Napoleon’s Disastrous Invasion of Russia Detailed in an 1869 Data Visualization: It’s Been Called “the Best Statistical Graphic Ever Drawn”

It’s tempting to associate data visualizations with PowerPoint and online graphics, which have enabled an unheard-of capacity for disseminating full-color images. But the form reaches much further back in history. Further back, even, than the front pages of USA Today and glossy sidebars of Time and
Newsweek. In 1900, for example, W.E.B. Du Bois made impressive use of several full-color data visualizations for the First Pan-African Conference in London, with no access whatsoever to desktop publishing software or a laser printer.

Almost fifty years before Du Bois turned statistics into swirls of color and shape, Florence Nightingale used her little-known graphic design skills to illustrate the causes of disease in the Crimean War and John Snow (not Jon Snow) illustrated his revolutionary Broad Street Pump cholera theory with a famous infographic street map.




Around this same time, another data visualization pioneer, Charles Joseph Minard, produced some of the most highly-regarded infographics ever made, including the 1869 illustration above of Napoleon’s march to, and retreat from, Moscow in the War of 1812. View it in a large format here.

Made fifty years after the event, when Minard was 80 years old, the map has been called by the bible of data visualization studies—Edward Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information—“probably the best statistical graphic ever drawn.” Over at thoughtbot.com, Joanne Cheng sums up the context, if you needed a historical refresher: “The year is 1812 and Napoleon is doing pretty well for himself. He has most of Europe under his control, except for the UK.”

Angered by Czar Alexander’s refusal to support a UK trade embargo to weaken their defenses, Napoleon “gathers a massive army of over 400,000 to attack Russia.” The campaign was disastrous: overconfident advances on Moscow turned into devastating wintertime retreats during which the Grande Armée only “narrowly escaped complete annihilation.” So, how does Minard’s 1869 Tableau Graphique tell this grand story of hubris and icy carnage? And, Cheng asks, “what makes it so good?”

Cheng breaks Minard’s series of jagged lines and shapes down into more conventional XY axis line graphs to show how he coordinated a huge amount of information, including the locations (by longitude) of different groups of Napoleon’s troops at different points in time, their direction, and the precipitously falling temperatures in the stages of retreat. He drew from a list of the best historical sources he could consult at the time, turning dense prose into the spare, clean lines that set data scientists’ hearts a-flutter.

Minard began his career in a much more recognizably 19-century design field, building bridges, dams, and canals across Europe for the first few decades of the 1800s. As a civil engineer “he had the good fortune to take part in almost all the great questions of public works which ushered in our century,” noted an obituary published in Annals of Bridges and Roads the year after Minard’s death in 1870. “And during the twenty years of retirement, always au courant of the technical and economic sciences, he endeavored to popularize the most salient results.”

He did so by venturing outside the subject of engineering, while using the “innovative techniques he had invented for the purpose of displaying flows of people” on paper, writes Michael Sandberg at DataViz. In order to tell the tragic tale” of Napoleon’s crushing defeat “in a single image,” Minard imagined the event as a dynamic physical structure.

Minard’s chart shows six types of information: geography, time, temperature, the course and direction of the army’s movement, and the number of troops remaining. The widths of the gold (outward) and black (returning) paths represent the size of the force, one millimetre to 10,000 men. Geographical features and major battles are marked and named, and plummeting temperatures on the return journey are shown along the bottom.

This was hardly Minard’s first infographic. In fact, he made “scores of other graphics and charts,” National Geographic writes, “as well as nearly 50 maps. He pioneered several important thematic mapping techniques and perfected others, such as using flow lines on a map.” (See other examples of his work at National Geographic’s site.) Minard may not be much remembered for his infrastructure, but his ability, as his obituarist wrote, to turn “the dry and complicated columns of statistical data” into “images mathematically proportioned” has made him a legend in data science history circles.

Again, view Minard's visualization of Napoleon's failed invasion in a large format here.

Related Content:

Florence Nightingale Saved Lives by Creating Revolutionary Visualizations of Statistics (1855)

W.E.B. Du Bois Creates Revolutionary, Artistic Data Visualizations Showing the Economic Plight of African-Americans (1900)

Napoleon’s English Lessons: How the Military Leader Studied English to Escape the Boredom of Life in Exile

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Two Animated Maps Show the Expansion of the U.S. from the Different Perspectives of Settlers & Native Peoples

After John Ford, the history of U.S. expansion went by the name “How the West Was Won.” Decades earlier, in his essay “Annexation,” Jacksonian journalist John O’Sullivan famously coined the phrase “manifest destiny.” Historian Richard Slotkin called it “regeneration through violence” and novelist Cormac McCarthy summed up the jagged, ever-moving line of westward expansion from sea to sea with two words: Blood Meridian.

Indigenous versions of the story do not tend to enter common parlance in quite the same way, a fact upon which Vine Deloria, Jr. remarks in his “Indian Manifesto,” Custer Died for Your Sins. Violence is always central to the story. Usually the savagery of Native people is taken for granted. Savagery of settlers may be more or less emphasized. Yet the long history of land theft over the course of the centuries is also one of broken treaty after treaty.

Few tribes were defeated in war by the United States, but most sold some land and allowed the United States to hold the remainder in trust for them. In turn, the tribes acknowledged the sovereignty of the United States in preference to other possible sovereigns.

Caught between warring European empires, Indigenous nations made the best deals they could with the advancing U.S. and its army of Civil War veterans. “From this humble beginning the federal government stole some two billion acres of land and continues to take what it can without arousing the ire of the ignorant public.”




The brutality of the 19th century became professionalized, carried out by regulars in uniform, hence the detached language of “Indian wars.” These were followed by other kinds of violence: institutionalized paternalism, further encroachment and enclosure, and the forced removal of thousands of children from their parents and into reeducation camps.

The two maps you see here, with sweepingly broad visual gestures in gif form, illustrate the 19th century seizure of land across the North American continent from the perspective of a U.S. national history and that of an Indigenous multi-national history. The map at the top traces the story from the country's beginnings in the 13 colonies to the annexation, purchase, and finally statehood of Hawaii and Alaska in 1959.

The above map is more focused, spanning the years 1810 to 1891. As Nick Routley points out in a post at Visual Capitalist, “five of the largest expansion events in U.S. history” took place during the 1800s, though the first one he cites falls outside the timeline above. The 1803 Louisiana Purchase ended up acquiring what now makes up “nearly 25% of the current territory of the United States, stretching from New Orleans all the way up to Montana and North Dakota.”

Other notable events include the 1819 purchase of Florida from Spain by John Quincy Adams, the aforementioned purchase of Alaska from Russia, and the 1845 annexation of Texas. The Mexican-American War of 1848 gets less mention these days, though it expanded slavery and was quite hotly debated at the time by such principled figures as Henry David Thoreau, who refused to pay his poll tax over it and wrote “Civil Disobedience” while in jail.

In the so-called Mexican Cession, Texas became a state and “the United States took control of a huge parcel of land that includes the present-day states of California, Nevada, and Utah, as well as portions of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming.” Mexico, on the other hand, “saw the size of their territory halved.” After each seizure of territory, mass migrations westward commenced in wave upon wave.

Routely does not survey these migration events, but you can learn about them in accounts like Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s Indigenous People’s History of the United States and Deloria’s manifesto. When we approach the founding and expansion of the U.S. from multiple perspectives, both visual and historical, we understand why critical historians often use the phrase “settler colonialism” rather than “westward expansion” or its synonyms. And why the overused and limited phrase “nation of immigrants” might just as well be “nation of migrants.”

via Visual Capitalist

Related Content:

Interactive Map Shows the Seizure of Over 1.5 Billion Acres of Native American Land Between 1776 and 1887

Native Lands: An Interactive Map Reveals the Indigenous Lands on Which Modern Nations Were Built

The Atlantic Slave Trade Visualized in Two Minutes: 10 Million Lives, 20,000 Voyages, Over 315 Years

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

What Advice Would You Give Your Younger Self?: What Research Shows, and What You Have to Say

Photo of Dr. Esther Pohl Lovejoy via Wikimedia Commons

Almost everyone has advice they’d gladly give their younger self, so much so that Clemson University psychology professor Robin Kowalski and doctoral student Annie McCord, were moved to initiate a systematic study of it.

The first of its kind, this study compiled the responses of more than 400 participants over 30, whose hypothetical younger self's average age was 18.

The study’s data was culled from a survey conducted over Amazon’s crowdsourcing marketplace, MTurk. Respondents spent 45 minutes or so answering hypothetical questions online, receiving $3 for their efforts.




Money-grubbing, data-skewing shirkers were held at bay by question 36.

(Play along at home after the fact here.)

Kowalski and McCord’s findings, published in the bimonthly academic Journal of Social Psychology, echo many recurrent themes in their other survey of the same demographic, this one having to do with regret—the one that got away, blown educational opportunities, money squandered, and risks not taken.

Personality and situation figure in, of course, but overwhelmingly, the crowd-sourced advice takes aim at the fateful choices (or non-choices) of youth.

Some common pieces of advice include:

  • “Be kinder to yourself.”
  • “Always know your worth.”
  • “The world is bigger than you think it is and your worries aren't as important as you think they are, just be you.”
  • “Don't worry if you look different, or feel you look different, from most other people. There is much more to you than what others see on the surface.”
  • “Don’t get so caught up in the difficulties of the moment since they are only temporary.”
  • “Don’t dwell on the past. Just because it was that way doesn’t mean it will be that way again.”

There’s not much research to suggest how receptive the participants’ younger selves would have been to these unsolicited pearls of wisdom, but 65.7% of respondents report that they have implemented some changes as a result of taking Kowalksi and McCord’s survey.

Dr. Kowalski, who’s come to believe her “laser-focused on school” younger self would have benefited from some intervals of rose-smelling, writes that the better-late-than-never approach “can facilitate well-being and bring us more in line with the person that we would like to be should we follow that advice.”

If you want to double down, share your advice with children, preferably your own.

And for those who can’t rest easy til they’ve compared themselves with Oprah Winfrey:

Be relaxed

Stop being afraid

Everything will be alright

No surprise there.

READERS—WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE YOUR YOUNGER SELVES? Add your advice to the comments section below. (The author’s is somewhat unprintable…)

For inspiration, see the Advice to My Younger Self Survey Questions here and the related survey dealing with regret here.

via Big Think

Related Content:

Stephen Fry: What I Wish I Knew When I Was 18

The Top Five Regrets of the Dying

Bertrand Russell’s Advice For How (Not) to Grow Old: “Make Your Interests Gradually Wider and More Impersonal”

36 Artists Give Advice to Young Creators: Wim Wenders, Jonathan Franzen, Lydia Davis, Patti Smith, David Byrne, Umberto Eco & More

Brian Eno’s Advice for Those Who Want to Do Their Best Creative Work: Don’t Get a Job

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inkyzine.  Her monthly installment book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain, will resume in the fall. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Animations Visualize the Evolution of London and New York: From Their Creation to the Present Day

If you’ve ever lived in a metropolis like London or New York, you know the sometimes-disorienting feeling of experiencing several decades—or centuries—at once in the dizzying accretions of architecture, street, and park designs. Or, at least, if you’ve toured one of those cities with a longtime resident, you’ve heard them loudly complain about how everything has changed. Whether you study urban life as a historian or a city dweller, you know well that change is constant in the story of big cities.

The animations here illustrate the point on a grand scale, with a satellite’s-eye view of New York, above, from 1609 when the city was first built on Lenape land to its current configuration of five boroughs, dense thickets of high-rises, a massive, complex transportation system, and 8,600,000 residents. It ends with a quote from E.B. White that sums up the geography and vibrancy of Manhattan: “The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races, and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines.”




The New York video “animates the development of this city’s street grid and infrastructure systems,” writes its creator Myles Zhang at Here Grows New York City, “using geo-referenced road network data, historic maps, and geological surveys” to give us “cartographic snapshots” of every 20-30 years. Another project, the London Evolution Animation, uses similar techniques. But, of course, it reaches much further back in time, to over 2000 years ago when the Romans built the first road system across England and the port of Londinium.

Created in 2014, the visualization shows how the city evolved, “from its creation as a Roman city in 43AD to the crowded, chaotic megacity we see today.” As designers Flora Roumpani and Polly Hudson describe at The Guardian, the project drew from several sources, including the Museum of London Archaeology and the University of Cambridge’s engineering department. From these two institutions came “datasets from the Roman and Medieval periods as well as the 17th and early 18th centuries,” and “road network datasets from the late 18th century to today.”

Other archives offered information on the city’s historical buildings and monuments. Captions and a timeline provide a handy guide through its long history, as we watch more and more roads and buildings appear (and disappear after the Great Fire). These videos are useful references for students of urbanism, and they might give some perspective to the New Yorker or Londoner in your life who can’t stop talking about how much the city’s changed. Just imagine what these megacities could look like in another few hundred years.

Related Content:

See New York City in the 1930s and Now: A Side-by-Side Comparison of the Same Streets & Landmarks

Immaculately Restored Film Lets You Revisit Life in New York City in 1911

The London Time Machine: Interactive Map Lets You Compare Modern London, to the London Shortly After the Great Fire of 1666

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How to Take a Picture of a Black Hole: Watch the 2017 Ted Talk by Katie Bouman, the MIT Grad Student Who Helped Take the Groundbreaking Photo

What triggered the worst impulses of the Internet last week?

The world's first photo of a black hole, which proved the presence of troll life here on earth, and confirms that female scientists, through no fault of their own, have a much longer way to go, baby.

If you want a taste, sort the comments on the two year old TED Talk, above, so they're ordered  "newest first."

Katie Bouman, soon-to-be assistant professor of computing and mathematical sciences at the California Institute of Technology, was a PhD candidate at MIT two years ago, when she taped the talk, but she could've passed for a nervous high schooler competing in the National Science Bowl finals, in clothes borrowed from Aunt Judy, who works at the bank.




The focus of her studies were the ways in which emerging computational methods could help expand the boundaries of interdisciplinary imaging.

Prior to last week, I’m not sure how well I could have parsed the focus of her work had she not taken the time to help less STEM-inclined viewers such as myself wrap our heads around her highly technical, then-wholly-theoretical subject.

What I know about black holes could still fit in a thimble, and in truth, my excitement about one being photographed for the first time pales in comparison to my excitement about Game of Thrones returning to the airwaves.

Fortunately, we’re not obligated to be equally turned on by the same interests, an idea theoretical physicist Richard Feynman promoted:

I've always been very one-sided about science and when I was younger I concentrated almost all my effort on it. I didn't have time to learn and I didn't have much patience with what's called the humanities, even though in the university there were humanities that you had to take. I tried my best to avoid somehow learning anything and working at it. It was only afterwards, when I got older, that I got more relaxed, that I've spread out a little bit. I've learned to draw and I read a little bit, but I'm really still a very one-sided person and I don't know a great deal. I have a limited intelligence and I use it in a particular direction.

I'm pretty sure my lack of passion for science is not tied to my gender. Some of my best friends are guys who feel the same. (Some of them don't like team sports either.)

But I couldn't help but experience a wee thrill that this young woman, a science nerd who admittedly could’ve used a few theater nerd tips regarding relaxation and public speaking, realized her dream—an honest to goodness photo of a black hole just like the one she talked about in her TED Talk,  "How to take a picture of a black hole."

Bouman and the 200+ colleagues she acknowledges and thanks at every opportunity, achieved their goal, not with an earth-sized camera but rather a network of linked telescopes, much as she had described two years earlier, when she invoked disco balls, Mick Jagger, oranges, selfies, and a jigsaw puzzle in an effort to help people like me understand.

Look at that sucker (or, more accurately, its shadow!) That thing’s 500 million trillion kilometers from Earth!

(That's much farther than King's Landing is from Winterfell.)

I’ll bet a lot of elementary science teachers, be they male, female, or non-binary, are going to make science fun by having their students draw pictures of the picture of the black hole.

If we could go back (or forward) in time, I can almost guarantee that mine would be among the best because while I didn’t “get” science (or gym), I was a total art star with the crayons.

Then, crafty as Lord Petyr Baelish when presentation time rolled around, I would partner with a girl like Katie Bouman, who could explain the science with winning vigor. She genuinely seems to embrace the idea that it “takes a village,” and that one’s fellow villagers should be credited whenever possible.

(How did I draw the black hole, you ask? Honestly, it's not that much harder than drawing a doughnut. Now back to Katie!)

Alas, her professional warmth failed to register with legions of Internet trolls who began sliming her shortly after a colleague at MIT shared a beaming snapshot of her, taken, presumably, with a regular old phone as the black hole made its debut. That pic cemented her accidental status as the face of this project.

Note to the trolls—it wasn't a dang selfie.

“I’m so glad that everyone is as excited as we are and people are finding our story inspirational,’’ Bouman told The New York Times. “However, the spotlight should be on the team and no individual person. Focusing on one person like this helps no one, including me.”

Although Bouman was a junior team member, she and other grad students made major contributions. She directed the verification of images, the selection of imaging parameters, and authored an imaging algorithm that researchers used in the creation of three scripted code pipelines from which the instantly-famous picture was cobbled together.

As Vincent Fish, a research scientist at MIT's Haystack Observatory told CNN:

One of the insights Katie brought to our imaging group is that there are natural images. Just think about the photos you take with your camera phone—they have certain properties.... If you know what one pixel is, you have a good guess as to what the pixel is next to it.

Hey, that makes sense.

As The Verge’s science editor, Mary Beth Griggs, points out, the rush to defame Bouman is of a piece with some of the non-virtual realities women in science face:

Part of the reason that some posters found Bouman immediately suspicious had to do with her gender. Famously, a number of prominent men like disgraced former CERN physicist Alessandro Strumia have argued that women aren’t being discriminated against in science — they simply don’t like it, or don’t have the aptitude for it. That argument fortifies a notion that women don’t belong in science, or can’t really be doing the work. So women like Bouman must be fakes, this warped line of thinking goes…

Even I, whose 7th grade science teacher tempered a bad grade on my report card by saying my interest in theater would likely serve me much better than anything I might eek from her class, know that just as many girls and women excel at science, technology, engineering, and math as excel in the arts. (Sometimes they excel at both!)

(And power to every little boy with his sights set on nursing, teaching, or ballet!)

(How many black holes have the haters photographed recently?)

Griggs continues:

Saying that she was part of a larger team doesn’t diminish her work, or minimize her involvement in what is already a history-making project. Highlighting the achievements of a brilliant, enthusiastic scientist does not diminish the contributions of the other 214 people who worked on the project, either. But what it is doing is showing a different model for a scientist than the one most of us grew up with. That might mean a lot to some kids — maybe kids who look like her — making them excited about studying the wonders of the Universe.

via BoingBoing

Related Content:

Women’s Hidden Contributions to Modern Genetics Get Revealed by New Study: No Longer Will They Be Buried in the Footnotes

New Augmented Reality App Celebrates Stories of Women Typically Omitted from U.S. History Textbooks

Stephen Hawking (RIP) Explains His Revolutionary Theory of Black Holes with the Help of Chalkboard Animations

Watch a Star Get Devoured by a Supermassive Black Hole

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in New York City tonight for the next installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

A Visualization of the United States’ Exploding Population Growth Over 200 Years (1790 – 2010)

The U.S. is barely even an adolescent compared to many other countries around the world. Yet it ranks third, behind China and India, in population. How did the country go, in a little over 200 years, from 6.1 people per square mile in 1800 to 93 per square mile today? We’ve previously featured maps of how the real estate came on the market. And we’ve brought you a map that tells the locations and stories of the peoples who used to live there. The map above takes a different approach, showing population density growth from 1790 to 2010, in numbers based on Census records.

Originally appearing on Vivid Maps, the animated timeline contains no information about the how, who, or why of things. But we know that since it only accounts for those who were counted, the numbers of people actually living within the borders is often much higher. “Not only did the population boom as a result of births and immigrants,” writes Jeff Desjardins at the site Visual Capitalist, “but the borders of the country kept changing as well.” This change, and the fact that indigenous people were not recorded, leads to an interesting visualization of westward expansion from the point of view of the settlers.




As Desjardins notes, the state of Oklahoma appears as an “empty gap” on the map in the late-1800s, lightly shaded while its borders are surrounded by dark brown. This is because “the area was originally designated as Indian Territory…. However, in 1889, the land was opened up to a massive land rush, and approximately 50,000 pioneers lined up to grab a piece of the two million acres opened for settlement.” Thousands of the people living there had already, of course, been pushed off their land during the decades-long “Trail of Tears.” The question of who “exactly is counted as a whole person?” comes up in the comments on Visual Capitalist post, another key consideration for understanding this data in its proper context.

The ways people have been categorized are products of contemporary biases, political attitudes, and legal and social discriminations. These attitudes are not incidental to the populating of the country, but materially integral. As we see the massive, yet hugely uneven, spread of people across the expanding country, we might be given the impression that it constitutes a unified surge of expansion and development, when the historical reality, of course, is anything but. Of the many questions we can ask of this data, “who fully counted as an American during each of these periods and why or why not?” might be one of the most relevant, in 1790 and today. Or, if you’d rather just watch the map fill up with sepia and burnt umber pixels, to the tune of some martial-sounding drum & bass, watch the video above.

via Visual Capitalist

Related Content:

Native Lands: An Interactive Map Reveals the Indigenous Lands on Which Modern Nations Were Built

Interactive Map Shows the Seizure of Over 1.5 Billion Acres of Native American Land Between 1776 and 1887

A Radical Map Puts the Oceans–Not Land–at the Center of Planet Earth (1942)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

M.I.T. Computer Program Alarmingly Predicts in 1973 That Civilization Will End by 2040

In 1704, Isaac Newton predicted the end of the world sometime around (or after, "but not before") the year 2060, using a strange series of mathematical calculations. Rather than study what he called the “book of nature,” he took as his source the supposed prophecies of the book of Revelation. While such predictions have always been central to Christianity, it is startling for modern people to look back and see the famed astronomer and physicist indulging them. For Newton, however, as Matthew Stanley writes at Science, “laying the foundation of modern physics and astronomy was a bit of a sideshow. He believed that his truly important work was deciphering ancient scriptures and uncovering the nature of the Christian religion.”

Over three hundred years later, we still have plenty of religious doomsayers predicting the end of the world with Bible codes. But in recent times, their ranks have seemingly been joined by scientists whose only professed aim is interpreting data from climate research and sustainability estimates given population growth and dwindling resources. The scientific predictions do not draw on ancient texts or theology, nor involve final battles between good and evil. Though there may be plagues and other horrible reckonings, these are predictably causal outcomes of over-production and consumption rather than divine wrath. Yet by some strange fluke, the science has arrived at the same apocalyptic date as Newton, plus or minus a decade or two.




The “end of the world” in these scenarios means the end of modern life as we know it: the collapse of industrialized societies, large-scale agricultural production, supply chains, stable climates, nation states…. Since the late sixties, an elite society of wealthy industrialists and scientists known as the Club of Rome (a frequent player in many conspiracy theories) has foreseen these disasters in the early 21st century. One of the sources of their vision is a computer program developed at MIT by computing pioneer and systems theorist Jay Forrester, whose model of global sustainability, one of the first of its kind, predicted civilizational collapse in 2040. “What the computer envisioned in the 1970s has by and large been coming true,” claims Paul Ratner at Big Think.

Those predictions include population growth and pollution levels, “worsening quality of life,” and “dwindling natural resources.” In the video at the top, see Australia's ABC explain the computer’s calculations, “an electronic guided tour of our global behavior since 1900, and where that behavior will lead us,” says the presenter. The graph spans the years 1900 to 2060. "Quality of life" begins to sharply decline after 1940, and by 2020, the model predicts, the metric contracts to turn-of-the-century levels, meeting the sharp increase of the “Zed Curve" that charts pollution levels. (ABC revisited this reporting in 1999 with Club of Rome member Keith Suter.)

You can probably guess the rest—or you can read all about it in the 1972 Club of Rome-published report Limits to Growth, which drew wide popular attention to Jay Forrester’s books Urban Dynamics (1969) and World Dynamics (1971). Forrester, a figure of Newtonian stature in the worlds of computer science and management and systems theory—though not, like Newton, a Biblical prophecy enthusiast—more or less endorsed his conclusions to the end of his life in 2016. In one of his last interviews, at the age of 98, he told the MIT Technology Review, “I think the books stand all right.” But he also cautioned against acting without systematic thinking in the face of the globally interrelated issues the Club of Rome ominously calls “the problematic”:

Time after time … you’ll find people are reacting to a problem, they think they know what to do, and they don’t realize that what they’re doing is making a problem. This is a vicious [cycle], because as things get worse, there is more incentive to do things, and it gets worse and worse.

Where this vague warning is supposed to leave us is uncertain. If the current course is dire, “unsystematic” solutions may be worse? This theory also seems to leave powerfully vested human agents (like Exxon's executives) wholly unaccountable for the coming collapse. Limits to Growth—scoffed at and disparagingly called “neo-Malthusian” by a host of libertarian critics—stands on far surer evidentiary footing than Newton’s weird predictions, and its climate forecasts, notes Christian Parenti, “were alarmingly prescient.” But for all this doom and gloom it’s worth bearing in mind that models of the future are not, in fact, the future. There are hard times ahead, but no theory, no matter how sophisticated, can account for every variable.

via Big Think

Related Content:

In 1704, Isaac Newton Predicts the World Will End in 2060

A Century of Global Warming Visualized in a 35 Second Video

A Map Shows What Happens When Our World Gets Four Degrees Warmer: The Colorado River Dries Up, Antarctica Urbanizes, Polynesia Vanishes

It’s the End of the World as We Know It: The Apocalypse Gets Visualized in an Inventive Map from 1486

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

« Go BackMore in this category... »
Quantcast