The presenter, who I'd never heard of at the time, was Edward Tufte, a statistician, of all things. I know!! I hate numbers!!! But this was one of those few times in my life that I was genuinely and pleasantly surprised -- when what I received actually exceeded my expectations -- and from which I left with more than I came.
There were two things that struck me hardest and have stuck with me to this day. One was this map of Napoleon's march on Russia in 1812, noted by Tufte as being “The best statistical graphic ever drawn," in his authoritative work The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.
The problem is that this graphic is just way too small. I saw it on a huge conference screen. I've also seen it framed and mounted on a wall, which is equally impressive and just as impactful. But at this size, it's just really hard to grasp the genius of the work.
"The chart, or statistical graphic, is also a map. It depicts the advance into (1812) and retreat from (1813) Russia by Napoleon’s Grande Armée, which was decimated by a combination of the Russian winter, the Russian army and its scorched-earth tactics.
As a statistical chart, the map unites six different sets of data:
- Geography: rivers, cities and battles are named and placed according to their occurrence on a regular map.
- The army’s course: the path’s flow follows the way in and out that Napoleon followed.
- The army’s direction: indicated by the colour of the path, gold leading into Russia, black leading out of it.
- The number of soldiers remaining: the path gets successively narrower, a plain reminder of the campaigns human toll, as each millimeter represents 10,000 men.
- Temperature: the freezing cold of the Russian winter on the return trip is indicated at the bottom, in the republican measurement of degrees of réaumur (water freezes at 0° réaumur, boils at 80° réaumur).
- Time: in relation to the temperature indicated at the bottom, from right to left, starting October 24th (pluie, i.e. ‘rain’) to December 7th (-27°).
The other visual explanation demonstration that resonated with me at the conference then and continues with me to this day (as I actually used it just this morning to help teach Impressionism to Chago's class of first-graders) was this mesmerizing mapping of Claude Debussy's Claire de Lune, which... still... just... captures... me.