Information, images and imagination: Beautiful Science exhibition explores data visualisation

Opening tomorrow [NB this post is cross-posted from The H Word, where it was first published on 20 February – the exhibition remains open until 26 May], the British Library’s Beautiful Science exhibition raises fascinating questions about the power of visualisations and how we might tell their history

 

Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army in the East, Florence Nightingale. London, 1858.
Florence Nightingale’s “rose diagram”, showing the Causes of Mortality in the Army in the East, 1858. Photograph: /British Library

Beautiful Science: Picturing Data, Inspiring Insight, which opens at the British Library tomorrow, is a small but thought-provoking display that looks at how scientific data has and can be visualised. Prompted by today’s interest in big data and infographics, it merges modern digital displays with historic texts and images.

Perpetual Ocean
Perpetual Ocean: Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio, 2011. Photograph: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio, 2011.

According to the exhibition’s curator, Johanna Kieniewicz, it is the British Library’s “first science exhibition”, which seems extraordinary, given the extent to which its collections can reflect the display’s theme.

However, science has often featured in the Library’s larger, more overtly historical exhibitions. Henry VIII: Man and Monarch included a section that – slightly handwavingly – indicated new approaches to knowledge and development of key areas like navigation. The current Georgians Revealed exhibition likewise has a section that notes, particularly, the new technologies, innovation and entrepreneurial spirit of the 18th century.

The Out of this World exhibition, while focusing on science fictions, nevertheless revealed a great deal about the excitement, expectations, humour and fears surrounding science and technology in a broad range of periods. Points of View dwelt on the scientific and technical, as well as artistic, development of photography. Magnificent Maps was a perfect demonstration of how travel and precision techniques create new knowledge in ways that suit different audiences

The key display artefacts in Beautiful Science are, like these other exhibitions, historical texts, charts, maps and illustrations, so we might wonder what is new. The answer, it seems, is that it is the first display to have been led by the Library’s Science and Digital teams, rather than that it displays science per se. What difference might this make?

The display items are well-chosen, and include some key examples of innovation in data collection and presentation. However, the science- rather than history-led interpretation of the 17th- to 19th-century texts is clear in the fact that their selection reflects trends and concerns of the present, rather than a concern to reveal those of the past. There is, likewise, an emphasis on progress toward ever better and more accurate approaches to data visualisation (although in a post at PLOS Blogs, Kieniewicz suggests that designers have recently stolen a march over scientists in the display of data).

The three themes of the display are Weather and Climate, Public Health and (rather less obviously) Tree of Life. The first includes Halley’s world map of trade winds, a persuasive form that masked his lack of data, and two 18th-century log books from ships of the of the East India Company. The latter are there less because they have much to say about visualising data in the past (although the recorded observations did feed into charts by Halley and others, and one of the log books includes a charming sketch of a sea bird) and more because of current climate science projects that are attempting to make current use of old data.

Such data, however, also has much to say about how 18th-century mariners saw their world and Empire, what they understood about weather or climate and what was their understanding of important things to record, which maps only poorly onto our own.

“Public Health” naturally includes John Snow’s famous map of cholera cases in London’s east end and Florence Nightingale’s “visually gripping” rose diagrams representing the effects of her sanitary reforms on mortality during the Crimean War (top). Here the power of visual data is made clear, being, above all, an extremely effective tool of persuasion for public opinion and government action.

The “Tree of Life Section” is an excuse to bring out some lovely early modern illustrations and, while it seems a bit too simplistic to connect these theological and metaphysical meditations directly to modern taxonomies and diagrams “based on scientific data and information”, we are prompted to reflect on how older views have left their mark. If a branching tree of evolutionary theory recalls a Great Chain of Being, then it is far too teleological (that is, progressive and purposeful) to represent natural selection.

The Pedigree of Man. Ernst Haeckel, The evolution of man. London, 1879.
Ernst Haeckel, The Pedigree of Man, London, 1879. Photograph: /British Library

In comparing earlier and modern taxonomies, it is interesting too to speculate on changing criteria. All systems of categorisation are to some degree unnatural, despite claims to be representing nature. Today, in a way that would have bemused earlier taxonomists, genomic data trumps visual description. Has the (family) tree analogy made this inevitable?

The British Library is the perfect institution for discussions between science, arts and the humanities to take place. While defined as a “science exhibition”, visitors to the display and participants in the accompanying events programme should be encouraged to see the aethestic and the historical in it too – just as the science of the Tudor or Georgian eras should be recognised as part of their history.

Beautiful Science runs from 20 February to 26 May 2014. See the British Library’s website for the full list of list of related events.

 

Picturing science: teaching maths

Cross-posted from The H Word blog.

Detail from of a portrait of Thomas Weston

Seeing Alex Bellos’s ‘sconic sections’ in his post on combining baking and geometry, made me think of this lovely early 18th century mezzotint, recently acquired by the National Maritime Museum.

Sadly no foodstuffs are involved, but there is a prominently placed dissected cone, with ready-cut conic sections, in the left foreground. Alongside are some of the other essentials of the mathematical teacher: drawing instruments (today’s ‘geometry set’ known to all kids heading back to school in the autumn), diagram, textbook and writing materials. It is less pencil and squared paper, of course, and more quill and ink.

The portrait is of Thomas Weston, who from 1712 headed Weston’s Academy in Greenwich, which, in taking some pupils who were sons of pensioners at Greenwich Hospital, was one of the forerunners ofGreenwich Hospital School. The portrait was the frontispiece to his book, “A copy-book written for the use of the young-gentlemen at the Academy in Greenwich” (1726).

The text in the picture is a lecture, clearly titled Lectiones Astronomicae Lectio 12. Astronomy and mathematics were Weston’s specialty, especially as the basis to learning navigation. Before setting up his school, Weston had been an assistant to the Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed. At that time, he lived and worked at the Royal Observatory, an institution founded to help improve astronomical methods for finding longitude at sea.

There is another portrait of Weston, on the ceiling of the Painted Hall at Greenwich Hospital. Here he looks with admiration at Flamsteed, both in front of the mural arc that was, by the 1690s, the most significant instrument at the Observatory. Placed on a wall aligned north-south, it defined a Greenwich Meridian.

Portrait of Thomas WestonWhile I love the mathematical details in the foreground of this image, perhaps the most splendid thing about it is Weston, wearing a formal wig and, best of all, a striped dressing gown or banyan.

However, if the combination of food and science is more your thing, have a read of this post by Melanie Keene on the objects used to teach elementary astronomy. There are blueberries and oranges that might stand in for the relative sizes of planets but, even better, in the early 19th-century children’s book, Tom Telescope:

the movement of the earth around the sun was best explained as like that of a rotisserie chicken. This “common occurrence in a kitchen” showed how it was “far better for the bird [the earth] to turn round before the fire [the sun], than the fire to turn round the bird”.

Melanie will be saying more about the use of familiar objects in teaching science in the 18th and 19th centuries in her paper at the International Congress for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (iCHSTM) in Manchester next month.

Picturing science: Mapping the moon

A reproduction of a lunar map by H. Percy Wilkins, a “proto-Patrick Moore”, is on display at the National Maritime Museum. It makes an interesting side-show to the new major exhibition, Visions of the Universe. [Cross-posted from The H Word blog.]

Map of the Moon by H. Percy Wilkins
Sheet from 1951 ed. of Wilkins’ Map of the Moon. Source: National Maritime Museum

Given my recurring Picturing Science posts in this blog, I can’t avoid mentioning the new exhibition that has opened at the National Maritime Museum, Visions of the Universe. (Full disclosure: I have not been involved with this exhibition at all.) It has been getting some really nice reviews and previews, and anyone with an interest in astronomy or photography should make the trip.

Visions of the Universe exhibition at the National Maritime Museum

In this post, though, I want to highlight something else that is currently on view, within the main (free) museum. While the exhibition showcases what the space age has brought us, with extraordinary Hubble-type images and – the real hit, I think – a 13-metre long Mars Window, this other display offers the clearest possible reminder of how recently it is that any of this became possible.

In the NMM’s Compass Lounge (at the rear left of the Museum’s new entrance foyer), the several sheets of a 1951 map of the moon have been photographed and reproduced to show the complete 300-inch chart. It shows an extraordinary level of hand-drawn detail, achieved by its maker, H. Percy Wilkins (1896-1960), with the aid of distinctly earth-bound telescopes.

This map, versions of which he had been working on since the 1920s, was the largest-scale and most detailed of its time, combining Wilkins’ personal observations with data from the drawings, photographs and measurements of other astronomers. As his Wikipedia entry says, it was “considered by some as the culmination of the art of selenography prior to the space age”. Wilkins himself described it as “the World’s greatest Moon Map”.

The map was also, perhaps, one of the last productions of its kind. Not only was it published just on the cusp of the space age, but it was also the project of an amateur, working from his home near Bexleyheath with a 12½-inch, and later a 15½-inch, reflector. Wilkins did the work in his spare time, being employed first as a mechanical engineer and then a civil servant at the Ministry of Supply.

Title page of Wilkins' Map of the Moon
The title page of Wilkins’ Map of the Moon. Source: National Maritime Museum

Wilkins nevertheless found time to make telescopes, publish several works on popular astronomy and act as director of the British Astronomical Association’s Lunar Section. As well as founding the Section’s periodical The Moon, he was also, late in life, the first president of the International Lunar Society.

Two of Wilkins’ books were co-authored with another selenographic authority, Patrick Moore, to whom the Visions of the Universe exhibition is dedicated. I found online a reminiscence of Wilkins by an acquaintance describing him as a “proto-Patrick Moore”, but he was perhaps also a direct inspiration. In an obituary of his colleague, Moore wrote of the “prodigious amount of work” that went into the mapping project but, also, that “his personal enthusiasm was inspiring”. Moore felt a “deep sense of personal loss”.

Wilkins did not quite become the media star that Moore did, but he made “numerous broadcasts and television appearances”. You can, for example, see him (his telescope, his map, and his daughter) here in a 1953 Pathé newsreel. Somewhat more infamously, he made the news in 1954 when he announced his observation of “the most extraordinary feature known on the moon today”.

This was a curved shadow, already spotted and described as bridge-like by an American astronomer, John J. O’Neill. It was reported as a 20-mile arch, which can be seen clearly in the photographs reproduced in one of the newspaper reports, viewable at the bottom of the page here. It was, however, no more than a trick of the light, rather like the Face on Mars.

The episode seems to have damaged his credibility considerable and may be one of the reasons that he is less than well-remembered today. Part of the problem was that Wilkins spoke to the press and on the radio before submitting his, rather more cautious, observations to peer scrutiny, His case was not aided by his initially appearing to hint that the structure could be evidence of life on the moon: phrases like “looks artificial” and “almost like an engineering job” led some to leap to such conclusions, even if they were simply descriptive.

The “bridge” was not included in Wilkins’ map, although it did incorporate some other erroneous details. Nevertheless, NASA purchased at least one, and possibly several, copies of the reduced reproduction of his lunar chart when preparing for the Apollo moon landings. His map was also used to help match up the first photographs of the far side of the moon, produced by a Lunar 3 in 1959, with features visible from Earth.

As well as the originals of three editions of the maps themselves, the Museum also received a number of notebooks, all kindly donated by Wilkins’ daughter. The notebooks include formulae, photographs, newspaper cuttings, original drawings and observational notes, from Wilkins’ Kentish observatory and visits to professional observatories in France and the US. They are testament to his years of dedicated work.

When you go (as you must) to see the images, the ingenuity and the leaps that have been made in professional and amateur astronomical imaging on display in the major exhibition, do also remember to pop over to see “the World’s greatest Moon Map”.

Picturing science: inside a Georgian observatory

Cross-posted from The H Word blog.

Detail of Shirburn Castle Observatory

Detail of engraving of the observers at Shirburn Castle Observatory. Source: National Maritime Museum

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I only recently, and by accident came across this rather delightful 1778 mezzotint by James Watson among the collections of the National Maritime Museum. It was a somewhat hidden gem, having not been fully catalogued, although there are copies to be found elsewhere.

I have now updated the description, having realised that the full imageshows two servants-cum astronomical assistants of George Parker, 2nd Earl of Macclesfield (c.1696-1764). They are depicted in his private and exemplary observatory at Shirburn Castle, erected in about 1739.

In the detail at the top of this post is Thomas Phelps, then aged 82, and with him (see below) is John Bartlett, then aged 54. Most of what we know about them is what appears in the text given within this engraving. It is a tale of common men made good, thanks to natural ability, hard work, access to books and recognition by their superiors.

Detail of Shirburn Castle Observatory

Phelps, “who from being a stable-boy in the year 1718, to the then Lord Chief Justice Parker, afterwards Earl of Macclesfield, rose by his merit to the upper employments in that family, and at last, for his uncommon genius, was promoted to be observer, in their Observatory”. John Bartlett was “originally a shepherd, in which station he by books and observation acquired such a knowledge in computation, and of the heavenly bodies, as induced the late George, Earl of Macclesfield, to appoint him assistant observer in his Observatory”.

Phelps and Bartlett are shown in the observatory’s transit room, with Phelps at the eye-piece of the 5-foot transit telescope, made byJonathan Sisson. This instrument is fixed to supporting pillars and aligned to the meridian in order ensure the accuracy of repeated positional measurements of the heavenly bodies.

Behind Bartlett is an astronomical regulator, an accurate observatory clock, by George Graham. To the left is an equatorially-mounted telescope, probably by John Dollond, These were tip-top London instrument makers. Macclesfield spared no expense to create an observatory that, with a salaried observer and assistant, rivalled or, indeed, trumped the establishment at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich.

Macclesfield was a remarkable individual. He was instructed in mathematics by Abraham De Moivre and William Jones, and the sciences became his passion. Under Jones’s influence he formed an exceptionallyimportant collection of 17th-century mathematical manuscripts andbooks. He erected his observatory with the assistance of James Bradley, then Savilian Professor of astronomy at Oxford and later Astronomer Royal. He also built a chemical laboratory, in which his observer, Thomas Phelps also assisted.

Macclesfield was, as well as being an MP, President of the Royal Society for 12 years, from 1752 until his death. From both positions he was a principal proponent of the adoption of the Gregorian calendar. His son, Thomas Parker, 3rd Earl of Macclesfield, was also elected FRS, and evidently kept the observatory going, under Phelps and Bartlett, joined in about 1776 by someone called Redding. Regular observations seem to have ceased in the 1790s.

This engraving is a remarkable celebration of two relatively unknown individuals who, otherwise, survive only in the manuscript observations. It is relatively rare, before the advent of photography, that we see images of people engaged in the activity of astronomical observation. It is also rare to see the assistants, rather than the owner of such fine instruments.

The engraving is, of course, also a celebration of those instruments, which were still impressive in the 1770s. In addition to the telescopes and clock, core tools of the well-quipped working observatory, is a celestial globe. This plays a iconographic rather than a practical function, and is unlikely to have been placed in the observatory itself.

Detail of Shirburn Castle Observatory

However, perhaps my favourite part of the image depicts some rather more humble, but no less essential, aspects of observatory equipment. They are a ratcheted, adjustable observing chair, against which Phelps leans, and the pen and paper with which Bartlett notes the time on the clock at the moment that Phelps calls a star as crossing the meridian of the telescope.

Detail of observing chair in Shirburn Castle observatory

These ordinary things – a chair and writing materials – remind us that the work of these observers was not simple star-gazing but, even in this private observatory, something precise, regular, regulated and tiring. It was the hard work of making and recording observations with an eye to posterity.

Picturing science: sharing knowledge, selling ideas

William Huggins' depiction of the solar surface. Source: National Maritime Museum
William Huggins’ depiction of the solar surface (National Maritime Museum)

This image looks like a curving, curling, abstract mosaic. It is, in fact, an attempt to capture what one observer saw when he looked through a filtered telescope lens at the Sun’s surface. Before photography developed, if astronomers wanted to share their visual experience they could only do it by drawing, adding an ability with pencil to the many necessary accomplishments of the observer. Photographing detail on the bright Sun was to prove a particular challenge.

When you know what it is you should be looking for, it is much easier to see. Familiar as we are today with spectacular images of the Sun in all kinds of different wavelengths, we have come to expect pattern, difference, structure, feathery and filament-like shapes and vast bursts of gases. This was unknown before telescopes could supply sufficient magnification and resolution.

Careful drawings were backed by verbal descriptions, but it was only by looking for themselves that other astronomers might come to accept your interpretation. Was the surface pattern “feathered”, “granulated”, “rice-grain”, “slashed straws” or “willow-leaf”? These were all terms used by observers like William HugginsSamuel Pierpont Langley and James Nasmyth, who revealed that the Sun was not the anticipated smooth, bright disc, punctured only by a few sunspots.

These images tell two stories. One is about the astronomers who looked at, tried to capture and explain the nature of the solar surface. The other is about sharing those images, knowledge and possible explanations with a wider public. These solar close-ups were published in scientific papers, but I have taken them from a set of 38 lantern slides, produced toillustrate lectures on the Sun by a company called York & Son in around 1880.

Drawing of sunspots by James Nasmyth (National Maritime Museum)
Drawing of sunspots by James Nasmyth (National Maritime Museum)

The set includes images that show observational instruments, experimental or demonstration equipment and diagrams to explain possible theories of solar activity. The slides allowed the lecturer to, for example, introduce the audience to competing explanations of the appearance of sunspots. William Herschel had suggested that they were openings in the Sun’s luminous atmosphere, revealing a cooler surface beneath; Alexander Wilson considered them depressions in the solar surface.

Experiment for using a prism to split sunlight (National Maritime Museum)
Experiment using a prism to split sunlight (National Maritime Museum)

I don’t know how many of this set of slides were produced, nor whether any of them were used to enliven one or more actual lectures on the Sun (apart from my own). If they did, the part on sunspots and the solar surface might have run similarly to this 1872 article in the Popular Science Monthly, by the editor Edward Livingston Youmans. While sunspots had, of course, been long known, their complex structure was newly revealed:

But, when a telescope of high magnifying power is directed to the sun, its aspect is greatly changed: the spots lose their simplicity, and the photosphere its uniformity, and in both there are a revelation of structure, a diversity of parts, and a variety of changes, which at once provoke questions in the mind of the observer, as to the causes of this diversified appearance, and the constitution of the body which presents them. The hypotheses put forth are ingenious; but, while the facts of observation are rapidly increasing, and there is a growing agreement on many points, there is still profound uncertainty as to the interpretation to be given to the leading phenomena.

An article or a lecture on the Sun, presented in the last quarter of the 19th century would have introduced its audience to a whole new vocabulary of penumbra, faculae and photosphere. It would also have focused on the use of novel techniques in astronomy, above all the photography and spectroscopy that opened the way to a whole new branch of science. It also introduced the idea that surface irregularities on the Sun might be linked to magnetic activity and terrestrial climate.

It was an exciting topic for a lecture around 1880 – something that a commercial producer of visual aids probably rightly took up as an opportunity.