Beautiful data… visualizing science!

by Stephanie Chasteen on April 24, 2011

I have been absent for too long — this time for a good cause:  Vacation!  Geekgirl enjoyed California and Vegas and anything not involving a computer for over a week.  It is a good experience to have at least once a year.  And in return, dear reader, I give you a nice long post.  Thank you for waiting for me!

I find data visualization fascinating. A good visual can more fully tell you what your data is “about” than any string of numbers. Take, for example, the cool interface at the new travel site Hipmunk.

A simple interface modification changes a list of prices and times into a much easier to process visualization of the data — flight times turn into horizontal placement, airlines into colors, and layovers are also clearly marked.  You can sort by price, time, or “agony” — their own combination that calculates both the pain to the pocketbook and the pain of a horrible red-eye flight with a 5 hour layover in Chicago.  No, I don’t work for Hipmunk, I just think this is really great data visualization!

Make your own

And if you want to make your own data visualizations, there’s a really cool tool now for free — Tableau Public — which will let you create some pretty stunning, interactive data on your own.  The only bummer is that it’s windows only, so I couldn’t play with it myself.  But here’s a screenshot of an interactive data set of Japanese earthquakes since the 1900’s (you can click the link to actually experience the interactivity):

Dance the Algorithm

And for those of you who are computer geeks, I was sent this human-enacted visualization of computer algorithms.  This same series has a variety of different algorithms depicted as dance, including shell-sort and select-sort.  I don’t know computer science from my ass, and was a bit disappointed that I didn’t actually learn anything from the video, but I guess that this is one of those cases where some prior knowledge goes a long way.

Learn through visualizations

This isn’t really data visualization, but it fits in this post because I think this gets at why images and visuals are so helpful to us as humans.  The pictoral representation of a concept or idea can go further than just accurately representing the concept or idea — it can tell us how to think about it.  The way data is presented helps us to interpret the numbers. Similarly, how we depict scientific ideas can help us to understand them.  In that vein, Felice Frankel (who does wonderful projects on scientific images as art) recently embarked on a project called Picturing to Learn.  College students were told to draw a picture to explain a particular scientific concept to a high school senior.   The results were meticulously documented on the website, and give insights into how students think about different topics.  You can register for full access to the database, and learn to interpret student drawings for yourself.  A great tool for teachers!

Junk Charts

For non-beautiful charts, see JunkCharts, which publishes offending graphics full of chart junk (a term coined by Edward Tufte, to describe the gratuitous use of graphics and other visual elements that don’t help the viewer to interpret the graph or, worse, obfuscate the information therein).

And some final humor

And of course, any post about cool data and charts wouldn’t be complete without my favorite tongue-in-cheek pie chart (which I found on FlowingData, but thought was originally on GraphJam — see the comments on the FlowingData post for some attribution as to its origins):


Peter Lyons April 25, 2011 at 5:01 am

Nice links! There are lots of sort algorithm visualizations out there.

Andy Rundquist April 25, 2011 at 11:24 am

Getting students to realize that visualization of their data is critical to understanding is something that I try to do a lot. I usually get on my soap box when they turn in an excel spreadsheet with no plots on it. I try to tell them that our eye-brain mechanism is an excellent pattern finder, though you can be fooled, of course.

I think it’s also connected to the various representations of knowledge that the modeling physics folks are always working so hard on. Thanks for the great post, and welcome back from vacation!

Phil Earnhardt April 27, 2011 at 6:19 pm

Hi, Stephanie. I think the coolest visualization engine is the Mathematica Demonstrations Project ( ), which uses the full power of the Mathematica engine to show principles from physics, mathematics, economics, music, etc. Free versions of the Player are available for download on Windows, Mac, and Linux. The latest version of the Player installs plugins for popular browsers; these allow for running the 6000+ demonstrations right in the browser.

I love the “Relief-Shaded Elevation Map” demo: something that Raven Maps has been doing in their print maps for decades. “Retrograde Motion” shows the changing position of Mars from 2 different perspectives. “Paths of Two-Dimensional Oscillators” shows the behavior of the 19th-century harmonograph.

Demonstrations are very cool; math educators should embrace this curated collection. A second step is for educators with access to Mathematica to mentor their students on creating their own demonstrations: learning-by-teaching.

For me, the holy grail of this kind of visualization will be running them on iPads and other tablet computers. Wolfram has hinted but has announced nothing yet.

I also want to nominate the YouTube mega-hit “Nature by Numbers”: . As this artist demonstrates, visualization can take very few words.

JAE Sherman April 27, 2011 at 6:27 pm

I don’t know who originated this method but, in my 9th grade physics classes, I often recommended the three column approach to note-taking with one narrow column simply stating the topic, one fat column detailing the facts, and the last column reserved for a drawing of the student’s interpretation of the topic. These were always fun and usually hilarious. And the students who chose to draw always retained more.

sciencegeekgirl April 28, 2011 at 4:42 pm

@AndyRundquist — Very cool, yes, thanks for mentioning Mathematica Demos, as well as the cool Nature by Numbers, which I’d seen somewhere. Beautiful and compelling.

@JAE — I love that approach! That’s fun, and I can imagine that undertaking that task would really help students to think about the content in order to use that creativity. Someone reminded me last night of the “Dance your thesis” project — where students submit an interpretive dance of their PhD.

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