This poor word is often misused, maligned and misunderstood.

In the same way, politicans and marketers state that “statistics prove…”, which was put to rest by Rutherford, who once said: “if you need statistics to answer your question, you’re asking the wrong question”. He won the Nobel for chemistry one hundred years ago. Two other fun quotes on the subject:

“Don’t become a novelist; be a statistician, much more scope for the imagination.”

and today’s favourite:

“Statistics is like a man, with a bit of manipulation you can get out of it what you want.”

I was sidetracked on the statistics issue by the web. China and the net have this in common: something unexpected is always just round the corner. Which brings us back to nonlinearity. Small causes can have big effects (playing the lottery) and vice-versa (recent wars and the reduction in terrorism). A little irony on the subject from Mark Twain (Life on the Mississippi, 1883):

“In the space of one hundred and seventy-six years the Lower Mississippi has shortened itself two hundred and forty-two miles. That is an average of a trifle over one mile and a third per year. Therefore (…) just a million years ago next November, the Lower Mississippi River was upward of one million three hundred thousand miles long, and stuck out over the Gulf of Mexico like a fishing-rod. (…) There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesome returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.”

History is filled with examples of the law of unintended consequences, mostly negative ones. Both the maritime road to India and the journey of Columbus to the New World were examples of nonlinearity. In the latter case, a foundation built on scientific quicksand and evaluated by Castille essentially on religious and political grounds, rather than navigational and cosmographic data, led to the discovery of the Indies in the northern Caribbean Sea. On his deathbed, Columbus was still convinced he had reached Cipango, modern-day Japan.

By contrast, in the decades of preparation of Vasco da Gama’s journey, nonlinearities included the discovery of Brazil, and subsequently the incredible projection which Portugal obtained in the east. And a new boost to the sea silk road, which starts in Canton. – The Caravel.pdf

Following Diogo Cão’s exploratory journey to the Congo in 1482-84, Bartolomeu Dias pushed the envelope by rounding the southermost cape of Africa and entering the Indian Ocean. The “Cabo das Tormentas” was thought by Portuguese sailors to be the home of the giant Adamastor, who amused himself by pushing ships to the bottom of the ocean, or dashing them on the jagged coastline of South Africa’s Western Cape.


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