JF Ptak Science Books Quick Post
I found this in the Alex Cashman's lovely site, Mathematical Fiction (here). The except is from Charles Dicken's Hard Times (1854)1, and in it we see Dickens making another in a long series of assaults on what he thought to be a disturbed social layering of dealing with the underclasses and the working poor.–and this time in the form of an entire novel. In the instance sited below (of interest right now because of its maths connection), Dickens makes a case for the"success" for the government of the fictitious city of Coketown to see a relatively small percentage of people in that city starving to death on its streets to be not a success at all. The character making the complaint is Sissy Jupe, whose fault at school came when asked the percentage of the starving/dying responded by saying it really didn't matter, because people were starving anyway, and whether it was one or a thousand dying from something as fixable as hunger meant all the same thing. She was presented with the "statistics"2 from her teacher, but to Ms. Jupe it came to her ear as "stutterings", which is what Dickens felt the numbers were. Dickens was attempting to make those people suffering in the streets less blank, less hollow, and more than a number.
1. It should be pointed out here that this is Dickens' 10th novel, the 42-year-old already having a enormous success with his writing and an even grater one in his storytelling. To this date, Dickens had already written The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (Monthly serial, April 1836 to November 1837; The Adventures of Oliver Twist (Monthly serial in Bentley's Miscellany, February 1837 to April 1839); The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (Monthly serial, April 1838 to October 1839); The Old Curiosity Shop (Weekly serial in Master Humphrey's Clock, 25 April 1840, to 6 February 1841); Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of 'Eighty (Weekly serial in Master Humphrey's Clock, 13 February 1841, to 27 November 1841); A Christmas Carol (1843); The Chimes (1844); The Cricket on the Hearth (1845); The Battle of Life (1846); The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain (1848); The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit (Monthly serial, January 1843 to July 1844); Dombey and Son (Monthly serial, October 1846 to April 1848); David Copperfield (Monthly serial, May 1849 to November 1850) ; and Bleak House (Monthly serial, March 1852 to September 1853). Remarkable.
2. "Statistics" as a word has been in use for a long time, finding air as early as 1787, at least so far as the sense in which it is used here. There are earlier references, but they actually refer to the "state", as in "statecraft" and government and such, and not for interpreting a collection of data.
The selection from Dickens below:
'Yes, Miss Louisa, I know it was, now. Then Mr. M'Choakumchild said he would try me again. And he said, This schoolroom is an immense town, and in it there are a million of inhabitants, and only five-and-twenty are starved to death in the streets, in the course of a year. What is your remark on that proportion? And my remark was – for I couldn't think of a better one – that I thought it must be just as hard upon those who were starved, whether the others were a million, or a million million. And that was wrong, too.'
'Of course it was.'
'Then Mr. M'Choakumchild said he would try me once more. And he said, Here are the stutterings – '
'Statistics,' said Louisa.
'Yes, Miss Louisa – they always remind me of stutterings, and that's another of my mistakes – of accidents upon the sea. And I find (Mr. M'Choakumchild said) that in a given time a hundred thousand persons went to sea on long voyages, and only five hundred of them were drowned or burnt to death. What is the percentage? And I said, Miss;' here Sissy fairly sobbed as confessing with extreme contrition to her greatest error; 'I said it was nothing.'
'Nothing, Miss – to the relations and friends of the people who were killed. I shall never learn,' said Sissy. 'And the worst of all is, that although my poor father wished me so much to learn, and although I am so anxious to learn, because he wished me to, I am afraid I don't like it.'