Data, Data Everywhere

Only 150 years ago a major obstacle for scientists was the lack of data. Without data, the results of measured observations and experiments, it was hard to test any theory. Now there’s so much data scientists even have trouble storing it, let alone using it.

At the International Health Exhibition in 1885 Francis Galton (1822-1911 and Charles Darwin’s eccentric cousin) began his mobile drop-in centre to measure visitors’ head size and (proxy) IQ. The resulting data were kept in notebooks.

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Fifty years later the analogue data of musical recordings were stored on shellac gramophone discs.

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Artists seem to approach these problems very differently to scientists. Or are they so different? Next week the Festival for Art, Technology and Society at Linz in Switzerland gives transparency to some of the issues involved.

One is found HR Giger’s art of biomechanics from 50 years ago. The data are loaded into a series of powerful symbols which in turn lead to very clear and simple objectives. At a stroke, the whole complex process of data acquisition, storage and usage is achieved with your own interpretaion:

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Necronom 1976 (an alien designed to remember)         Birth Machine 1968 (a womb in a pistol)

Even more mechanistically the latest idea to store data is published on-line in Nature, 23 January 2013. Nick Goldman et al show it is possible to store large amounts of digital data in specially synthesised DNA, and that requires very low maintenance.

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Already Goldman has stored more data than anyone has done before. Biological evolution has taken billions of years to test the technology so it can be expected to be the most reliable of all known methods. But the more subjective world of the artists at Linz still have important things to say – a for us to feel in our own ways.