The Carbon Map and Data Visualization

By Mark Trodden | March 29, 2012 5:36 am

How best to represent data is a question that physicists spend a lot of time thinking about. While theorists like myself are not the primary examples of this, I do find it striking when I stumble upon an example of data visualization that gets the pertinent facts across in a significantly clearer way than I’ve seen before.

For a terrific example of this, see the Carbon Map. The idea of Cartograms has been around for a while, of course, and in particular, I recall them being used extensively here in the US to represent the voting tendencies of regions of the country in the lead up to the 2008 presidential election. For example, here’s one in which the sizes of counties have been rescaled according to their population.

What is nice about the Carbon Map is that it is an animated cartogram, in which one can choose different datasets and have the world map dynamically rescale to represent the new data. The screen shot below is of the scaling of areas by population, but as you can see there are other possibilities.

Obviously, this example (the first I’ve seen) is meant to get across a particular point, but that isn’t what I’m discussing here. What impressed me is the clarity and power of representing the data in this way. I’m sure there are many other ways in which this technique would be useful, some of them in physics and astronomy.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science, Science and the Media
  • Bee

    Looks like a dead fish to me.

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  • Mark Trodden

    It didn’t to me Bee, but now that’s all I can see!

  • Naught

    The second map is very interesting. I had not been aware that Alaska has a larger population than Canada.

    • Sean Carroll

      Alaska is not (yet) it’s own country. Still part of the United States.

  • Robin Houston

    Thanks Mark. I definitely hope this sort of visualisation will have other scientific applications, and we’ve already started to think about a couple of potential ones.

    A different connection to physics, of course, is that the Gastner-Newman algorithm we used to generate the distorted maps is essentially a physical simulation, using a numerical solution to the diffusion equation to equalise density (e.g. population density in the example you showed above).

    If anyone has an idea for an interesting scientific application, we’d love to hear from you at

  • Dimitra

    Ahahahha! A dead fish xD

    I can’t see a map in the first picture. The second, though, is quite good.

    Data Visualization is a difficult field, even for a
    freelance designer like me. I hope I’ll gain a little more experience, as the time goes on.

    Cartograms are becoming more and more popular, as it seems.

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Cosmic Variance

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About Mark Trodden

Mark Trodden holds the Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Endowed Chair in Physics and is co-director of the Center for Particle Cosmology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a theoretical physicist working on particle physics and gravity— in particular on the roles they play in the evolution and structure of the universe. When asked for a short phrase to describe his research area, he says he is a particle cosmologist.


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