Guest Post: Cosmos, The Infographic Book of Space

This is a guest post by Dr Chris North, astronomer and prolific commented on this blog, about his book Cosmos, The Infographic Book of Space.

Over the years I’ve written a few popular science books, and it’s something I’ve enjoyed doing. So far they’ve always with a co-author (such as Sky at Night colleages Patrick Moore and Paul Abel), which is useful for sharing ideas – as well as spreading the workload! I think it’s fair to say that the book I’ve had most fun writing a book was Cosmos: The Infographic Book of Space, which was very different from the others.

I think it’s fair to say that the last decade or so has seen a huge increase in the public appreciation of science. Just look at David Attenborough’s TV programmes, the recent resurgence of Tomorrow’s World Live and the science programmes on radio and TV by the likes of Jim Al-Khalili and Helen Czerski.

One of the things we’ve got a lot better at, as scientists, is explaining our research to other people as well. Sure, the internet, including both the world wide web and social media etc., has helped with that, but also the increase in the visualisation of data has been important. For example, newspapers now aren’t afraid to print graphs or charts – though they still fall into many of the same pitfalls, such as suppressing the zeros on graphs.

In mid 2014, I was approached by a publisher to help write an infographic book about space. This was prompted by the success of David McCandless’s books “Knowledge is Beautiful” and “Information is Beautiful”. The idea was to create 100 infographics all about space and astronomy, with a short bit of text for each one. I got the impression that the publishers thought the hard bit would be the text, but in fact that’s relatively easy bit. Actually designing the infographics is the really hard part.

I teamed up with former astronomer (now web-developer and data visualiser) Stuart Lowe, who I knew had sufficient experience, expertise and passion for data. We’d worked together before, as part of the Planck Satellite mission, where we’d collaborated on Chromoscope – a simple interactive sky viewer which has since inspired amazing tools like ESA sky. For this project, we were joined by graphic designer Mark McCormick, who’d worked on infographics for publications like the Guardian.

It didn’t take us long to put together about 60 ideas for infographics. There were the basic ones – orbits of the planets, sizes of the planets, etc. – the kinds of things many children study at primary school. But we could also go into much more depth about space, astronomy and cosmology. We then had to go about collating data for all these infographics, which came from a variety of sources. Much of the information, such as the sizes of the planets, is publicly (and easily) available. Other types of information, such as details of galaxies, asteroids and comets, are stored in publicly accessible databases and could be extracted using code (much of which we wrote ourselves, using tools created by others).

Other information relied on using our contacts within the astronomy community to get access to data that wasn’t publicly available. We think we were the first people to publish the Planck polarised dust map (other than on the web) – we even had to get special dispensation for the publishers and graphic designers to be allowed to see the image before it was released!

I think it’s fair to say that Mark got a bit of a shock. Rather than a few datapoints, as are common in newpaper infographics, we were sending him hundreds, or thousands (sometimes even tens of thousands!) of things to plot on one page. That certainly wasn’t something that could be done by hand, so we had to write code to make the images – at least the bare bones. Using a combination of python and javascript languages, and the collaborative coding infrastructure GitHub, we were able to produce the designs for the more complex images – particularly when the placement of the items was critical. Mark was then able to adjust them as appropriate, apply the colour scheme, and generally make them look more impactful. For example, the colours are designed to be consistent within chapters, in order to give each section its own “identity”. However, there is also consistency (in terms of icons, colours etc.) throughout the book for things like the different wavelengths and the eight major planets. We had to push to increase the initial ranges, as colour is an important “axis” for conveying information in a book like this.

Developing all these aspects took time, and the kind of interaction that isn’t really possible via email, or even over video conferencing. Stuart took weekly trips to Newcastle to sit down with Mark and get each graphic started – at one point we had 60 on the go at the same time! For some we went backwards and forwards a few times, and there were even interactive web-based “test versions” that we could tweak to get the right parameters. Where possible, and appropriate, we used pre-existing tools such as Chromoscope and an adaptation of Stuart’s Virtual sky web-tool.

When you look at an infographic, there’s normally an immediate take-home message, or first impression. We tried to make some of them look like what they were – say what you see! So the solar flares are ordered in time around a circle, such that they look like solar flares, while the closest approaches of asteroids graphic looks like a bit like a radar screen. Others were more “arty”, with the space octopus depicting missions to other planets (preceded, in the book ,by a simpler version showing just lunar missions to get the reader accustomed to the type of plot).

We even discovered, or at least realised, new things ourselves. For example, the New General Catalogue (NGC to its friends) is numbered in order around the sky, so as you move through the catalogue you pass through the Galactic Plane, giving some structure to the types of objects you see.

What we ended up with was a sequence of 99 infographics (we sacrificed one for the very important credits page at the end!). Apart from a few sequences of graphics, I don’t think there are any two that are the same – a huge variety of plotting styles and designs (albeit with a similar style and colour scheme) hopefully make the end result interesting to look at. In the process we also ended up with a number of tools and resources that we’ve both used since in other projects – I’ve certainly used them in some of my other visualisation work, and also in teaching at university.

I think it’s fair to say that we’re very pleased with the result. There are some that we wish we’d had a bit more time to finesse, and we found a number of typos and errata (inevitable, but always frustrating). However, in the interests of openness, we decided to publish them. The reviews were very positive, as well, and the book was highly commended in the IOP 2016 Physics book of the year award. It’s been translated (to date, at least) into Japanese, French, Chinese, Korean and Taiwanese, and has sold something like 20,000 copies worldwide (many more than I’d have expected).

Given that we’d basically made interactive versions of lots of the infographics, it was relatively straightforward to make some of those available online. There are even some web-bonuses, such as “all 88 constellations and a timeline of human spaceflight. Since astronomy is an ever-moving field, certainly in areas such as space missions and asteroid discoveries, we decided to put a cut-off date of 1 January 2015 for all the data in the book itself, though we try (and mostly succeed) to keep some of the web-based versions up-to-date. I guess at some point we might need to consider publishing a second edition…