More on Lewis Fry Richardson

Before we turn to Richardson’s contributions to meteorology, let’s take just a moment to consider some of his other studies of the root causes of war.

The Wikipedia entry tells us: “…he analyzed war using mainly differential equations and probability theory. Considering the armament of two nations, Richardson posited an idealized system of equations whereby the rate of a nation’s armament build-up is directly proportional to the amount of arms its rival has and also to the grievances felt toward the rival, and negatively proportional to the amount of arms it already has itself. Solution of this system of equations allows insightful conclusions to be drawn regarding the nature, and the stability or instability, of various hypothetical conditions which might obtain between nations.

He also originated the theory that the propensity for war between two nations was a function of the length of their common border. And in Arms and Insecurity (1949), and Statistics of Deadly Quarrels (1950), he sought to statistically analyze the causes of war. Factors he assessed included economics, language, and religion. In the preface of the latter, he wrote: “There is in the world a great deal of brilliant, witty political discussion which leads to no settled convictions. My aim has been different: namely to examine a few notions by quantitative techniques in the hope of reaching a reliable answer.”

In Statistics of Deadly Quarrels Richardson presented data on virtually every war from 1815 to 1945. As a result he hypothesized a base 10 logarithmic scale for conflicts. In other words, there are far more small fights, in which only a few people die, than large ones that kill many. While no conflict’s size can be predicted beforehand—indeed, it is impossible to give an upper limit to the series—overall they do form a Poisson distribution. On a smaller scale he showed the same pattern for gang murders in Chicago and Shanghai.”

Hunt’s biography of Richardson provides a lot more detail on this, and on Richardson’s contributions to the quantitative psychological studies of sensation (pain, hearing, and the like). All these topics make for fascinating reading, in and of themselves, but all the more so when you and I try to fathom what it must have been like to address such a diverse range of scientific topics at such a fundamental level and in such innovative ways.

Next up? Everybody talked about the weather, but Richardson did something about it.

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