Tuesday, April 20, 2010


I was first hit over the head by the concept of visual explanations at a seminar I went to in Seattle about 6 years ago when a co-worker was unable to attend.

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°).
Pause a moment to ponder the horrific human cost represented by this map: Napoleon entered Russia with 442,000 men, took Moscow with only 100,000 men left, wandered around its abandoned ruins for some time and escaped the East’s wintry clutches with barely 10,000 shivering soldiers. Those include 6,000 rejoining the ‘bulk’ of the army from up north. Napoleon never recovered from this blow, and would be decisively beaten at Waterloo under two years later." (Thanks to StrangeMaps for this most excellent summation.)

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.


growingupartists said...

Very relaxing tuneage, I could listen to that (with graphics) all day! Neat stastical chart, never heard of it before. Interesting!!

JO ANNA GUERRA (of The Adventures of Saia and Chago) said...

There's a channel on YouTube called The Music Animation Machine (I think), and there are a ton of similar visual representations of a variety of classical music. :)