The Triumph of Numbers: How Counting Shaped Modern Life

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9780393328707: The Triumph of Numbers: How Counting Shaped Modern Life

From the pyramids to mortality tables, Galileo to Florence Nightingale, a vibrant history of numbers and the birth of statistics.

The great historian of science I. B. Cohen explores how numbers have come to assume a leading role in science, in the operations and structure of government, in marketing, and in many other aspects of daily life. Consulting and collecting numbers has been a feature of human affairs since antiquity―taxes, head counts for military service―but not until the Scientific Revolution in the twelfth century did social numbers such as births, deaths, and marriages begin to be analyzed. Cohen shines a new light on familiar figures such as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Charles Dickens; and he reveals Florence Nightingale to be a passionate statistician. Cohen has left us with an engaging and accessible history of numbers, an appreciation of the essential nature of statistics.

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About the Author:

I. Bernard Cohen was Victor S. Thomas Professor, Emeritus, of the History of Science at Harvard University, where he taught from 1942 to 1984. He was the first American to receive the degree of Ph.D. in the History of Science. He was the author of many books, including Science and the Founding Fathers: Science in the Political Thought of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and James Madison; The Science of Benjamin Franklin; Revolution in Science; The Newtonian Revolution; The Birth of a New Physics; and, with Anne Whitman, Isaac Newtonís Principia: A New Translation of Newtonís Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. He edited several series of works, including Harvard Monographs in the History of Science, Three Centuries of Science in America, and the ongoing Studies & Texts in the History of Computing. He was a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Royal Astronomical Society, the British Academy, and the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei.

From Publishers Weekly:

Nowadays we think about almost everything in numerical terms, but this engaging essay shows that this mindset developed only gradually. Cohen, a historian of science (the book is published posthumously), explores the colonization of the modern mind by numbers, beginning with the scientific revolution of the 17th century, which formulated the laws of nature as mathematical relationships and applied numerical tests to validate them, and ending with Florence Nightingale's harnessing of her "passion for statistics" to sanitation reform in the 19th century. In between, he chronicles the application of numbers to everything from medicine to demographics and the growing penchant of governments for collecting statistics and using them to guide policy. Quantification spilled over into far-flung fields; one Enlightenment philosophe reduced ethics to an algebraic equation, and a statistician analyzed the quality of plays by the age of the playwright. The spread of statistics, Cohen shows, undermined belief in free will, fingered impersonal social conditions rather than individual agency for previously moralized phenomena like crime and introduced the all-powerful figure of the "average man" to social thought; the numerical elevation of "head" over "heart" inspired a backlash from critics like Dickens, whose Hard Times is a manifesto against the statistical way of life. Full of intriguing observations, this well-written, accessible study diagrams intellectual debates that continue to dominate the modern era. Photos. (Mar.)
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