The (superficial) beauty of The Infographic History of the World 1


The Infographic History of the World, by Valentina D’Efilippo and James Ball, is the product of a graphic designer (D’Efilippo) and a Guardian data journalist (Ball) – and others, both individuals and organisations, unmentioned on its cover. ‘History’, in the title, encompasses both natural history and human history; the book shares something, therefore, with the pre-modern notion of historia to which professional historians of history and early modern scholarship have become increasingly sensitised in recent years, but which is unfamiliar to most. Statements such as ‘there’s been a lot of history since the beginning of time’ will jar with academics; this non-professional usage of ‘history’ conflates the past (the thing of which there has been a lot) with the study of the past (the discipline of history) and its scholarly products (of which there have admittedly been quite a lot too).

The absence of professional historical insight shows itself in other ways as well. Thus, in breaking the history of the world into four periods, the authors designate 1900 as the beginning of the ‘modern period’, departing – I guess unintentionally – from the conventional periodisation used by academics. On the other hand, the authors are conscious of deviating from historical tradition in treating, in their first section, ‘history before humanity’ with a little ‘geology and astronomy too’. But their first infographic, ‘In the beginning’, is strikingly reminiscent, in its intended coverage, if not its precise content, with the opening pages of works like the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493) and Sebastian Münster’s Cosmographia (1544). There is, indeed, a very long tradition of histories of the world that start at the very beginning of everything and cover the structure of the cosmos as well as its origins… If such things seem odd to us now, it is partly because – via cosmography – this material ended up in atlases, where it can often still be found. Since they too are visually-rich, and not, as this section of the book is, monochromatic, the reader might be forgiven for being disappointed with its lack of originality as well as its muted aesthetic appeal. The latter is due to the decision to utilise an increasing number of colours and more ‘modern’ fonts and style as the book progresses, cleverly marking the march to ‘modernity’ in a visual way throughout the course of the volume. Alas, this cleverness comes at the expense of the early infographics’ visual impact and clarity. It also means that much of the text in the book is difficult to read.

The similarities with certain modern atlases extend into the second section, ‘Getting Civilised’, beginning as it does with infographics on the different species of the genus Homo, the constituents of the human body, and world population. Animal domestication, the evolution of forms of male and female clothing, the development of musical instruments, and the emergence of different forms of visual art are amongst the other topics treated here. The infographic conveying the latter is another good example of how a clever idea has been pursued at the expense of economical communication: a paint-by-numbers style outline of the Mona Lisa, representing time from bottom-left to top-right, is broken up into blocks representing innovations, coloured according to region of origin, and hatched, dotted, or otherwise marked to represent genre of art (painting and drawing, print-making, sculpture, etc). But only the millennium, century, or decade of the innovation is actually written in these blocks; to find out what development is being referred to, it is necessary to consult the key, which includes five miniature Mona Lisa outlines, each of which shows one of the categories of art and lists, underneath it, the artistic developments in question. In trying to make sense of it all, I found it easiest to read the lists and ignore the graphic material.

(to be continued)



The (prospective) beauty of Beautiful Science

I’m a professional historian of science with an interest in data visualisation and the author of this blog. Ergo, I shall at some point be visiting the British Library’s exhibition Beautiful Science: Picturing Data, Inspiring Insight (although quite when that will happen I have yet to work out). When I do, if I have anything to say about it, I shall say it here.

In the meantime, I just wanted to note that, while nosing around the website to see if there was an exhibition publication (there isn’t), I hit upon the section of their online shop with tie-in products. Here, I am pleased to note, appears not only David McCandless’s Information is Beautiful, but also Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline by Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton – and now available in paperback. This splendid book is an excellent riposte to anyone who might suppose that data visualisation is a twentieth-century innovation, and serves equally well to rebut the claim that visualisation and history can have nothing to do with one another. I shall try to say something about it in a future post as well.

The beauty of getting started

So, it has finally happened. Having previously declared that academic blogging was the Devil’s work, the author of history is beautiful has finally decided to start a blog of his own. (He is also writing about himself in the third person; he’ll try to stop doing that soon).

Why? I’m so glad you asked. A peculiar confluence of events has led me to this act. The title of the blog is meant to evoke David McCandless’s Information is Beautiful, Edward R. Tufte’s Beautiful Evidence, and the whole data visualisation phenomenon – on which more, imminently. I recently attended a data visualisation ‘Masterclass’ at the Guardian – I’m keen to explore the phenomenon more, and with particular reference to history teaching and history research. I have a long-standing interest in the study and representation of networks. A long time ago I began a project on astronomical correspondence of the sixteenth century – eventually published as Bearing the Heavens: Tycho Brahe and the Astronomical Community of the Late Sixteenth Century (hbk 2007; pbk 2011). This year, data I collected for that project is being uploaded to the Early Modern Letters Online database of Oxford University’s Cultures of Knowledge project. I’m also flying across the Atlantic to participate in an event at Stanford, home of the Mapping the Republic of Letters project. The conjunction of these different events has got me thinking again about how technologies of the twenty-first century, the era of IT-mediated social networking, might help us to better visualise, understand, and interrogate, the networks of the past.

More generally, I am interested in digital humanities, the ever-increasing abundance of digital resources available to historians, and even just the proliferation of software and apps that can help jobbing historians as they go about their work. Keeping track of all of this stuff is hard – there is, surely, ‘too much to know‘ – try as I might for my own benefit and that of my students. Part of the purpose of this blog is to externalise my memory of such things (already externalised, to be honest, via proliferating bookmarks, links posted to various Virtual Learning Environment sites, Evernote, and a handful of Filemaker databases), categorise them, and I hope, communicate them to others. We’ll see how well that goes.

Since I’m also interested in the history of collecting, museums, and display, and the visual and material culture of the sciences, I expect that I shall try to make history is beautiful pretty with plentiful images. But being in many ways a traditional sort of historian, I shall also try to find the time and space to remark on the written word and the thoughts it expresses. No doubt I shall have some things to say about poor writing and poor thinking as well. That thought takes me with horrific ease to the topic of the state of Higher Education and HE policy. And, finally, I might even feel moved to share some of the actual academic research I have done and am doing on these pages. Let’s see, shall we?