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.


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.


Images in the time of cholera

In 1854 there was a cholera epidemic in London.

The accepted theory at the time was that illness and epidemics spread through the “miasma”, a form of “bad air”, pollution and smell emanating from decomposing organic matter. The mechanics of germs was not understood.

Dr. John Snow was sceptical to the miasma theory, but not entirely grasping germ mechanics, he did this admirable thing: scientific observation, quantitative and qualitative data collection and using the best medium for studying the results.

He talked to the residents in the area of outbreak. He then hypothesised that there was a water pump that was the source. He took water samples, but these were inconclusive. He gathered data on how many people had died and where they lived. Plotting this on a map, it seems clear that infections are concentrated around the Broad Street water pump: snow_map copy

However; there are inconsistencies that are a little problematic to explain, looking at the map. Armed with the quantitative data, our Dr. Snow did some more research by talking to people living at points where these oddities occur.

Quite a long way away from the Broad Street pump, closer to other pumps, some people got infected. The reasons, it turned out, being that children living there went to school closer to Broad Street, or that  the people living there preferred the water from the Broad Street pump, considering it better.Screen shot 2014-04-04 at 15.12.53

Another anomaly was a few buildings close to the pump that had no infections, for example a a work house and a brewery. Some further researched showed that the work house had their own water source, and that brewery employees did not really drink water, they drank beer…brewery So, if there was ever uncertainty; graphics are beneficial for public health.

David Rumsey collection: mapping history I

David Rumseys gigantic collection of historical and modern maps, schematics, timelines, data visualisations, diagrams, history, time, sciences, religion is a never-ending source of wonder and inspirations. It is a bit of a trap, as I can spend days wandering around in the magical world of visualisations of history, science, culture, religion.

Looking at the older time-space maps, it is adventure on multiple levels: you can discover a lot about how scientists and artists related to the world around them and how they found relations between subjects.

We struggle with handling time-space relations today too, might be good to know that this has been going on for thousands of years, really (I have a specific post on The Hereford mappa mundi, the oldest surviving map of space, time and events.).

There will be more posts based on this magical collection and the wonderful work of Cartography Associates, here are just some I find intriguing.

Published under a Creative Commons license, you can download maps in very large formats.

Click them for large formats!

1854: Geographical distribution of indigenous vegetation

A full-colour lithograph that shows vegetation in  Andes, Teneriffe, Himalaya, Alps & Pyrenees and Lapland. Inset charts: Regions of altitude corresponding to isothermal zones — Graphical statistics of the most important families of plants.


1858: Tableau De L’Histoire Universelle (Eastern Hemisphere)

A “tableau” of the history of the eastern hemisphere. Mapping the empires, battles, power-shifts. The side columns (vignettes) contains images of buildings, people, historical scenes and important places in the history of the world.



1890: Nord-Ouest: Paris Et Ses Environs

A wildly detailed map of the geological formations of Paris.