Images Change History

How Images Transformed History

As we look back through history, we find times when someone took the available data and organized it in ways that actually helped us see new and important patterns, in ways that helped us raise new questions, in ways that transformed history.

This page discusses four of these areas: Images of space, time, life, and chemistry. Can you suggest what some of these images might be?

Organizing Geographic Data

Early sailors took detailed notes about their journeys and jealously guarded the information they collected. Eventually, a few began taking this information and drawing maps. It is hard to imagine living in a world  without maps.

Now we have an incredible variety of maps: There are topographic maps, weather maps, political maps (both the maps showing the  boundaries of countries and states and the maps showing how people voted.) There are maps showing all sorts of information including income, family size, illness, education levels, temperatures for gardeners and so on. Now we have computer maps to help us find directions and, most astonishing of all, Google Earth.

We also have maps of the moon, maps of the known universe, and maps of the human genome. We map space from the very large to the incredibly small.

Organizing Time Data

Many early people found ways to predict the coming of the seasons. One of the earliest calendars was created by the Greeks over 5,000 years ago. Many other cultures developed calendars of their own. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII declared the creation of a new calendar.

While it was not the first to base dates on the assumed date for the birth of Christ, it is the one that has survived. The calendar,  now called the Gregorian Calendar, was divided into the familiar twelve months with varying numbers of days in each.  It even included the addition of leap years. Over the years, Gregorian calendar has been adopted by most countries around the world. A  few countries and many religious groups  maintain their own calendars.

Calendars were followed by the  invention of the clock. Daring scientists then asked and answered new questions. What is the speed of sound?  What is the speed of light? Until then, both seemed to be instantaneous.

Now computers measure the time it takes a website to begin to load in microseconds. A microsecond in one millionth of a second. It’s hard to imagine anything could happen in only a microsecond.

Organizing Biological Data

Scholars through the ages looked for ways to organize living things into categories. Aristotle made early efforts in this area. He divided animals into two main groups: Blooded and Non-blooded. The first group we now call Vertebrates and the second group are Invertebrates. His vertebrates included five genera: Mammals, Birds, Reptile/Amphibians, Fish, and Whales.

During Renaissance years there were many who contributed to this effort but the person who gets the credit for creating the system we use today was Carolus Linnaeus  (1735.) The key to his system was the creation of multi-level categories: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species.  (known to many students as King Phillip came over for Green Sneakers.)  In recent years, with DNA research, some biologists have added Domains to divide the Kingdoms into groups.

For many years, everyone agreed there were only two categories of living things: Plant and Animals. It required courage to disagree with such a common sense idea. But now there are various new ways of dividing living things, often including five kingdoms instead of the two.

Darwin’s later work was closely related to these questions. It caused taxonomists to reorganize some of the work done by Linnaeus. Darwin  saw evolution as a way to explain how all these groups came to exist. More recent  study of DNA and has enabled biologists to further revise the system, now based on solid research. The image of an Evolutionary Tree helps us visualize these relationships.

Organizing Data in Chemistry

The Periodic Table of the Elements created by Dmitri Mendeleev in 1735   organized the known elements. As is often true with work of this kind, there were possibly five or six other chemists working on similar efforts. The original Periodic Table of the ElementsPeriodic Table looked very different from the one we are familiar with. It listed elements in vertical columns instead or horizontal rows. But it still arranged them according to increasing atomic weights and by similar behavior.  Although he had several elements out-of-order,  Mendeleev’s predictions of missing elements were fairly accurate.

Later, as Scientists discovered more about the elements,  about the structure of atoms and about how elements join to form compounds, they used the Periodic Table to display this information. Nearly every chemistry classroom around the world displays a copy of this well-known chart. It is difficult to think about studying chemistry without it.

Sam Kean, in his book, The Disappearing Spoon and other true tales of madness, love and the history of the world from the Periodic Table of the Elements, suggests the periodic table is likely to be changing with new research. He also says:

If aliens ever land and park here, there’s no guarantee we’ll be able to communicate with them, even going beyond the obvious fact they won’t speak “Earth.” … About the only things we can drop in front of them and be sure they’ll grasp are numbers like pi and the periodic table. (340)

I have suggested four ways that visuals have been used to organize and present data. You probably would have suggestions for other examples and could, perhaps, create a list of the twenty or more visuals that have done most to change the world.

One of the most amazing visuals I’ve found in my searching on the Internet uses a Periodic Table to display a huge collection of different Visuals. They divide their visuals into Data, Information, Concepts, Strategies, Metaphors, and Compounds (combined methods)    A Periodic Table of Visualization You might want to mark it as a favorite (bookmark it) and return to explore it in detail. Check it color by color. The check the categories on the lower left and check those. When you are trying to find or develop a visual to use for your particular set of data, you might find several helpful ideas here.

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