The Beauty of Information

Information today can be abstract, mundane, and impersonal since it has found its new home within the vast realm of technology. Numbers and code on a computer screen are preconceived notions that characterize the buzzword “big data” today if explained to casual onlookers and to the mainstream media. However, there was a time where information processing and acquisition was an art; a process that involved all of the body’s senses as one engaged with the world around them. Philosophically, we can turn to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden as he poetically explored his own mind by immersing himself in nature. Scientifically, we look to Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica and how his famous observations of the falling apple lead the triumphant scientific revolution. The University has its own masterpiece of artistic information located at the Hatcher Graduate Library. The piece is known as Birds of America by John James Audubon.

Birds of America is the most distinguished book at the University because it is the first book ever bought by the University. The book was purchased on February 5, 1938 for $970, before the University even had its first class or first building (Brown, 2009). The book is a massive (3-by-5 feet) and is kept in the appropriately named Audubon Room at the graduate library. The book was refurbished and cleaned before being displayed in the exhibit and is now displayed behind UV-protective glass to preserve its condition. The pages of the books are turned each week and each of the eight volumes is cycled every three months in order to prevent overexposure to light (Brown, 2009)[1].

ImageBirds of America is exactly what you might think; it is a catalog of birds observed by John Audubon in the United States. The book is a sophisticated combination between artistic renderings of each bird observed by Audubon and a written statement about the species following each illustration. It is an eclectic mixture of artistic beauty, poetic, detailed first-hand accounts of each bird, and empirical, scientific notes about each bird’s anatomy, dimensions, and in some cases dietary habits. Audubon describes his findings in such a way that it sparks the reader’s imagination and sense of awe. In one fell swoop, Audubon’s Birds of America reminds us all how beautiful information can be.[2]

It’s unfortunate that I was not able to see it when I visited the Hatcher Library this month. I will definitely revisit it in the future. However, you don’t have to see it in person to be reminded of how amazing the world is. There is so much that we still don’t know about ourselves, about others, about our species, about our world, and about the universe. “Big data” processing and acquisition is increasing at a phenomenal rate and sometimes we become lost in the midst of it all. You don’t have to look at a statistical output or scrape data off a website in order to acquire information. Look, listen, taste, smell, and feel the world around you, because beautiful information is all around you.

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