There is grandeur in this view of life – visualising Darwin


If I were to give an award for the single best idea anyone has ever had, I had to have to give it to Darwin, ahead of Newton and Einstein and everyone else. It is not just a wonderful scientific idea; it is a dangerous idea. it overthrows, or at least unsettles, some of the deepest beliefs and yearnings in the human psyche.

– Daniel Dennett

Darwin. We all know his basic idea, it seems utterly obvious now, to the point of why bother with Charles? I thought the same: he made the idea very very public and very obvious, but that was back in 1859. We have come a long way since then. Hurrah for genetics.

But. Some years ago, I read his Voyage of the Beagle. It is great fun. He writes well with delightful english understatement, but his enthusiasm, awe and wonder is obvious and contagious. He is sometimes like a five-year-old in a toy shop. Think Sir David Attenborough of the 1830-ish. I get really interested in the little frog he tried to rescue (and nearly killed twice) and the fox he knocked over the head with his geology hammer (and in doing that, contributed a tiny amount to the extinction of a species). Continue reading


Scalable geologic timeline II


For the geo-geeks out there, I have finished my geologic timescale brush; now better and more accurate than the previous one.

Download the Illustrator file here

Download .EPS file here

Included is a swatch folder with all the colours as per the instructions of the International Commission on Stratigraphy:

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You are welcome to use this in any way you like, the only thing I wish for is that you let me know/show me the context. You can reach me on twitter; @benteh


Since it is a brush, it can take on any shape, and it can be scaled to be as big as a house.

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The text needed have to be added manually. It is possible to incorporate it automatically in the brush, but this might not be so sustainable. This is an ongoing project of mine; creating a geologic clock from the formation of the earth to today. When finished, this will have key fossils from each period, maybe a number of millions/billions of years plotted around the clock. Other possibilities is to add ice-ages etc.

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Continue reading

Fritz Kahn: the human as industrial palace


(I was horrified to discover that Wikipedia does not have an entry on Fritz Kahn in English. I was utterly unaware of how deep into obscurity this multitalented man had fallen. Update: my pigheaded ability to pester strangers have resulted in an solid entry on Kahn on Wikipedia. Many thanks to Yngvadottir ).

Man_as_machine_high_resFritz Kahn (1888-1968) was one of those annoying renaissance men I cannot help to admire. He was a German science writer, gynaecologist, doctor, surgeon, anthropologist, art director, artist and creator of information visualisation par excellence.

He is by some considered the father of modern data and information visualisation. Though to us some of his illustrations/works of art/scientific insights into the human body might look like  the work of da Vinci on Ritalin, they do convey an amazing amount of information. As well as conceptualising ideas about the world around us and inside us. For this I doff my hat. Further, he was not afraid of controversial subjects. One of his bestselling works of the time was titled Our sex-life. 

His books were burned by the Nazis. He fled Germany, and ultimately ended up in USA.

Thomas Alva Edison believed that inside our heads, there were little people scuttling around controlling our memory. Dr. Kahn had no such notions, he was a different man of a different scientific mind. But by using that metaphor he certainly visualised important concepts. He published a large amount of work, but is maybe most famous for Das Leben des Menschen (The life of humans), a five volume series. Though, as it seems, he has fallen so deeply into obscurity, that “most famous” means almost nothing.

Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 14.47.09I have for a long time looked longingly at a book containing his work called Fritz Kahn: Man Machine/Maschine Mensch, but at a whooping price of GBP 270-300 (! about USD450) I would at least like to see it before I starve myself, saving up for this. I am happy to report, though, that a much cheaper book is available, simply called Fritz Kahn.

There is a site called Go forth on your own adventure and find out about this remarkable man and his work.

Here is a very small collection of his stunning work.


Creative mapping: paper towns, trap streets, cartographic treasure-hunts


Q. Why was longitude boiling mad?

A. Because it was 360 degrees.

Cartographers are/were often seen as pretty dour characters. Not so long ago, maps were hand-drawn, and hanging over a a drawing table, the meticulous of drawing contours seems rather nerdy. But, as programmers put easter-eggs in code, cartographers do the same.

Map makers sometimes put phantom streets, parks, ponds and such in their maps, so as to trap others that copy their work. Copyright infringements will be unmasked by these fictional, deliberate trap streets, and this has been going on for hundreds of years.

The term paper street and trap street are often confused, but they can be interpreted as different things: Paper towns/street can be planned constructions that are never created, trap streets are included to trap other cartographers.

Agloe_OriginalOne of the more hilarious examples, are the creation of the town Agloe in New York state. “Agloe” being a mashup of the initials of Otto G. Lindberg and Ernest Alpers of the General Drafting Company. Their map was – according to them – then copied by a competitor a few years later. Digging into the matter, it turned out that in that once empty spot, a shop was built, now sporting the name Agloe General Store. It now exists, and you can look it up in Google maps.

Apparently, according to a spokesperson for the London A-Z, their maps include about 100 trap streets, and a fictional mountain peak went undetected in the US for two years.


Owen Massey McKnight,  clearly a map enthusiast, found a trap street in Oxford called Goy Close. He went to the scene, and found it to be a backstreet of a backstreet.

As for the easter eggs; in a British army map from the 20ties, a sweaty cartographer added an elephant outside the Gold Coast:

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There is some potential for entertainment in trap streets. As mobile apps starts showing you layouts of shopping centres (where to find a tin of tuna?), trap rooms or trap doors (haha) could be introduced. This would make for urban exploration, a kind of cartographic treasure-hunts. It might unnerve some people, but there is a long history for these sort of things in all sorts of contexts.

There are other examples of fictional entries in other works such as lists of names, magazines, dictionaries, medical books, a fictional mammalian order, a fictional star system and others. Not to mention Google maps. I will get back to this in another post, it is too funny to let lie.


It is curiously difficult to find information and examples of cartographic easter eggs and trap streets, any pointers you might have will be greatly appreciated.

Personally, I live in a street that on many maps does not exist. It is real, but many gps systems and paper maps have not caught up yet.

Nothing in this world is for certain.

Ernst Haeckel: art and science through the microscope

ErnstHaeckelErnst Haeckel (1834 – 1919) was what we call a renaissance man. He was a professor, biologist, philosopher, physician, naturalist and artist. His contribution to biology, evolutionary theory and art is still mind-boggling; we owe a great deal of biological understanding and terminology to him. He was a great promoter of Darwin’s theory of evolution, and created amazing visualisations by intense use of microscope. Maybe his greatest talent was the art of seeing. To actually observe and recreate what he saw into art. And science.

And look at him: how can you not love the guy in that portrait?



Some of his plates have since been found to be inaccurate, but in my book that I can forgive him. The value of his work, his art and the importance of combining art and science cannot be underestimated. I am not going to get into a massive biography or description of his scientific work; go forth and research yourself. I will simply show some of his stunning observations.

Using the ever better technology of the microscope, he stared at sea creatures and reproduced what he saw in painstaking detail. His artistic ambition, was to show the world the amazing shapes in nature, shapes that was not accessible to the general public. His scientific ambition was to use the insight to elaborate on his theories of the shape-shifting of natural selection. Spanning art and science. The place I want to live.

He published a lot of his art in a series called Kunstformen der Natur (Art Forms of Nature) that are still – to me at least – a source of inspiration and wonder. They are both abstract and accurate; both fiction and science. It does not get better than that.

Age-of-Man-wikiHe also made several trees of life; visualisation of the idea of evolution. There are a lot of efforts to do this; we still struggle with it today, but this is one of my favourites. Though some knowledge has been added, some geological time has been shuffled, renamed and changed, it is still impressive in its noise-to-signal ratio. What is easily seen, and abundantly clear looking at this, is how the various groups waxes and wanes, diminish and expands. You can see the extinction of dinosaurs, how they transformed into birds, how few reptiles we have left, and how mammals took over most niches. It is well worth a study.



So without further ado; here are some of his amazing art. And science:



Smarties and the shape of the earth


oblate spheroid

The sphere is, according to wikipedia a reasonably correct model for earth. But mathematically the earth is  an oblate spheroid. An example of that would be smarties and M&Ms, spheres squished at the poles.

As a result of gravitation and the rotation of earth, it is about 21 km longer than the Earth’s polar radius. This is of course a tiny amount, but according to NASA, it is increasing at a surprising speed. Our little planet are becoming more oblate.


Why? Gravitational pull varies geographically, and are affected by shift in mass, such as ice melting increases water in the oceans, tectonic shifts, and probably a lot more we do not understand. But it is changing. Water is on the move in a big way. This will have consequences for the rotation, and will affect the correction of time. This again, affects space exploration and satellites. So you could say: climate change will alter time.

Chew on that.


gravitational map

Why do I bother with this ludicrously nitpicking geoscience? I am not a mathematician, astrophysicist, oceanographer, climate researcher. But ever since I discovered the problem of map projections as a child, I have scratched my head over this. I then assumed that I was too stupid to understand something that was surely simple. It is nice to know that it is incredibly complex. And that makes it endlessly fascinating.