Return Home

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

Friday, May 16, 2014 - 01:00 PM

Vasily Vereshchagin/Wikimedia Commons 

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 legend, Napoleon's army suffered from "button failure." The company that provided the 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.

Roger Viollet Collection/Getty Images

This story, it turns out, probably 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, multilayered 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 almost certainly 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 are 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 CambridgeThis lecture appears on Brady Haran's Numberphile, a video blog channel that features mathematical subjectsWhen not conducting research, teaching students or talking to Numberphile, James Grime can be found at



More in:

Comments [4]

Brent from Vermont

Another interesting, and less apocryphal facet of the data revealed by this graph, and described in Richard Riehn's book, is that it was largely the Russian summer, rather than the Winter, that accounted for most of the attrition losses. By the time the Grande Armee arrived @ Borodino, over half the army had evaporated. The retreat the following winter simply scrubbed out the remnants of a shattered force. The Russians, by the way, fared little better.

Jun. 02 2014 02:28 PM
Janine Calvert from Haiku, Maui

Didn't history repeat itself when Adolf Hitler marched into Russia, with the same result? Has anyone tackeled that infographic? Why do men insist on going to war in the first place? Wouldn't it be easier if everyone simply practiced birth control?

May. 23 2014 02:05 PM
Rob Kosman from Boston

We need to give credit to Edward Tufte who has been spreading the gospel of good data display and infographics. I learned about this many years ago attending his seminar - and was so impressed I purchased my own copy at that time.

Nothing against James Grime, but I would hope that RadioLab gives credit to the one person who truly drove the field of data display and infographics - I'll never forget his delightful rants against bad data display and his use of the data:ink as a key metric for the quality of a data display.

May. 21 2014 10:47 PM
Andrew from Brooklyn, NY

Yes, this is an amazing piece of multi-dimensional data display, but I've become partial to this little piece of colored pencil-based graphic design done by a US Army bureaucrat back in 1943 that also shows the march of an army, though through an interesting proxy:

May. 21 2014 04:15 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Supported by