The Discreet Charm of the Graph
Deep in the Amazon rainforest, a tough, river-wise woman boats down tributaries home to blood-sucking fishes and swarming mosquitoes to stop at forest huts rarely graced by anyone outside their few isolated inhabitants. She is not a character from the Middle Ages. She lives today. Who is she? A doctor perhaps? A foreign aid worker? Not even warm. She is peddling creams, perfumes, and cosmetics for the Avon company.
Back at the New York headquarters, suited executives analyze their worldwide war against dry skin employing techniques invented by a man to whom one can safely say they have never given any thought. International in blue, domestic in red, one may imagine, graphs compare the year-by-year erection of Avon’s profits in each sector. Their annual report analyzes the company’s cumulative return, net sales, business unit operating profit, and pages of other data utilizing all sorts of fancy graphs, bar graphs, and pie charts.
A merchant presenting data in this way in the Middle Ages would have been greeted with a blank stare. What is the meaning of these colorful geometric figures, and why do they appear on the same document with all those Roman numerals? Macaroni and cheese had been invented (a fourteenth-century English recipe survives), but not the idea of marrying numbers and geometric figures. Today, graphical representation of knowledge is so familiar that we hardly think of it as a mathematical device; even the most math phobic executive at Avon could tell that an upward slanted line on the profits graph is a happy thing. The invention of the graph was a vital step on the path to a theory of place.
The marriage of numbers and geometry is one concept the Greeks got wrong, a spot on the road where philosophy got in the way…