Stochastic gene expression and Prussian cavalry kicked by horses

Now this is morbidly entertaining. Apparently our understanding of Poisson processes, such as many of the events involved in gene expression, are derived from a study of fatal encounters with horses in the Prussian cavalry:

“Effects of Molecular Memory and Bursting on Fluctuations in Gene Expression”, Juan M. Pedraza and Johan Paulsson:

Similar Poisson statistics have been observed in a wide range of physical systems, starting with Bortkewitsch’s classic study on the number of Prussian cavalry officers kicked to death by horses (12).

I can’t get the original reference 12, but the results are in a classic 1898 book by Ladislaus von Bortkiewicz, “The Law of Small Numbers”, which contains this table of fatal horse kicks by year and corps:

Bortkiewicz describes this in a typical roundabout German way as “die Zahlen der durch Schlag eines Pferdes verunglückten Militärpersonen,” the number of horse blow casualties. Clearly, the XIVth corps was remarkably unlucky.

This is yet another example of how extremely different phenomena exhibit the same quantitative relationships – maybe obvious if you’re versed in statistics, but mind-blowing nonetheless.

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