Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Book Review: The Lady Tasting Tea

A lady claims that the taste of tea differs when milk is poured to tea leaves as opposed to adding tea leaves into a cup of milk. Everyone at the small party scoffs at the suggestion, except Ronald Aylmer Fisher. Fisher designs an experiment that would statistically establish the lady's claims. He creates a sample set containing tea prepared in either ways, and lo and behold - the story goes that the lady identifies each cup correctly. Fisher uses this example to explain the design of experiments in his book 'The Design of Experiments'. This anecdote sets up the book. 'The Lady Tasting Tea' is the story of the development of statistics, Fisher having built the pillars of statistics as it stands today.

I started reading this book, while looking around to brush my statistics; thought it would be a good idea to know the history of the subject I am exploring. That's particularly relevant in sciences filled with uncertainties like statistics, economics, linguistics; where the characteristics of the individual seem to contribute to the development of the theory, and there's a story behind things which seem arbitrary.

David Salsburg takes us through an entertaining journey starting with the earliest breakthroughs by Karl Pearson and William Gossett, going to the pioneering foundational works of the acerbic genius Ronald Fisher, the cheerful Jerzy Newman, and the multitalented Andrei Kolmogorov. Apart from these pioneers, Salsburg very vividly sketches the lives and contributions of Egon Pearson (hypothesis testing), Chester Bliss (probit analysis), John Tukey (exploratory data analysis), Frank Wilcoxon (non-parametric methods), EJG Pitman (non-parametric methods), Prasanta Chandra Mahalabonis (sampling theory), Samuel Wilks (Founder - Statistical Research Group, Princeton) , George Box (robust statistics) and Edward Deming (statistical quality control).

Some of the chapter names are interesting, and they are as good as the title of the book. It reminds me of 'The Mythical Man Month''s memorable illustrative sketches. Sample this:

  • The Mozart of Mathematics - Andrei Kolmorogov
  • The Picasso of Statistics - John Tukey
  • The March of the Martingales - on the work of Paul Levy

Read this if you are a fan of scientific history.

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