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?