The Greatest Infographic of All Time

YouTube / Numberphile
YouTube / Numberphile / YouTube / Numberphile

These days, infographics are often passed around the web as a way of explaining concepts visually. Sometimes they're used for marketing, and sometimes they oversimplify complex topics...but the best infographics transform the way we make sense of the world. Visual thinking is a powerful tool.

In 1812, Napoleon's Grande Armée invaded Russia. The result was terrible for both sides, as the Russians employed scorched-earth tactics (burning their own villages and farms to prevent the French from taking them) and the massive invasion force pushed further and further into Russia, eventually occupying an evacuated Moscow. Finally the French-led Grande Armée was forced to retreat, lacking supplies to cope with the Russian winter, and the loss of life was catastrophic. That loss was partly due to military battles, but also because of starvation and privation in the face of brutally cold weather.

It's one thing to tell that story with words. But it's another to tell it with a picture, showing the size of the Grande Armée as it proceeded through a series of campaigns into Russia, and ultimately retreated, returning to its starting position with a decimated force. In 1862, Charles Joseph Minard created a sort of map-slash-chart (read: "infographic") depicting these events, with a focus on casualties, progress through various locations/battles/rivers, and a correlation with the temperature at various points along the way. It's a fantastic way to make sense of numbers in a visual way, and you can walk your way through major events in the military campaign simply by examining a picture. In this video, Dr. James Grime explains Minard's infographic, making a case for why it's such a powerful way to understand this story. Enjoy:

For a high-resolution version of Minard's infographic, check out Wikipedia (click the small version to get a super-big one suitable for printing). The same map is also available from Edward Tufte (who is himself a great visual explainer, and a terrific speaker) as a poster. (I'm pretty sure the poster shown in the video is one of Tufte's. I have the same one.)