their everlasting charms, I find the best way to slip into the seasonal spirit is to use a film score to soundtrack your boring daily activities: sitting at your desk at work, doing some Christmas shopping, getting the tube. So here are the best soundtracks and scores to get you feeling festive this month.

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

Although this is a children’s film, it’s the most grown-up soundtrack on the list. Think smooth jazz with a Christmas twist, the kind of tunes Ryan Gosling is playing at the fancy restaurant in La La Land, plus the occasional choir of precocious kids. Imagine yourself sat in a cocktail chair. You’re drinking an elaborate cocktail. Perhaps there is a cocktail sausage involved also. Either way, you’re dressed head-to-toe in silk and half-heartedly unwrapping Christmas presents as though you’ve already received every gift under the sun. You are so luxurious you are bored to tears of luxury – until a tiny voice comes along and reminds you of the true meaning of Christmas. This is the kind of life the A Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack can give you. Take it with both hands.

Elf (2003)

There is a moment in Elf when Buddy pours maple syrup over his spaghetti, washing it all down with a bottle of Coca Cola. “We elves like to stick to the four main food groups,” he explains, “candy, candy canes, candy corns and syrup.” This soundtrack is the audio equivalent – sickly sweet, sugary to an almost cloying degree, as it comes peppered with cute little flutes, squeaky elf voices and sleigh bells. The album Elf: Music from the Motion Picture offers a more durable selection of classics used in the movie, including some of the greatest 1950s Christmas songs – from Louis Prima’s 1957 recording of “Pennies from Heaven”, two versions of “Sleigh Ride”, Eddy Arnold’s “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and Eartha Kitt’s 1953 “Santa Baby”. But if a sweet orchestral score is more your thing, the Elf OST of course finishes things off with the track “Spaghetti and Syrup”. Just watch out for the sugar-rush headache.

Harry Potter (2001-2011)

There are some Christmas-specific songs hidden in each of the iconic Harry Potter scores, from “Christmas at Hogwarts” to “The Whomping Willow and The Snowball Fight” to “The Kiss” (“Mistletoe!” “Probably full of knargles”), but all the magical tinkling music from these films has a Christmassy vibe. Specifically concentrate on the first three films, when John Williams was still on board and things were still mostly wonderful and mystical for Harry, Ron and Hermione. Perfect listening for that moment just before the snow starts to fall, and you can pretend you’re as magical as the Hogwarts enchanted ceiling (or Ron, that one time).

Carol (2015)

Perhaps you’re just a little too sophisticated for the commercial terror of Christmas, but, like Cate Blanchett, you still want to feel gorgeously seasonal when buying that perfect wooden train set. Then the subtly festive leanings of the Carol soundtrack is for you. Let your eyes meet a stranger’s across the department store floor, or stare longingly out of the window as your lover buys the perfect Christmas tree from the side of the road. Just do it while listening to this score, which is pleasingly interspersed with songs of longing like “Smoke Rings” and “No Other Love”.

Holiday Inn (1942)

There’s more to this soundtrack than just “White Christmas”, from Bing Crosby singing “Let’s Start The New Year Off Right” to Fred Astaire’s “You’re Easy To Dance With” to the pair’s duet on “I’ll Capture Your Heart”. The score is perfect frosty walk music, too: nostalgic, dreamy, unapologetically merry all at once.

The Tailor of Gloucester (1993)

Okay, I’m being a little self-indulgent here, but bear with me. “The Tailor of Gloucester”, adapted from the Beatrix Potter story, was an episode of the BBC series The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends and aired in 1993. A Christmastime story set in Gloucester, the place I was born, was always going to be right up my street, and our tatty VHS came out at least once a year throughout my childhood. But the music from this is something special: songs “The Tailor of Gloucester”, “Songs From Gloucester” and “Silent Falls the Winter Snow” are melancholy and very strange, and feature the singing voices of drunk rats, smug mice and a very bitter cat. It also showcases what is in my view one of the best Christmas carols, “Sussex Carol.” If you’re the kind of person who likes traditional wreaths and period dramas, and plans to watch Victorian Baking at Christmas when it airs this December 25th, this is the soundtrack for you.

Home Alone (1990-1992)

The greatest, the original, the godfather of all Christmas film soundtracks is, of course, John William’s Home Alone score. This is for everyone who likes or even merely tolerates Christmas, no exceptions. It’s simply not Christmas until you’ve listened to “Somewhere in My Memory” 80,000 times whilst staring enviously into the perfect Christmassy homes of strangers or sung “White Christmas” to the mirror. I’m sorry, I don’t make the rules. Go listen to it now—and don't forget Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, which is as good as the first.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.