The man who moved mountains and charts: Hans Rosling’s tales and experience bring his story alive

The book details events of Rosling’s life from Mozambique to Davos (Image: Reuters)

How important data has become in the last year or so is evident from the fact that top news organisations every day carry charts depicting the rise in infections. There is a live ticker on CNN everyday showing deaths and cases in the United States and the world. Sites like Johns Hopkins University and Our World in Data have become some of the most perused domains. People have understood terms like R(o) and doubling time. But as important as data has become, the world has not lost sight of the stories behind the virus. There is a team of scientists trying to decode the virus in Wuhan. Nurses in the US have filmed the condition of the most serious Covid patients and relayed them to The New York Times. In India, channels and newspapers put a human face to the virus when they showed the plight of migrants fleeing from cities or showed the condition of overflowing hospitals. Social media played its part by showing conditions of hospitals and the dead lying wrapped in plastic.

The story of Hans Rosling is also one of numbers and experiences. After the success of his first book Factfulness, Rosling embarked on another project with Swedish journalist Fanny Hargestam. He was, however, unable to witness the book being released on a global scale. How I Learned to Understand the World details Rosling’s journey in seven succinct chapters, detailing events of his life from Mozambique to Davos. The scientist, famous for Doctors without Borders in Sweden, writes about his experiences from Congo to Castro’s regime, and ultimately to TED Talks and back to Africa for Ebola research. The foreword by Agneta Rosling, his partner for over 50 years, is a heartfelt detailing of the life of Rosling who died the year the book was released. While the English translation is missing some chapters, the first-hand account does provide vivid details. The afterward by Hargestam gives insight into Rosling’s functioning and thinking, and the larger implication of his ideas. The one story that we all know and which is detailed quite beautifully is the discovery of Konzo, which Rosling and his colleagues found in people consuming cassava in sub-Saharan Africa. The discovery led to possible treatment for the disease, which had claimed lives in the region. However, what Rosling is little-known for is the tool that his son built and he popularised in his lectures. Rosling can also be credited with popularising interactive graphics. The Trendanalyzer was sold to Google in 2007 and the motion charts in Google are still constructed thanks to this technique.

The book, however, has its own limitations. It jumps too often between places, leaving a lot unexplained. There are many learnings however. Some instances lack a detailed explanation. Whether that is deliberate or because of paucity of time one can’t truly say. The account leaves you yearning for more and seems incomplete at times.

While numbers have no doubt become important, there is also a need to find a human face to today’s stories. The pandemic and restrictions have given the world ample time to present new authors and new experiences— one section of society has also abandoned the scientific principles altogether. With rising nationalism and regionalism—recently seen in vaccine nationalism—the world is getting more polarised. Indeed, we need more people like Rosling. We also need more people to support such talent. Sans recognition and global coordination, a lot more research shall lie in obscurity. Hopefully, the world will set new examples in the pandemic fight.

How I Learned to Understand the World:
A Memoir
Hans Rosling
Pp 256, Rs 599

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