Painting with data

Tabletop Whale's gorgeous visualization work

The Moon, by Tabletop Whale

“The Moon”, by Tabletop Whale.

I love the work of Tabletop Whale, also known as Eleanor Lutz. A multi-talented Ph.D. student in biology and also a graphic designer, she uses publicly-available datasets to construct beautiful maps, diagrams, and visualizations.

Her recent topographic maps of the Moon and Mars remind me of the kind of hand-drawn maps you might find printed on the endpapers of old science-fiction books, but they contain no speculation - no alien cities or dragons. They show, instead, accurate and meticulous snapshots of current human knowledge, assembled from thousands of data points and a lot of Python code. Her code is open-source and, often, she even includes in-depth tutorials for reconstructing her visualizations.

What especially strikes me about her work is that it depicts enormous complexity and appears to omit no detail, but it’s so visually coherent and carefully crafted that you can understand it at a glance: “that’s a map of the Moon”. But if you stop and look closer, you’ll find that you can stare for hours without exhausting its intricacies.

Each piece has a clear and simple visual language: a set of rules that apply from the largest feature to the smallest detail. This repetition and consistency makes it easy to learn how to “read” each piece quickly. The design system extends to the lovely typography in her notes and legends at the bottom of many of her compositions. Despite their density, the consistent hierarchy, careful grid formatting, and lovely art-deco display type make them as enjoyable to read as the rest of the maps are to look at.

Being married to an engineer has given me a lot of opportunities to appreciate the common ground between science, technology, and the visual arts. I suppose that common ground could best be described as a sense of wonder. Artists and scientists alike spend their time looking at things really closely, and I suppose we are each inspired by the realizations that follow: the vastness of the universe, its staggering complexity, its frequent strangeness, and our own smallness in the midst of it all.

I feel the same sense of wonder when I pore over Tabletop Whale’s work, all the more because it’s equal parts art and science. Each piece is generated from data, but it amounts to quite a bit more than that: it adds up to something that gets the imagination going.