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Tables as graphs: The Ramanujan principle

Tables are commonly read as crude graphs: what you notice in a table of numbers is (a) the minus signs, and thus which values are positive and which are negative, and (b) the length of each number, that is, its order of magnitude. The most famous example of such a read might be when the mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan supposedly conjectured the asymptotic form of the partition function based on a look at a table of the first several partition numbers: he was essentially looking at a graph on the logarithmic scale.

I discuss some modern-day statistical examples in this article for Significance magazine.


I had a lot of fun creating the “calculator font” for the above graph in R and then writing the article. I hope you enjoy it too!

P.S. Also check out this short note by Marcin Kozak and Wojtek Krzanowski on effective presentation of data.

P.P.S. I wrote this blog entry a month ago and had it in storage. Then my issue of Significance came in the mail—with my article!—so I decided to post. As I was posting, I had a funny thought in the back of my mind: December 22 . . . hmmm, I wonder if that’s Ramanujan’s birthday? I looked it up, and it is! How could that be? I guess I must have seen that somewhere and it stuck in my mind.

P.P.P.S. And we have a new entry for the lexicon!


  1. Jonathan says:

    Andrew what do you think of the Kozak and Krzanowski proposal. It hurts my eyes just looking at their tables…

  2. Basil says:

    I saw your article in the magazine but didn’t look at the author until I saw your post. Your article reminded me of a funny clip from West Wing,, on map sizes.

  3. irrelevant says: Hi Andrew, this link might be irrelevant, but I thought you might be interested in blogging about it. Thanks!

  4. […] The Ramanujan principle: Tables are read as crude graphs. […]