Mathematics and War

Turns out the chaos of war complies with the unknown laws 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. As a result, there is a certain “so what” quality to Richardson’s results. It is one thing to show that a pattern exists, another to do something useful with it.

A scientist at the University of Miami is indeed doing something useful and interesting with these results.

Also: Conflict History is an interactive timeline of wars around the globe. It’s a total time suck if you’re the slightest bit into history or wars. Horrible if you’re into both.


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