“Number”, “The Curious World of Scientific Symbols”… Scientific books to explore


There is something for every taste. The journalists of the weekly supplement “Science & medicine” have read and chosen for you these books which will make you discover a mathematician of the XVIIe century, feminist ahead of time, rub shoulders with the contemporary obsession with numbers or measure the consequences of the rivalries between the X and the ENA.

Essential figures

“Everything is discussed, except the numbers”, we are used to hearing. Olivier Martin, sociologist and statistician, firmly opposes a contrary opinion in a hard-hitting little book, a model of synthesis and popularization. Statistics, evaluations, measures, quantities, levels, scales, indicators, rates, numbers, percentages, rankings, ratings, scores, indices… the numbers are embedded in our society, covering “the appearance of neutral and objective data that would impose itself on us”, immediately reminds the author. However, if they “have shown their effectiveness in describing phenomena and developing cutting-edge technologies”their presence was reinforced by “the idea that scientific and quantitative laws govern the natural world and human affairs”. Did not the great philosopher of science Gaston Bachelard ert: “Do you want to believe in reality, measure it” ?

In our modern societies, the numbers “are used to develop management techniques for companies or the State”while ratings and reviews are aimed at “to measure aspects of our personal, social, economic or political lives”. For Olivier Martin, who is also director of the Center for Research on Social Ties (Sorbonne-Nouvelle-CNRS University), these uses ignore the relational function of the number, because it puts in contact “individuals, collectives or institutions that act in concert by referring to this figure”. Historically, humans have quantified to coordinate, get along, exchange and collaborate. Like the practice of surveying in the first sedentary societies, the purpose of which was not to know the geometry of the land, but “to find principles for sharing and exchanging”.

After the boom, in the 19e century, of statistical data, the latter occupy a considerable place today, underlines the researcher. Crowned with legitimacy, they are at the origin of specific services and institutes, of which, in France, INSEE is the emblem, with its slogan “Measure to understand”. While contributing to the development of science, statistics cover all areas…

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