Visualization of the Week: 138 Years of Popular Science

Data artist Jer Thorp visualized the Popular Science archive.

Jer Thorp (@blprnt), the data artist in-residence for The New York Times, was recently asked by Popular Science to create a visualization that represents the magazine’s 138-year archive. In a blog post, Thorp describes his process and the eventual outcome: a visualization that “is anchored by a kind of molecular chain.”

Screenshot of the Popular Science archive visualization
Screenshot of the Popular Science archive visualization (click to enlarge).

The chain is surrounded by a word-frequency histogram that depicts usage issue by issue. The changing usage and vocabulary, no surprise, highlights the changing technology itself. For example, “microcomputer” gave way to “email.”

Thorp writes:

Picking out interesting words from all of the available choices (pretty much the entire dictionary) was a tricky part of the process. I built a custom tool in Processing that pre-visualized the frequency plots of each word so that I could go through many, many possibilities and identify the ones that would be interesting to include in the final graphic. This is a really common approach for me to take — building small tools during the process of a project that help me solve specific problems. For this visualization, I actually ended up writing 4 tools in Processing — only one of which contributed visually to the final result.

You can see more of the images of this visualization in Thorp’s Flickr account.

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