When Numbers Bleed, Freeze, Starve And Die On A Battlefield: The Dark Poetry Of Data

May 16, 2014

I once read that when Napoleon invaded Russia, he lost most of his army not to the horrible Russian winter, horrible though it was. No, says this version, Napolean’s army suffered from “button failure.” The company that provided Napoleon’s army with coats made the buttons out of tin. Tin buttons, in very cold weather, get brittle and break. Too many soldiers couldn’t button their coats in subzero weather — so they died.

This story, it turns out, isn’t true (or, at least, is very, very improbable), but people keep telling it because it has obvious virtues: It’s vivid, it’s frightening, and it turns a very complicated, multi-layered drama into a short folktale that’s easy to tell. Like George Washington telling his dad, “I cannot tell a lie.” (Which is a lie; he never said that.) History is hard.

People like to embellish. We want to make the unknown knowable, even though we don’t really know why things happen as they do. Even when we are in the story, making the choices that will become history, we wonder why, in a particular moment, we chose x over y, this way instead of that way? Why do some soldiers fight ferociously one day, then flee the next? In Tolstoy’s War and Peace, his account of the Napoleonic invasion, all the players, high and low, end up inching their way blindly forward in the frightening cold. They once had grand plans, but now, swallowed by the battlefield, all they can do is try not to die. Death (“It”) is always waiting.

And with doom so fickle, so close, Tolstoy writes:

Nothing is without consequence, and nothing is important: It’s all the same in the end. The thing to do is to save myself from it all as best I can, thought Pierre. Not to see IT, that terrible IT.

Blind, frightened, terrified — this is where war stories begin. Only later, when we can pull back, get a little distance (as Tolstoy did in his novel, as the great historians do), does the shape of the drama becomes visible. History is what our stories look like after they’ve been sorted. It’s stories first, coherence later. But sometimes — very, very rarely — it can work the other way.

Charles Minard, a French civil engineer, created what many consider the greatest infographic ever made. You probably know of it. It’s also a description of Napoleon’s invasion. It has no people in it. No pictures. Nothing personal. It’s pure data, just an arrow running across a map and back again. But oh my, does it deliver. With nothing but numbers, it has the power of grand opera — there is blood, disease, hunger, cruelty, big and little mistakes, all sitting there on that map. I’d never read it so vividly on my own, but here, in the hands of James Grime, a mathematics professor at Cambridge University, it scorches. Who says data is dull?

James Grime is a mathematician and public speaker on behalf of the Millennium Mathematics Project from the University of Cambridge. This lecture appears on Brady Haran’s Numberphile, a video blog channel that features mathematical subjects. When not conducting research, teaching students or talking to Numberphile, James Grime can be found at singingbanana.com.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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