The BBC are currently repeating a series first shown last Autumn, on BBC Three, called The Beauty of Diagrams. It’s a six-part series presented by Marcus du Sautoy, the Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science. Each episode features a renowned and celebrated diagram from history which has helped revolutionise our understanding of the world, including Vitruvian Man and the double-helix of DNA. Each installment contains a wealth of information about the history and background of the diagram, its creator and the impact it had on our thinking.
The episode in the series of most use to my own research was concerning Isaac Newton’s diagram of his famous prism experiment, which proved that light could be split into a sequence of colours. It is impossible to talk about colour without talking about light and Newton’s groundbreaking work on the subject, represented in his treatise Opticks, was key in the development of our understanding of how light behaves.
Prior to his experiment it was thought that colours were a modification of pure, white sunlight. Newton refracted a small beam of sunlight through a triangular prism, which split the light waves down into the spectrum of colours we recognise as visible light. Refracting individual coloured beams through a second prism showed that the individual colours could not be broken down further, staying the same colour. The diagram he drew in his notes clearly represented both his experimental method and results and helped to shape our knowledge of the properties of light, while becoming an iconic image in itself.
It was Newton that first described the seven colours of the rainbow. At times in his work he refers to five or six different colours of the spectrum. However he also developed the idea of the colour wheel which settled on seven colours. It is thought that seven was the number chosen because it mirrored the musical notes in an octave, in keeping with the idea of a divine order in the maths and the universe.
The other episode in the series which was of relevance to my project told the story of Florence Nightingale’s work on improving the insanitary conditions for injured soldiers being treated in field hospitals during the Crimean War. Central to her efforts to better conditions was a diagram that she drew, called the rose diagram, that was included in a report she wrote after the end of the war which was reluctantly commissioned by the British Government.
The diagram which was a remarkably modern looking example of what we now know as information graphics, clearly depicting the relationship between deaths of infantry and the degree of sanitation in the military hospitals far more succinctly than the text in the report ever could. Florence Nightingale wrote of the diagram that it “… should affect through the eyes, what we fail to convey to the brains of the public through their word-proof ears.”
So although any information graphics that I create as part of this project won’t be a case of life or death, the programme illustrated how effective well presented information can be at communicating, persuading and increasing understanding with an immediacy that words cannot match.