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The Triumph of Numbers – I. B. Cohen ****

Numbers are central to the building of our civilization, and it might seem at first sight that I. B. Cohen’s book fills us in on their creation and use. This could also be true from the subtitle “how counting shaped modern life”. To confuse things more, the cover illustration shows Euclid, at work on geometry, so you might think it’s a history of mathematics (not quite the same thing as numbers). In fact it’s neither – Cohen’s book is really a history of statistics, and none the worse for that: it’s a fascinating subject, but perhaps the “s” word was considered too off-putting for the general reader.
Although written by an academic, this isn’t by any means a dull, uninspiring textbook of a tome. It’s short, pithy and often surprising. There is just the occasional point where Cohen has been allowed to slip into academic habits – notably in some rather uninspiring quotes and a couple of unnecessarily long lists – but for the rest it is a highly readable book, picking up on some key individuals as well as giving the broad sweep of the way statistics have influenced life.
Some of the individuals will be unknown to the general reader, like the great Quetelet, but others are big names you might not associate with the field. Perhaps the first to make an impact is King David. The Biblical consequences of David taking a count of the people had such an impact that they will still getting in the way of censuses in the 1700s. Then there were characters like Dickens and Florence Nightingale, both of whom get a chapter practically to themselves.
Dickens weighs in against statistics, championing the individual against statistical figures that make a few people’s suffering seem unimportant against the whole. It’s a technique that is still strongly used by TV. We are shown an individual’s plight and it doesn’t matter that that the company says 99% of their customers are satisfied, or the hospital says that the drug this person wants is only available for people who are (statistically) likely to benefit. The message is, the individual is more important than statistics. While in a sense it’s true, it is also misleading. Unless a medical system or a welfare system or an aid organization has infinite resources, there will always have to be prioritization and dealing statistically. It’s not nice, but the alternative is treat those who shout loudest and get most media coverage – which isn’t right either.
Florence Nightingale, who we generally remember for her nursing, comes through as a huge supporter of statistics. It’s fascinating seeing Nightingale’s demand that hospitals should be compared to see which is better and which worse on a statistical basis, that they should have standard record keeping and so forth – all requirements that have recently surfaced again in modern medicinal management. Nightingale was also a pioneer in the use of graphics to present statistics in a more approachable way.
Even if you find statistics boring, don’t be put off. This little book (just the right length for a popular science book of this kind) will make you realize how important this branch of mathematics is to everyday life, and will surprise and amuse you along the way. Not a bad achievement for a topic like this.

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Review by Brian Clegg


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