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

All photos: BBC
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“You’re a big corporate man” The Apprentice 2015 blog: series 11, episode 8

The candidates upset some children.

WARNING: This blog is for people watching The Apprentice. Contains spoilers!

Read up on episode 7 here.

“I don’t have children and I don’t like them,” warns Selina.

An apt starting pistol for the candidates – usually so shielded from the spontaneity, joy and hope of youth by their childproof polyester uniforms – to organise children’s parties. Apparently that’s a thing now. Getting strangers in suits to organise your child’s birthday party. Outsourcing love. G4S Laser Quest. Abellio go-carting. Serco wendy houses.

Gary the supermarket stooge is project manager of team Versatile again, and Selina the child hater takes charge of team Connexus. They are each made to speak to an unhappy-looking child about the compromised fun they will be able to supply for an extortionate fee on their special days.

“So are you into like hair products and make-up?” Selina spouts at her client, who isn’t.

“Yeah, fantastic,” is Gary’s rather enthusiastic response to the mother of his client’s warning that she has a severe nut allergy.

Little Jamal is taken with his friends on an outdoor activity day by Gary’s team. This consists of wearing harnesses, standing in a line, and listening to a perpetual health and safety drill from fun young David. “Slow down, please, don’t move anywhere,” he cries, like a sad elf attempting to direct a fire drill. “Some people do call me Gary the Giraffe,” adds Gary, in a gloomy tone of voice that suggests the next half of his sentence will be, “because my tongue is black with decay”.

Selina’s team has more trouble organising Nicole’s party because they forgot to ask for her contact details. “Were we supposed to get her number or something?” asks Selina.

“Do you have the Yellow Pages?” replies Vana. Which is The Apprentice answer for everything. Smartphones are only to be used to put on loudspeaker and shout down in a frenzy.

Eventually, they get in touch, and take Nicole and pals to a sports centre in east London. I know! Sporty! And female! Bloody hell, someone organise a quaint afternoon tea for her and shower her with glitter to make her normal. Quick! Selina actually does this, cutting to a clip of Vana and Richard resentfully erecting macaroons. Selina also insists on glitter to decorate party bags full of the most gendered, pointless tat seed capital can buy.

“You’re breaking my heart,” whines Richard the Austerity Chancellor when he’s told each party bag will cost £10. “What are we putting in there – diamond rings?” Just a warning to all you ladies out there – if Richard proposes, don’t say yes.

They bundle Nicole and friends into a pink bus, for the section of her party themed around the Labour party’s failed general election campaign, and Brett valiantly screeches Hit Me Baby One More Time down the microphone to keep them entertained.

Meanwhile on the other team, Gary is quietly demonstrating glowsticks to some bored 11-year-old boys. “David, we need to get the atmosphere going,” he warns. “Ermmmmm,” says David, before misquoting the Hokey Cokey out of sheer stress.

Charleine is organising a birthday cake for Jamal. “May contain nuts,” she smiles, proudly. “Well done, Charleine, good job,” says Joseph. Not even sarcastically.

Jamal’s mother is isolated from the party and sits on a faraway bench, observing her beloved son’s birthday celebrations from a safe distance, while the team attempts to work out if there are nuts in the birthday cake.

Richard has his own culinary woes at Nicole’s party, managing both to burn and undercook burgers for the stingy barbecue he’s insisted on overriding the afternoon tea. Vana runs around helping him and picking up the pieces like a junior chef with an incompetent Gordon Ramsay. “Vana is his slave,” comments Claude, who clearly remains unsure of how to insult the candidates and must draw on his dangerously rose-tinted view of the history of oppression.

Versatile – the team that laid on some glowstick banter and a melted inky mess of iron-on photo transfers on t-shirts for Jamal and his bored friends – unsurprisingly loses. This leads to some vintage Apprentice-isms in The Bridge café, His Lordship's official caterer to losing candidates. “I don’t want to dance around a bush,” says one. “A lot of people are going to point the finger at myself,” says another’s self.

In an UNPRECEDENTED move, Lord Sugar decides to keep all four losing team members in the boardroom. He runs through how rubbish they all are. “Joseph, I do believe there has been some responsibility for you on this task.” And “David, I do believe that today you’ve got a lot to answer to.”

Lord Sugar, I do believe you’re dancing around a bush here. Who’s for the chop? It’s wee David, of course, the only nice one left.

But this doesn’t stop Sugar voicing his concern about the project manager. “I’m worried about you, Gary,” he says. “You’re a big corporate man.” Because if there’s any demographic in society for whom we should be worried, it’s them.

Candidates to watch:


Hanging on in there by his whiskers.


Far less verbose when he’s doing enforced karaoke.


She’ll ruin your party.

I'll be blogging The Apprentice each week. Click here for the previous episode blog. The Apprentice airs weekly at 9pm, Wednesday night on BBC One.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.