Arguing about infographics with Galileo

I recently signed up for data vizualization guru Edward Tufte’s one-day course, mostly as an attempt to burnish my chart-geek credentials. I got rather more than I bargained for: the course was not really about how to make better infographics, or even about how to give business presentations (though both topics were addressed). It was more of a long ramble through Tufte’s mind and his obsessions–which are not so much data as information more broadly, and not simply vizualization but communication more generally.

This finally became clear to me during an enjoyable but initially somewhat puzzling discussion of his recent visits to his doctor. It seemed like a stream-of-consciousness digression at first, but then it became clear he was thinking through a serious issue: how to best communicate critical information in a stressful setting. (Tufte’s tip: write out all your medical concerns at home before going to the doctor, then hand over the document at the appointment). If you can’t get your doctor to understand what you need, he was implicitly saying, then what hope do you have of getting people to understand anything less important?

But while Tufte’s concerns are not limited to charts, he has spent a lifetime thinking through what he called the “perennial” problem of how to represent a multidimensional world in the two dimensions of the page or screen. At the end of the day, he pulled out a first edition of Galileo Galilei to show how the great minds of the past had grappled with the same issues. He rhapsodized over Galileo’s tiny, in-line sketches of Saturn, which clearly inspired his own advocacy of “sparklines” (tiny charts embedded in text at the same size as the text), as well as some beautifully precise illustrations of sunspots.

Tufte also showed an engraved portrait of Galileo, in which he has appears with an engaging smile, and called him “funny, bright-eyed…a bit like Richard Feynman.” It was clear that he felt he knew Galileo as a person through his work, and felt a deep connection to someone who had been working on the same problems: the rigorous collection of data and its careful presentation.

I was particularly sensitive to this dynamic because I had just finished reading Oliver Sacks’ loving discussion of the great early chemist Humphrey Davy, contained in his posthumous essay collection Everything in its Place: First Loves and Last Tales:

Humphry Davy was a boyhood hero to virtually everyone interested in chemistry or science in my generation. We all knew and repeated his famous experiments, imagining ourselves in his place. Davy himself had had such ideal companions in his youth, particularly Newton and Lavoisier. Newton, for him, was a sort of god; but Lavoisier was closer, more like a father with whom he could talk, agree, disagree. His own first essay, which Beddoes had published, while taking strong issue with Lavoisier, was in effect a dialogue with him. …

When I came to write my first book, Migraine, in 1967, I was stimulated by the nature of the malady and by encounters with my patients, but equally, and crucially, by an “old” book on the subject, Edward Liveing’s Megrim, written in the 1870s. I took this book out of the rarely entered historical section of the medical school library and read it, cover to cover, in a sort of rapture. I reread it many times for six months, and I got to know Liveing extremely well. His presence and his way of thinking were continually with me. My prolonged encounter with Liveing was crucial for the generation of my own thoughts and book. It was just such an encounter with Humphry Davy, when I was twelve, that had originally confirmed me on the path to science.

I do not think my experience is unique. Many scientists, no less than poets or artists, have a living relation to the past, not just an abstract sense of history and tradition but a feeling of companions and predecessors, ancestors with whom they enjoy a sort of implicit dialogue.

Tufte’s on-stage dialogue with a four-hundred-year-old work by Galileo was, among other things, a demonstration of how effective it is to teach and learn about science in a historical way, as a sequence of personalities, problems, and arguments.


    1. I thought it was worthwhile, but it’s definitely more of an intellectual experience than “five tips for effective presentations” or “seven rules for making good charts.”


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