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Science

R.I.P. Hans Rosling: Goodbye King of Data

Colorful statistics, jumping bubbles - the Swedish professor entertained us with presentations that were more entertaining than any theater play. Rosling explained the world's problems with ease.

Data-Guru Hans Rosling died on February 7, 2017. His organization Gapminder sent out a tweet with the information late Tuesday evening Swedish time.

Rosling was a scientist who made an art form out of explaining the world to us while never losing his hope for humanity.

Rosling's relatives explained the circumstances of the professor's death: He was suffering from pancreatic cancer - a very treacherous form of tumor. Rosling was diagnosed with the disease roughly one year ago. The statistics expert, who was teaching international health at the Karolinska-Institute in Stockholm, lost the fight against the tumor at the age of 68. He spent his last day with his family in Uppsala.

His son Ola Rosling and daughter-in-law Anna Rosling Rönnlund acknowledged that the message must have come unexpected and saddened many of his fans. But they asked to respect the family's privacy and promised to continue Roslings mission:

"Hans is no longer alive, but he will always be with us and his dream of fact-based worldview, we will never let die!," they wrote.

On social media, people reacted slowly to the tragic news. There were no agency reports, no breaking news - just a few tweets.  

While scrolling through his last tweets, I notice how Hans Rosling's death also touches me. This is probably because I don't only know him from his legendary TED-talks and from videos on youtube, but had an opportunity to meet him in person at the 2014 Lindau Nobel Laureate's meeting.

During the meeting - right after his presentation during the opening session - I admit I lost all journalistic distance. While I was sitting across from him and recording my interview, his wife was scurrying around us, until he asked her to leave, "so the recording would turn out alright without all that background noise."

Getting rid of frustration 

Then he let off steam and told me - in what felt like an endless flow of words - what a sobering experience his presentation was. Sobering to him, not to his captivated audience. He was surprised how little the young scientists and even some of the Nobel laureates knew of the world.

At the same time I was relieved to get a break from asking my own questions. I was humbled: I would have hardly scored any better in the presentation, which he designed as a quiz. But I was also speechless about the torrent of numbers and data coming at me.

Rosling must be an extraordinary talent, I hoped, with a passion for statistics that I simply did not have. "Wrong," he countered. Alright then.

People before data

The only course in statistics he ever took was a semester-long class after med school, he said. It wasn't the numbers and figures that interested him, but the people behind them.

"The data is only a way to understand how life really is," he explained.

Hans Rosling at the Nobel Laureates meeting in Lindau 2014 (DW/H. Fuchs)

Looking above the rim of his glasses: "That makes me look ten years older, but 100 times more clever" he said.

The one thing Rosling could not explain very well is how he came to be an Edutainer. That's what he called himself. "It was by pure accident", he said. Rosling liked telling stories at school. Maybe he had a gift for it.

No do-gooder

And he used this gift well. After his studies he spent two decades in Africa, researching and giving lectures about economic development, agriculture, health and poverty - not only focusing on Africa. He also served as an advisor for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

I asked him whether he thought it would be possible to make the world a better place. Rosling smiled and said that wasn't his intention. "It's a bit much to demand", he said and added that he just wanted to correct the way people look at the world. 

It's the way he produced his message on stage that won him the admiration of many data geeks and statisticians.

And he received countless prizes and medals for his work. 2012 he even landed on the list of the "Times" 100 most influential people in the world. These are not little facts he drops in conversation, but details a journalist comes across when preparing for an interview. A real Rosling fan, of course, will know this by heart.

A family affair

Rosling noted that the idea for his presentations came from his family. It was in 1998 when his son Ola together with Anna programmed the first version of movable bubbles - to enhance the university lectures of the medicine professor and make them more attractive and easy to understand.

So it was the son and daughter-in-law who developed the Ferrari. "Im just driving it," Rosling said and laughed. The concept developed into a foundation named Gapminder: a project to support free information and knowledge.

Looking ahead

In the interview I did with Rosling in 2014, he also showed a private side. All of a sudden, the giant numbers and dimensions from the presentation shrank in size.

"My grandkids will live until the next century. I am never talking about anything abstract. I am talking about my loved ones. It's all about their future," he told me at the end of our conversation.

Abstract you never were, Hans. You could not have explained yourself in a better way to us. Let your message - along with your jumping bubbles and colorful statistics - continue to inspire us to go through the world with open eyes.