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The best science infographics make data digestible, accessible and visually appealing, without skimping on the relevant facts. Some are for scientists, organizing massive amounts of data in a way that’s powerfully useful; while others are designed for a lay audience, illustrating complex concepts simply, like the science behind the Higgs Boson or evolution. It’s in this latter category that science infographics are making the most obvious widespread impact.
Here are five science infographics for non-scientists that will change the way you see the world.
The Scale of the Universe
Visiting the Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History in New York City can be a life-changing experience. Their keystone exhibit – a giant spiraling timeline of everything – makes scale astoundingly accessible. Using models, the viewer experiences the infinitude of an atom and the enormity of a galaxy. By the end, the size of the space inside the viewer’s head is the size of the universe.
Scale is inherently difficult to comprehend. We live in a macro world and most of the time we’re imprisoned by the size and scope of our bodies. But sometimes, a truly ingenious exhibit or (in the case of the interactive infographic below) a graphic representation, can demolish the walls around our puny little minds. And understanding scale is such a fundamental part of science appreciation. Why is it amazing that we have a rover on Mars? Because Mars is so incredibly far away. Why should I be impressed that we understand atoms and quantum theory? Because something that small should be completely incomprehensible to a human being. The achievements of science are never more obvious than when the scale of the universe is understood. (To view the interactive infographic below, click on the image.)
The Wonderful World of Energy
Energy: the life force. Without it, we’d be inanimate nothings. We wouldn’t have cells that generate new tissue or minds that fire signals from neuron to neuron. We wouldn’t have sunlight to warm us or to feed our plants. We wouldn’t have plants. Life depends on energy. Motion depends on energy. And, on a less fundamental level, our lifestyles depend on energy too. Having a basic understanding of energy – what it is, how it works, and why it’s important – should be something we all aspire to. The below infographic is an excellent place to start.
Global Warming is a Fact
There are thousands of infographics on global warming floating around on the Internet. They explain what it is, why it’s happening, how we can fix it, and what the costs will be if we don’t. And yet, the debate over whether or not climate change is actually real and happening rages on. There is an overwhelming scientific consensus surrounding this issue, but a vocal and unscientific minority continues to confuse large portions of the population. When every person’s vote, consumer choices, and lifestyle directly impact the state of the planet, this kind of misinformation is extremely dangerous and woefully irresponsible. Not believing in climate change is akin to not believing in gravity or evolution. Good, reproducible science is the closest we can get to fact.
The below infographic doesn’t explain global warming. It doesn’t include emotional depictions of stranded polar bears or sinking islands. Instead, it simply illustrates the reality of scientific consensus by comparing the number of organizations who stand by climate change with the number that deny it. When it comes to convincing the non-scientist quickly and efficiently, this infographic may just do the trick, no attention span required.
The Elements According to Relative Abundance
Most of us are familiar with the periodic table: that immensely useful infographic that illustrates the relationship between all of the elements on earth. But including a periodic table seemed like cheating. It is, of course, one of the most important infographics ever created, but the non-scientist doesn’t necessarily understand the connections inherent in the design. For the layman, the below infographic does a better job of communicating an important truth. Namely, how much of each element there is on the planet, in the air, and in the atmosphere. If you’ve had a chemistry class, you may appreciate that each element is color coded according to electronegativity. And a nice bonus: this infographic is also a stunning piece of graphic art.
The Great Tree of Life
If you didn’t pay attention in biology class, the vastness of life on Earth may feel completely overwhelming. How are sharks and plants related? What about humans and algae? Even accepting the idea that life forms are linked by common ancestors may seem strange and far fetched. The below infographic illustrates the tree of life in attractive detail, using colors to depict lineages. It manages to include a straightforward timeline as well, one that doesn’t confuse the image. This is something museum curators and textbook illustrators have been trying (unsuccessfully) to do for decades. Well done, Leonard Eisenberg!
Anni Murray is a writer, editor, multimedia artist, amateur mycologist, and biology student. She is currently working on Prism, a speculative science fiction story cycle. Follow her on Twitter.