Poetical science

The interdisciplinary struggle experienced by Ada Lovelace, world’s first computer programmer, described by Betty Toole (1996):

‘Her mother, Lady Byron, had the reputation of being a fine mathematician; her father was the famous poet. Ada’s struggle to unite the conflicting strains in her background was especially difficult, since her parents separated when she was only five weeks old. Yet her father’s heritage could not be ignored. In frustration Ada described this struggle when she wrote in an undated fragment to Lady Byron: “You will not concede me philosophical poetry. Invert the order! Will you give me poetical philosophy, poetical science?”‘

“How I became an analyst” by Arthur Valenstein

Interesting multidisciplinary background — some excerpts from Valenstein (1995):

“When I was sixteen years old I built my own short-wave receiver and transmitter and became a ham radio operator. This bent towards electronics motivated me to enter the engineering school at Cornell University in 1931 with the intention of becoming an electrical engineer…”

“But those were depression years, and it seemed unlikely that I could make a sufficient livelihood as an electrical engineer.”

“… from early years I had been curious about people, how and why they were as they were. I was puzzled about myself as well, feeling myself to be something of an ‘outsider’ in school. As I learned later, this is one of the elements contributing to psychological-mindedness, a predisposition that is conducive to psychoanalytic inquiry.”

“I have always had one foot in hard science and one foot in literature and the humanities, and fortunately I don’t seem to have fallen between the two.”

“George Henry was carrying out a heavily funded research project on homosexuality. This opened a whole world to me that I had never known, especially the gay world, and I learned something about it, even getting to know some of its colloquial terms. Later Henry and his research assistant, who in retrospect I realize was homosexual, published several books on homosexuality from a descriptive point of view.”

“… I came to be in Boston, which I never left except for one year in neurology with Foster Kennedy (a colourful man, a Northern Ireland Orangeman of great sartorial splendour and the gift of marvellously eloquent, elegant speech) at Bellevue Hospital in New York, and my years in the military.”

“My initial exposure to the activities and ambience of the Hampstead Child Therapy Clinic [now the Anna Freud Centre] forty years ago, and my continued contact with it and with Anna Freud over many years, greatly influenced my identity as a psychoanalyst, both theoretically and clinically. Before my sabbatical in London in 1955, I had become interested not only in what nowadays seems to be called ‘cognitive developmental psychology’ and ‘attachment theory’, but also what might be termed ‘affect developmental psychology’.”


Valenstein, A. (1995). How I became an analyst. Bulletin of the Anna Freud Centre, 18, 283–291.

Famous statisticians who are women

(Updated 24 April 2015)

One of my day jobs is teaching psychology students how to do data analysis. Occasionally I quote famous statisticians, for instance to illustrate ways of thinking about analysis, the subjective nature of modeling data, and other fun things. I mention the likes of William Gosset (Guinness and t-tests), George Box (all models are wrong), and Bruno de Finetti (probabilities don’t exist).

Most—often all—of my students are women. Most of my current collection of quotations are from men. This is a problem. So, I’m currently looking for examples of famous statisticians who are women (broadly interpreted; including data scientists, economists, quantitative social scientists). Here’s my current list. Suggestions for others would be most welcome, especially if you have a quotation I can use (turns out that statisticians write in maths most of the the time so it can be hard to find nice quotes).

  • Daphne Koller (Professor in Stanford University; wide range, e.g., conditional independence models, feature selection)
  • Deirdre McCloskey (economist, writes on applied stats, e.g., regression; she is also transgender)
  • Fiona Steele (Professor in Stats at LSE, e.g., multilevel modeling)
  • Florence Nightingale (data visualisation and public health stats)
  • Gertrude Mary Cox (experimental design and analysis of experiments)
  • Helena Chmura Kraemer (Professor of Biostatistics in Psychiatry, Emerita, at Stanford)
  • Hilary Mason (“enthusiastic member of the larger conspiracy to evolve the emerging discipline of data science”)
  • Hilary Parker (data analyst at Etsy; PhD in biostatistics, genomics; useR)
  • Irini Moustaki (Professor in Social Statistics at LSE)
  • Jane Hillston (Professor of quantitative modelling at Edinburgh University; invented the stochastic process algebra, PEPA)
  • Jennifer Neville (e.g., data mining for relational data such as networks/graphs)
  • Juliet Popper Shaffer (work on corrections for multiple hypothesis testing)
  • Pat Dugard (e.g., randomisation stats for single case and small-N multiple baseline studies)
  • Rachel Schutt (Senior Vice President of Data Science at News Corp)
  • Stella Cunliffe (worked in Guinness and first woman president of RSS)
  • Susan A. Murphy (e.g., clinical trial design; methods for multi-stage decision making)
  • Victoria Stodden (e.g., reproducibility of models, codes)

Quotations—work in progress

“The newly mathematized statistics became a fetish in fields that wanted to be sciences. During the 1920s, when sociology was a young science, quantification was a way of claiming status, as it became also in economics, fresh from putting aside its old name of political economy, and in psychology, fresh from a separation from philosophy. In the 1920s and 1930s even the social anthropologists counted coconuts.”
—Deirdre McCloskey, The Trouble with Mathematics and Statistics in Economics

“The Cabinet Ministers, the army of their subordinates… have for the most part received a university education, but no education in statistical method. We legislate without knowing what we are doing. The War Office has some of the finest statistics in the world. What comes of them? Little or nothing. Why? Because the Heads do not know how to make anything of them. […] What we want is not so much (or at least not at present) an accumulation of facts, as to teach men who are to govern the country the use of statistical facts.”
—Florence Nightingale in a letter to Benjamin Jowett; quoted by Kopf, E. W. (1916). Florence Nightingale as statistician. Publications of the American Statistical Association, 15, 388–404.

“To understand God’s thoughts we must study statistics, for these are the measure of His purpose.”
—Florence Nightingale

“The statistician who supposes that his main contribution to the planning of an experiment will involve statistical theory, finds repeatedly that he makes his most valuable contribution simply by persuading the investigator to explain why he wishes to do the experiment.”
—Gertrude M Cox

“It is no use, as statisticians, our being sniffy about the slapdash methods of many sociologists unless we are prepared to try to guide them into more scientifically acceptable thought. To do this, there must be interaction between them and us.”
—Stella V Cunliffe (1976, p. 9). Interaction. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society. Series A (General), 139, 1–19.


… to everyone who sent suggestions!

Jonathan Campbell

One of my mentors when I was at Queen’s University Belfast (1999-2002) passed away last year.  Below, an obituary in the Derry Sentinel.

DR Jonathan G Campbell who died on July 25th 2010 will be remembered by all who knew him for his dedication to his work and students, his generous nature and his love of keeping active and fit.

Jonathan was born in 1949 and grew up on the family farm in Castletown, St Johnston, Co. Donegal attending Castletown National School. Following the death of his father, Jonathan boarded at the Masonic school in Dublin from the age of 10 after which he went on to Trinity College Dublin to study electronic engineering.

His first job was with the Digital Equipment Company in Galway in 1973. After Galway he went into the research department of Plessey BAE Systems an electronic company in Havant in the South of England. After 7 years he came back to Ireland to An Foras Forbartha in Dublin working on a project making maps from satellite images. He then worked for 9 years in Malahide for a technology company Captec doing consultancy work for the European Space Agency on satellite calibration.

In 1989 he got an academic job with the University of Ulster on the Magee campus in Derry as a lecturer in the Department of Informatics. While there he studied to gain a doctorate. He then moved to the Computer Science department at Queen’s University Belfast. In 2001 he came back to Donegal to lecture in the Computing Department in Letterkenny Institute of Technology teaching computer games and programming. He also did research into pattern recognition and machine learning and supervised PhD students.

Some of Jonathan’s proudest moments were in cricket and athletics. He ran many marathons and cross country events and won some national medals with Raheny Shamrocks and later with the Finn Valley Club. In later years he also took up cycling and most mornings before work went out for a run or cycle in all weathers. He also loved hill walking especially in Connemara. He was an ardent follower of St Johnston cricket team and looked forward to the season starting each summer rarely missing a match.

During his illness he received excellent care from the Sperrin Ward in Altnagelvin Hospital and Culmore Manor Care home. His funeral was held in St Johnston Presbyterian church with a huge turnout out of friends, colleagues, sporting associates and students past and present.

Jonathan will be greatly missed by his sister Jane Bryce, brother in law David, nephews William and Jonathan and niece Sarah.

Solomon Kullback: Oral History Interview

Read about Kullback on Wikipedia.

The oral history is on the NSA website over here.

Loads of cryptanalysis anecdotes therein (if you’re into that kinda thing), e.g., (p. 119):

There used to be coke machines, the Army version of the coke machines, I guess. You put in a nickel and a cup would come and you would get a coke. Well, it wasn’t long before the people discovered that the machine, when you dropped a coin in, would turn on. But if you pull the plug out, the mechanism which turned it off failed to operate. So people would go in there and put in their nickel and get a cup, pull the plug out and everybody in the wing would go get their cup of coke. So after a while, the vendor who filled these machines sort of looked at it and began to complain to General Corderman about the fact that here is a machine at the end of a day, all of the cokes and so on were used up and gone but he only finds a couple of nickels in it. “What gives?” I guess eventually Corderman checked and found out about the fact that people had found out that if you pull the plug once the machine got started then the mechanism which shut it off would fail. So he sent out a very cute notice to everybody in the Arlington Hall Station. It said, “Now that we have solved the machine and have enjoyed some of the fruits of that solution, I think we ought to provide the vendor with a nickel for each cup of coca cola.”


Ben R. Slugoski on why he became a psychologist

When the desire to study psychology began:

“If my developmental psychology colleagues are right, I began formulating conceptions of human psychological states and processes at about the age of three.”

On the shift of study emphasis from English to Psychology:

“… there was no antidote to a few hours deconstructing Coleridge or Blake like working out the expected mean squares for a tricky experimental design (a rakish sex-life not otherwise being in the cards!). […]

“[…] Erudite though my English professorss were, they were only vessels for conveying the brilliance of the ‘Greats’ and as such were never particularly good models for an aspiring player. What ultimately determined my allegiance to psychology was the brilliance personified in my psychology lecturers […] the late Kenneth Burstein, old school rat-runner, unabashed liberal, and the person whom you would least want as a relationship counsellor […]”

Teaching styles:

“It is probably worthy of note in these days of multimedia, dot point-driven instruction that my beacons were invariably Socratic minimalists for whom the take-home message was quite subsidiary to the intellectual journey (seemingly) constructed in situ. Thus, I recall Burstein leading us from eye-blink conditioning with rabbits to human divorce statistics via a little sociobiology, Koopman had the class reinvent the correlation coefficient, and Marcia … well, Marcia had us ruminating about the conditions and consequences of sleeping with ones’ clients.”

(From over here.)


(Here’s a wikipedia link.)  Apparently named in honour of Charlie Winsor (Huber, 2002), with whom Tukey had (a mean of) 1.9 meals per day over a period of 3 years (Fernholz and Morgenthaler, 2003).  Winsor, an “engineer-turned-physiologist-turned-statistician”, converted Tukey to stats (Brillinger, 2002).

A nice biographical detail about Winsor (from here):

I have heard gossip
that he was brilliant,
lazy and died young.


Peter J. Huber (2002).  John W. Tukey’s Contributions to Robust Statistics.  The Annals of Statistics, 30(6), 1640-1648.

Luisa Turrin Fernholz and Stephan Morgenthaler (2003).  A Conversation with John W. Tukey.   Statistical Science, 18(3), 346-356.

David R. Brillinger (2002).  John W. Tukey: his life and professional contributions. Annals of Statistics, 30, 1535-1575.

Florence Nightingale

A bio of Florence Nightingale, statistician and nurse. Excerpt:

“Nightingale helped to promote what was then a revolutionary idea (and a religious one for her) that social phenomena could be objectively measured and subjected to mathematical analysis. Her work with medical statistics was so impressive that she was elected (in 1858) to membership in the Statistical Society of England. One of the pioneers in the graphic method of presentation of data, she invented colorful polar-area diagrams to dramatize medical data. Although other methods of persuasion had failed, her statistical approach convinced military authorities, Parliament, and Queen Victoria to carry out her proposed hospital reforms.”

[Photo of her Polar Area Diagram (“coxcomb”) from over here.]


Dov Gabbay, logician, fan of psychologism:

‘I got married in 1970. My wife is an artist, and I learned a lot from her; the fact that I can talk about things, for instance. I remember I was going out with her, before we were married, and we were walking from one part of the university to another part. My objective was to get from A to B, she wanted to stop and look at the moon, because it looked very nice. And I thought: “What the hell would I want to look at the moon for, when I want to go to B?” Now, of course, I will look at the moon at all times with her.’

(From an interview with “Ta!”) My reluctance to look at the lunar eclipse suggests I need to meet an artist—pronto 🙂