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23 January 2006

the Great Wall of Doomed Freezing Soldiers

Clicking might do good things.

The Dutch cartographer and information display scientist Dr. Menno-Jan Kraak has done a lot of computer work on Minard's graphic, both enhancing its archival aspects and gently escorting Minard into the computer age, where he would probably feel right at home.

Above, Minard's graphic adds a dimension of height to the disastrous route of the French Army to Moscow and back again. The high wall in the back is the enormous size of the Army as it marched east into Poland during summer. The descending stairs and finally the low pavement stones are the dwindling numbers of soldiers with each freezing day of the winter retreat.

Before Napoleon reached Moscow, the Muscovites burned everything they couldn't carry away; the French soldiers had nothing to eat or to burn for warmth, no comfortable city shelter to winter over in awaited them. They were doomed, with little further action required of the enemy, though he harrassed the retreating French in skirmishes and sniping the whole march home. Mostly Nature destroyed the French. Few ever saw home again.

In the original Minard graphic, note the correlation between date, troop strength, and daily winter temperatures, which Napoleon's new scientific/mathematical Army kept systematic records of. Napoleon (an artillery officer) was a mathematical fool, filled his staff with a generation of brilliant French mathematicians, and shaped the Army as they advised him to.

As it turned out, his mathematical instincts were prophetic; by World War II, victory had become largely a function of superior mathematical analysis and superior physics. (World War I was called "the chemists' war," WWII "the physicists' war," WWIII will be "the mathematicians' war." )

Dr. Kraak and a big-ass institutional computer have given the most remarkable and original scrutiny to the dorp of Enschede (it must be a dorp, because I've never heard of it). Its faithfully chronicled numbers from 1811 to the present paint the most amazing moving pictures on the computer screen, particularly moving pictures of growth/sprawl as if sprawl was an animal in a cage in the zoo. Just click all over his website. I had so much fun on his website that I let him talk me into downloading some VMRL Beta software, whatever the heck that is.


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