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Cry havoc! And let slip the maths of war

May 12, 2011

From The Economist:

IN 1948 Lewis Fry Richardson, a British scientist, published what was probably the first rigorous analysis of the statistics of war. Richardson had spent seven years gathering data on the wars waged in the century or so prior to his study. There were almost 300 of them. The list runs from conflicts that claimed a thousand or so lives to the devastation of the two world wars. But when he plotted his results, he found that these diverse events fell into a regular pattern. It was as if the chaos of war seemed to comply with some hitherto unknown law of nature.

At first glance the pattern seems obvious. Richardson found that wars with low death tolls far outnumber high-fatality conflicts. But that obvious observation conceals a precise mathematical description: the link between the severity and frequency of conflicts follows a smooth curve, known as a power law. One consequence is that extreme events such as the world wars do not appear to be anomalies. They are simply what should be expected to occur occasionally, given the frequency with which conflicts take place.

The results have fascinated mathematicians and military strategists ever since. They have also been replicated many times. But they have not had much impact on the conduct of actual wars. [More]

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