Beautiful Science at the British Library: A Review by Isobel Elstob

 

We are delighted to publish this guest review by Isobel Elstob who visited the Beautiful Science Exhibition at the British Library for Medical Humanities. The exhibition is showing until 26 May 2014.

 

Review of Beautiful Science: Picturing Data, Inspiring Insight

Folio Society Gallery, British Library

20th February – 26th May, 2014

 

Isobel Elstob

Correspondence to: izzyelstob@hotmail.com

 

 

How do we represent the material – and immaterial – world visually? This is the question that underpins the Folio Society’s exhibition Beautiful Science at the British Library. The Folio Society Gallery, in which the exhibition is displayed, is a small and awkward space that functions vertically and can be entered from two sides. This is important because such a space has very little to offer the curators in terms of dictating a visitor’s viewing route. The result of this is a non-linear viewing experience that the curators have counteracted through a thematic, rather than chronological, display of objects.

 

The themes that the curators have selected for representation are ‘Weather and Climate’, ‘Public Health’ and ‘The Tree of Life’. Within each of these sections, too, there is less a sense of chronology than the ambition to compare like-with-like pan-historically; in fact, the desire to demonstrate either the accuracy or the usefulness of past methods of visualising phenomena by displaying them beside recent, most often computerised, models. A particularly attractive example of this approach is the inclusion of HMS Rochester Ship’s Journal from the early eighteenth century (1709-12) displayed dialogically beside the UK Met Office’s computerised and interactive two-dimensional globe on which bright pink and blue lines shift and shimmer. These lines represent weather data collected along the spice trade routes between the continents, such as that laboriously recorded by the Captain of the Rochester. This relationship between two examples of data collation and representation demonstrates the intelligent contemporary exploitation of the documentation of information historically. But it reveals something more problematic, too, for an exhibition that seeks to contrast the sophistication of our technology with the originality of our predecessors: the finely-rendered tabulated descriptions found in the Rochester‘s captain’s journal are more beautiful – to use the exhibition’s own choice of word – than the impressive computerised globe etched with brightly-coloured streaks. Beauty is not simply in the eye of the beholder. Beauty is inherently a natural phenomenon, and, therefore, one that exists – and that we will find – in our own, human, creations. The page of the Rochester‘s journal that has been selected for display demonstrates this – beautifully. Perched amongst the looping, precise handwriting of the ship’s captain, that describes ‘Moderate gales of Wind and fair Weather’, sits an ink drawing of a small, speckled bird. The captain, we are told, frequently interspersed his tables of data and description with similar sketches of ships, wildlife and places that he observed throughout his voyages. In such pages, then, are represented two aspects of this man’s – and all men’s – approach to the world: the objective and the subjective. The interaction and relationship between these two ideals permeates this exhibition. Before the mid-nineteenth century the concept of objectivity, as we understand its meaning today, did not exist. Rather than science requiring the removal of human agency in the representation of natural phenomena, it was experience, not self-effacement that had counted previously. We can see this in the words of Edmond Halley, whose 1686 map, An Account of the Trade Winds and Monsoons, is exhibited. Halley writes: ‘It is not the work of one, nor a few, but a multitude of Observers, to bring together their experience requisite to compose a perfect and complete History of these winds.’ The change in attitudes might be traced in Luke Howard’s 1847 Barometrographia, which we are told is amongst the earliest consistent scientific observations recorded, and, more than that, is, in part, mechanically drawn by a self-recording barograph over which Howard subsequently plotted the phases of the Moon. Mechanical objectivity in its genesis is thus displayed.

 

Objectivity today relies on the satellites and the supercomputers that are now at the disposal of scientists. But the representations that such methods produce may well still be beautiful, such as the NASA map depicting the ocean surface currents between 2005 and 2007 that is shown at one of the exhibition’s entrances. One wonders, however, if it is not the subject – our blue and swirling oceans as seen from space – rather than the method of representation, that makes such computerised renderings so appealing. A direct comparison can be drawn between paper and screen within the ‘Public Health’ section, which includes Florence Nightingale’s ‘Rose Diagrams’ depicting the causes of mortality in the ‘Army of the East’. Professor David Spiegelhalter of Cambridge University has taken Nightingale’s engraving and made it interactive to help the viewer better understand its purpose. Such an appropriation is a productive method, too, for highlighting the ‘Lady with the Lamp’s’ work as a statistician in her own right, rather than merely an attendant of wounds. Furthermore, whether it be the Rochester voyaging in gales along the spice routes, or Nightingale sourcing her data from the military field hospital through which she paced, many of the historical documents in Beautiful Science invoke a far wider cultural context than the particular information that they describe. John Graunt’s Natural and Political Observations upon the Bills of Mortality (1662), for example, is a collation of sixty years of London parish records on causes of death. Within the table we find that the number of people in the capital who died due to being ‘Burnt or Scalded’ was three in the year of 1647, and rose to eleven in the year of 1651. Medical conditions such as French Pox, Rickets and Worms are listed alongside causes of death such as ‘Hanged and made with themselves’ and even ‘Frighted’ (of which nine people are recorded to have died in 1660).

 

But it is Beautiful Science‘s exploration of the motif of ‘The Tree of Life’ that is the most poignant section of the exhibition (this is also borne out, perhaps, by the fact that this area appears to attract a far greater concentration of viewers). Interactive technology here, in the form of the One Zoom Tree, allows the viewer to discover the evolutionary links between thousands of species of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. Interestingly, these, very modern, representations of our own – and many other creatures’ – location within the animal kingdom is depicted as a sprawling tree, with branches emerging intermittently from a central trunk. Life on earth has been represented in the form of a tree across the ages and across multiple civilizations. From Mayan to Nordic culture, to the tree from which Eve plucked the apple, this organic life form has functioned pan-historically and pan-culturally as the most apt metaphor for visualising the force and centrality of Life on our planet. Beautiful Science reveals this tendency through some remarkable inclusions. Ernst Haeckel’s The Pedigree of Man (1879) is displayed beside Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859), which is open at the only page within the publication that contains an illustration: a lithograph by William West that depicts the relationships between various species and their descent from common ancestors in what has become known as ‘The Tree of Life’ diagram. At once more problematic and more affecting, cultural attempts to depict the very nature of life will always be more personal to us than representing ocean current patterns or even epidemics of disease. For what is being represented in such imagery is our selves. Beside the historical publications of Haeckel, Darwin and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck is displayed a pair of back-lit black panels that contain a series of brightly-coloured circular diagrams – each one shining with a luminosity that is indeed beautiful to behold. These Circos Visualisations of Genomic Data compare the human genome with those of the chimpanzee, the dog, the opossum, the platypus and the chicken. Within each circular frame these comparative diagrams rise and descend and swirl and ebb like a collection of precise but abstract paintings. Perhaps technological representation is most striking when it represents the essence of us and how it is that we slot into nature’s own material manifestations. In contrast to the evolutionary implications of Haeckel’s and Darwin’s diagrammatic representations of life stemming from a unifying central source, the curators also show us an example of the way in which the relations between creatures had been visualised in Western culture prior to evolutionary theory’s successful claim of the mantle for understanding the natural world. Robert Fludd’s 1617 The Great Chain of Being depicts an hierarchical pyramid encircled by the cosmos, with Sophia the Goddess of Wisdom represented in human form standing for the pinnacle of natural perfection: us. A human-centric model such as this has Aristotelian roots, and monopolised cultural interpretations of the natural realm right up until the nineteenth century. It is not only possible but probable, therefore, that the ‘Tree of Life’ itself will be replaced with what will be considered to be a more suitable model at some point in the unforeseeable future.

 

The question that Beautiful Science most explicitly asks is how have we represented the world around us. But perhaps a more intriguing thesis might be why do we possess the compulsion to represent it at all? It is clear from this exhibition that the motivations behind visualising data and information have been as numerous as the methods invented to do so. The ways in which such visualisations have been accomplished suggests that science is not yet (and may never be) entirely objective. Indeed, Beautiful Science demonstrates, rather, that the human, subjective desire for beauty is as strong as the human, objective desire to possess information, and that our thirst for images is as compulsive, perhaps, as our thirst for knowledge. But let us hope that the technological age in which we live does not alienate us from nature to such a degree that we consider ourselves once more to be Gods of Wisdom, superior and dissimilar to all that surrounds us.