The ancient Greek concept of a "Great Chain of Being" places life on Earth in a hierarchical order with respect to the rest of the universe. In this diagram, the chain starts with Sophia, goddess of wisdom and extends downward to animals, plants, and minerals.

The first known tables of public health data: From 1603, London parish clerks began to collect health-related population data in order to monitor plague deaths, publishing the London Bills of Mortality on a weekly basis. John Graunt amalgamated 50 years of information from the bills, seen here.

This 1685 map illustrates ocean currents as understood at the time based on the observations of explorers and mariners. Early cartographers had to make sense of some confusing data from these reports without the fancy viz tools we have today.

These daily barometric pressure readings, recorded by Luke Howard, are among the earliest consistent scientific observations ever recorded. In Barometrographia (1847), he recorded the atmospheric pressure readings from 1815 to 1834 at his homes in Tottenham, London, and Ackworth, Yorkshire, alongside accounts of the weather.

Even infographics that spread the incorrect theories of their time helped contribute to modern data-driven research methods. During the grisly cholera epidemic of the 1840s, statistician William Farr plotted cycles of temperature and cholera deaths, believing, wrongly, that the illness was spread by miasma or “bad air." While he was off the mark, Farr's legacy is important: He set up the first national system for collecting statistics and pushed for a more data-driven approach to public health.

In her seminal "rose diagram," Florence Nightingale showed that far more soldiers died from preventable epidemic diseases (blue) than from wounds inflicted on the battlefield (red) or other causes (black) during the Crimean War (1853-56).

On the Mode of Communication of Cholera, John Snow. London, 1855

Robert FitzRoy, best known as the captain of HMS Beagle aboard which Charles Darwin sailed as a naturalist, is also considered the grandfather of the modern weather service. In this 1863 illustration, we see how storms and cyclones develop on the border between warm tropical and cold polar air masses. It's a bit like a proto-satellite image.

Inspired by the ideas of Charles Darwin, Ernst Haeckel sought to design trees organizing all life on Earth, seen here in "The Pedigree of Man" and "The Evolution of Man," from London, 1879.

In 2009, researchers used the Global Epidemic and Mobility model to forecast accurately the 2009 pandemic influenza outbreak. In this interactive you can use the touch screen to visualize different epidemic scenarios and the potential impact of anti-contagion measures.

This Avian Tree of Life depicts evolutionary relationships of all 9,993 living species of birds, illustrating when individual species diverged. Modern birds first evolved some 145 to 166 million years ago, but this diagram shows that they began to diversify exceptionally rapidly about 50 million years ago.

Who doesn't love fractals? The design of this interactive uses fractal geometry to let viewers explore the evolutionary relationships between tens of thousands of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians.

Cambridge University statistician David Spiegelhalter took the data from Nightingale’s "rose diagram" and animated the rose, as well as picturing the data as a bar chart and icon diagram--a reinterpretation that shows how the best infographics can become lasting visual icons.

We all say it's "freezing" out when it's actually 40 degrees or "boiling" when it's 80. This chart compares the actual weather to over 700,000 sentiment-analyzed social media messages about the weather throughout 2011.

Circles of Life: Here's how much you have in common genetically with a chimpanzee, dog, opossum, platypus, and chicken.

This striking animation by NASA visualizes the flow of ocean surface currents from June 2005 to December 2007.

16 Of Science's Best Infographics, From Ancient Greece To Today

Throughout history, the best data visualizations have served as the public's window onto a complex world.

In a time when everything from the endangerment of the Juggalo to Carrie Bradshaw's shoe collection is turned into a clever little chart, it can be easy to dismiss infographics as trendy and inconsequential. But since ancient Greece, the best data visualizations have furthered popular understanding of science, serving as the nonacademic public’s key to knowledge. Some vintage infographics were even used as political tools, effecting social change through educational campaigns.

Beautiful Science: Picturing Data, Inspiring Insight, now on view at the British Library, takes us through the history of data visualization, focusing on themes of public health, weather, and evolution. From a millennia-old illustration of the "Great Chain of Being" to a 2008 NASA animation of the oceans' currents, we see how data visualizers have always sought to turn dense and impenetrable scientific information into accessible, beautiful images, using good design to make learning smoother.

This unusual map of 1685 illustrates ocean currents as understood at the time based on the observations of explorers and mariners.

"Going back a long time people saw diagrams as tremendous potential to communicate scientific ideas," Dr. Johanna Kieniewicz, lead curator of the show, told The Independent. "We are in an era of big data, but there was also an explosion in data back then, particularly related to vital statistics and climate. They too were trying to reconcile how to work with the information and communicate it to the public."

Most of us know Florence Nightingale as the founder of modern nursing, but she was also a cutting-edge statistician and the first woman to be elected into the Royal Statistical Society. With her seminal "rose diagram," Nightingale demonstrated that far more soldiers died from preventable epidemic diseases and poor hospital conditions than from wounds inflicted on the battlefield during the Crimean War of 1853-56. In an effort to drive through health reforms, she printed the diagram on pamphlets and distributed them to politicians and anyone else who would listen.

Some of these vintage infographics are still distributed for scientific purposes. "Data that is centuries old from collections like ours is now being used to inform cutting edge science," Dr. Kieniewicz said in a press release. The British Meteorology Office still uses information from log books on East India Company clipper ships to test their climate models, the idea being that to understand weather patterns of the present, they need to understand patterns of the past.

In these diagrams, epidemiologist and statistician William Farr plotted cycles of temperature and cholera deaths for 1840-50.

Even infographics that spread the incorrect theories of their time helped contribute to modern data-driven research methods. During the grisly cholera epidemic of the 1840s, statistician William Farr plotted cycles of temperature and cholera deaths, believing, wrongly, that the illness was spread by miasma or "bad air" (it’s actually spread by water-borne bacteria). While he was off the mark with this particular fact, Farr's legacy is an important one: He set up the first national system for collecting statistics and pushed for a more data-driven approach to public health. His innovative graphic approach no doubt helped his cause—as he noted, the diagram’s eye-popping colors and geometric forms "represent the facts in a striking manner to the eye."

Today, the visually minded among us often rely on mesmerizing visualizations as windows onto the complex world of science. Data about ocean currents sounds like a snooze until you see it stunningly animated by NASA. And you might not care about how genetically similar you are to opossums and chickens until you look at the "Circles of Life," an infographic that resembles an abstract painting of rainbow gingko leaves. That they fuse both knowledge and beauty into one engaging package is what makes the well-researched, well-designed data viz so valuable in this age of information overload and total visual noise.

Beautiful Science: Picturing Data, Inspiring Insight is on view at the British Museum until May 26.

[Images: Courtesy of the British Library]

Add New Comment

8 Comments