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Diagrams that changed the world

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A picture, the old adage goes, is worth 1,000 words. But in science a diagram can describe things that transcend the written word. A single image can convey the simple underlying pattern hidden by words or equations, says Marcus du Sautoy.

Draw the right picture and you can literally transform the way we see the world. But a diagram is more than just a physical representation of what we see with our eyes.

The power of a diagram is to crystallise a new way of seeing the world.

Often it requires throwing away information, focusing on what is essential. Other times it changes a scientific idea into a visual language providing a new map where the mathematics of geometry takes over and helps us to navigate the science at hand.

Copernicus certainly understood the power of a good picture. In his great opus De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium published shortly before his death in 1543, Copernicus takes 405 pages of words, numbers and equations to explain his heliocentric theory.

Nine circles

But it is the diagram that he draws at the beginning of the book that captures in a simple image his revolutionary new idea: it is the Sun that is at the centre of the Solar System, not the Earth.

His picture encapsulates some of the essential elements of the best diagrams. The concentric circles are not meant to describe the precise orbits of the planets.

Copernicus knew they weren't circles. The uniform distances between the circles aren't meant to tell you how far the planets are from the sun. Rather this picture conveys the simple yet shocking idea that we aren't at the centre of things. His diagram transformed our view of our place in the universe

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TAGGED: SCIENCE, TV


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