Today, we count our dead. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
This new year of 2002 finds us at
war once again. I suppose that's why science writer Brian
Hayes has chosen to talk about the books of early
twentieth-century scientist Lewis Fry Richardson.
Richardson was a Quaker who quit his job as a
meteorologist to drive ambulances in WW-I. After that, he
decided that it was time for a cold-blooded look at war.
He asked: how often do we fight, and how many people do
we kill? Viewed as detached data, how do wars fit into
the overall fabric of things?
He realized that, just as earthquakes and gales must be
ranked logarithmically, so too must wars. His measure of
the magnitude of the death toll in war was the number of
digits to the right of the first digit in the number.
(That's what someone mathematically-inclined would call
the order of magnitude of the death toll.) Thus a war of
magnitude five leaves a hundred thousand dead. World Wars
One and Two were both over magnitude seven, killing tens
of millions each. A conflict of magnitude one would kill
only ten or so people.
Richardson was surely being provocative when he included
wars of magnitude zero in his categories. That
would reflect a conflict that killed only one person --
more commonly called a murder.
But, when we look at Richardson's data, we find that
numbers for murders blend right in with those for war.
Suppose you plotted the total number of conflicts of each
magnitude. So far, the two World Wars have been the only
ones of magnitude seven. That number rises
exponentially as the magnitude decreases until it reaches
around ten million conflicts of magnitude zero.
However, the number of deaths from conflicts of any
magnitude is up in the millions. So far, murders have
killed about as many people as world wars have.
Richardson's background in math was strong, and he put
his math to use. His was no casual exercise in
data-keeping. One of his books, Arms and
Insecurity, is awfully rich for the diet of anyone
who doesn't have a graduate degree in math.
Yet he created a field that's being carried on by others
today. And the data give us a lot to think about. Among
conflicts that kill over five thousand people, most, by
far, occur among neighbors. The eighteenth century, when
Great Britain was strongest, was also when the world
suffered the fewest wars -- about thirty each decade. In
the years around the turn of the twentieth century, that
worsened to nearly a hundred wars each decade. Other data
show that war occurs with remarkable randomness.
In one of his book prefaces, Richardson likens his work
to that of an engineer writing on dynamics. What's the
connection between a book on dynamics, and engineering
design, he asks? The answer is that, while dynamics won't
help you design anything, you'd better not try designing
any machine without knowing it.
Richardson doesn't presume to tell politicians how to
stay out of war -- only that they need to understand the
forces surrounding war before they tangle in it. And
Brian Hayes finishes by blandly pointing out that if we
ever experience a magnitude-9.8 war, that, at
least, will be the one war no one will ever have to worry
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where
we're interested in the way inventive minds work.
Richardson, L. F., Statistics of Deadly Quarrels.
(Quincy Wright and C. C. Lienau, eds.) Pittsburgh: Boxwood
Richardson, L. F., Arms and Insecurity. (Nicolas
Rashevsky and Ernesto Trucco, eds.) Pittsburgh: Boxwood
Press 1960. (This is the source of Richardson remark that
I paraphrase near the end of the episode above.)
(Each of the books above was a posthumous edition of a
manuscript whose Preface Richardson had signed in 1953.)
Hayes, B., Statistics of Deadly Quarrels. American
Scientist, Vol. 90, No. 1, January-February, 2002,
Richardson's representation of the number of conflicts of
each magnitude compared with the number that died in
each. (From Statistics of Deadly Quarrels)
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright
© 1988-2002 by John H. Lienhard.