[Math Lair] The Force of Statistics

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"The Force of Statistics", by Stephen Leacock (1869–1944), can be found in his book Literary Lapses.

The Force of Statistics

They were sitting on a seat of the car, immediately in front of me. I was consequently able to hear all that they were saying. They were evidently strangers who had dropped into a conversation. They both had the air of men who considered themselves profoundly interesting as minds. It was plain that each laboured under the impression that he was a ripe thinker.

One had just been reading a book which lay in his lap.

"I've been reading some very interesting statistics," he was saying to the other thinker.

"Ah, statistics!" said the other; "wonderful things, sir, statistics; very fond of them myself."

"I find, for instance," the first man went on, "that a drop of water is filled with little...with little...I forget just what you call them...little—er—things, every cubic inch containing—er—containing...let me see..."

"Say a million," said the other thinker, encouragingly.

"Yes, a million, or possibly a billion...but at any rate, ever so many of them."

"Is it possible?" said the other. "But really, you know, there are wonderful things in the world. Now, coal... take coal..."

"Very good," said his friend, "let us take coal," settling back in his seat with the air of an intellect about to feed itself.

"Do you know that every ton of coal burnt in an engine will drage a train of cars as long as...I forget the exact length, but say a train of cars of such and such a length, and weighing, say so much...from...from...hum! for the moment the exact distance escapes me...drag it from..."

"From here to the moon," suggested the other.

"Ah, very likely; yes, from here to the moon. Wonderful, isn't it?"

"But the most stupendous calculation of all, sor, is in regard to the distance from the earth to the sun. Positively, sir, a cannon-ball—er—fired at the sun..."

"Fired at the sun," nodded the other, approvingly, as if he had often seen it done.

"And travelling at the rate of...of..."

"Of three cents a mile," hinted the listener.

"No, no, you misunderstand me—but travelling at a fearful rate, simply fearful, sir, would take a hundred million—no, a hundred billion—in short would take a scandalously long time in getting there——"

At this point I could stand no more. I interrupted—"Provided it were fired from Philadelphia," I said, and passed into the smoking-car.


Also from the same book is Boarding-House Geometry. Also by Stephen Leacock are Mathematics for Golfers and The Mathematics of the Lost Chord.

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