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

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Drama without sensation: A Separation is an unsettling novel of distances

In Katie Kitamura’s novel, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort.

In a 2013 interview with Guernica, the online magazine, the novelist Katie Kitamura discussed how publishing’s “deeply patronising attitude” towards female readers results in overtly feminine book covers, featuring, for instance, women in bathing suits. “That’s not the kind of book cover that makes me want to buy a book,” she said.

The cover of Kitamura’s latest novel, A Separation, does, surprisingly, feature a woman in a bathing suit. But there is something quietly unsettling about this picture: the woman, who has her back to us, is awkwardly cropped out of frame from the elbows up, and she is sitting at the edge of an oddly shaped pool. Most of the cover is solid turquoise – a bright wash of negative space.

Kitamura’s unnamed narrator is a poised literary translator. As the novel opens in London, we learn that she is married to Christopher (a charming, haphazard non-author) but, in secret, they have been living separately for the past six months. When she receives a telephone call from Christopher’s mother, Isabella, informing her that he has seemingly gone missing in Greece, she doesn’t let on about her disintegrating marriage but boards a plane to look for him.

Much of the rest of the novel takes place in Greece: at a “very pleasant” hotel, in “perfect weather”, the pool “heated to a very comfortable temperature”. The area has recently experienced a string of devastating fires, leaving patches of scorched earth. The location has an almost eerie surface stillness that jars with the mystery at its heart. In this way, Kitamura (an art critic as well as novelist) creates a setting somehow reminiscent of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, Christopher’s sudden disappearance leaving behind no visible ripples.

The narrator, too, has a glassy composure at odds with the tumultuous events. On deciding to end her marriage formally, she shows neither despair nor relief, but anxiety about the etiquette. “I assumed – I had no prior experience to go on – that asking for a divorce was always discomfiting,” she says with typical understatement, “but I could not believe it was always this awkward.” Of her feelings for her new partner, Yvan, she notes that they seem more like “administration rather than passion”, and then offers a moderated gloss of Hamlet, “You cannot say you did it out of love, since at your age romantic passions have grown weak, and the heart obeys reason.

Her emotional separation from the trauma of her circumstances allows the narrator to examine the facts of her husband’s disappearance. She knows Christopher was unfaithful and she immediately identifies the hotel receptionist as the object of his attentions. We never see the narrator professionally translating, but the novel is concerned with her attempts to read the deeper meanings behind the remarks and behaviour of those around her. She finds it easy to imagine unseen contexts to conversations: an argument between Christopher’s parents, an embrace between her taxi driver and the hotel receptionist. As she writes, “Imagination, after all, costs nothing.”

Her propensity for projection is such that some things remain lost in translation. Even the most minute interactions can be misread. When Christopher’s mother comments that the two women’s love for her son connects them, “she was looking over my shoulder, as if watching someone approach . . . she was staring at nothing”. The novel occupies this imaginative negative space: the gap between what people think and how they appear.

Ultimately, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort. How long will she allow others to read her as the concerned, loving wife? Should she admit she wants to find Christopher in order to request that they separate officially? As her search continues she notes, “There was a small but definite wedge pushing between the person I was and the person I was purporting to be.”

There is a suspenseful and menacing tone to Kitamura’s prose that might trick a reader into thinking, at first, they are in the territory of thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Both these novels, like A Separation, have narrators who defy readers’ attempts to fathom their emotional depths and to deal with questions of how well you know anyone – even your own partner. But this is a work free of sensation, or even resolution. As the narrator notes, in the shock of an event it is natural to look for a more dramatic narrative. “But in the end,” she says, “this is only chasing shadows. The real culpability is not to be found in the dark or with a stranger, but in ourselves.”

A Separation by Katie Kitamura is published by Clerkenwell Press (231pp, £12.99)

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

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution