Posts tagged ‘history’

Guinness, Gosset, Fisher, and Small Samples

Student’s t-distribution is somewhat underrepresented in the astronomical community. Having an article with nice stories, it looks to me the best way to introduce the t distribution. This article describing historic anecdotes about monumental statistical developments occurred about 100 years ago.

Guinness, Gosset, Fisher, and Small Samples by Joan Fisher Box
Source: Statist. Sci. Volume 2, Number 1 (1987), 45-52.

No time for reading the whole article? I hope you have a few minutes to read following quotes, which are quite enchanting to me. Continue reading ‘Guinness, Gosset, Fisher, and Small Samples’ »

“Thanks to Henrietta Leavitt”


The CfA is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the Cepheid period-luminosity relation on Nov 6, 2008. See for details.

[Update 10/03] For a nice introduction to the story of Henrietta Swan Leavitt, listen to this Perimeter Institute talk by George Johnson:

[Update 11/06] The full program is now available. The symposium begins at Noon today.

Quintessential Contributions

To my personal thoughts, the history of astronomy is more interesting than the history of statistics. This may change tomorrow. Harvard statistics department (chair Xiao-Li Meng) organizes a symposium titled

Quintessential Contributions:
Celebrating Major Birthdays of Statistical Ideas and Their Inventors

When: Saturday, September 27, 2008, 9:45 AM – 5:00 PM
Where: Radcliffe Gymnasium, 18 Mason Street, Cambridge, MA

Continue reading ‘Quintessential Contributions’ »

A History of Markov Chain Monte Carlo

I’ve been joking about the astronomers’ fashion in writing Markov chain Monte Carlo (MCMC). Frequently, MCMC was represented by Monte Carlo Markov Chain in astronomical journals. I was curious about the history of this new creation. Overall, I thought it would be worth to learn more about the history of MCMC and this paper was up in arxiv: Continue reading ‘A History of Markov Chain Monte Carlo’ »

A Conversation with Peter Huber

The problem with data analysis is of course that it is a performing art. It is not something you easily write a paper on; rather, it is something you do. And so it is difficult to publish.

quoted from this conversation Continue reading ‘A Conversation with Peter Huber’ »

Kepler and the Art of Astrophysical Inference

I recently discovered iTunesU, and I have to confess, I find it utterly fascinating. By golly, it is everything that they promised us that the internet would be. Informative, entertaining, and educational. What are the odds?!? Anyway, while poking around the myriad lectures, courses, and talks that are now online, I came across a popular Physics lecture series at UMichigan which listed a talk by one of my favorite speakers, Owen Gingerich. He had spoken about The Four Myths of the Copernican Revolution last November. It was, how shall we say, riveting.

Owen talks in detail about how the Copernican model came to supplant the Ptolemaic model. In particular, he describes how Kepler went from Ptolemaic epicycles to elliptical orbits. Contrary to general impression, Kepler did not fit ellipses to Tycho Brahe’s observations of Mars. The ellipticity is far too small for it to be fittable! But rather, he used logical reasoning to first offset Earth’s epicyle away from the center in order to avoid the so-called Martian Catastrophe, and then used the phenomenological constraint of the law of equal areas to infer that the path must be an ellipse.

This process, along with Galileo’s advocacy for the heliocentric system, demonstrates a telling fact about how Astrophysics is done in practice. Hyunsook once lamented that astronomers seem to be rather trigger happy with correlations and regressions, and everyone knows they don’t constitute proof of anything, so why do they do it? Owen says about 39 1/2 minutes into the lecture:

Here we have the fourth of the myths, that Galileo’s telescopic observations finally proved the motion of the earth and thereby, at last, established the truth of the Copernican system.

What I want to assure you is that, in general, science does not operate by proofs. You hear that an awful lot, about science looking for propositions that can be falsified, that proof plays this big role.. uh-uh. It is coherence of explanation, understanding things that are well-knit together; the broader the framework of knitting the things together, the more we are able to believe it.

Exactly! We build models, often with little justification in terms of experimental proof, and muddle along trying to make it fit into a coherent narrative. This is why statistics is looked upon with suspicion among astronomers, and why for centuries our mantra has been “if it takes statistics to prove it, it isn’t real!”