The Lady Tasting Tea: How Statistics Revolutionized Science in the Twentieth Century

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9780716741060: The Lady Tasting Tea: How Statistics Revolutionized Science in the Twentieth Century

At a summer tea party in Cambridge, England, a lady states that tea poured into milk tastes differently than that of milk poured into tea. Her notion is shouted down by the scientific minds of the group. But one guest, by the name Ronald Aylmer Fisher, proposes to scientifically test the lady's hypothesis. There was no better person to conduct such a test. For Fisher had brought to the field of statistics an emphasis on controlling the methods for obtaining data and the importance of interpretation. He knew that how the data was gathered and applied was as important as the data themselves.

In The Lady Tasting Tea, readers will encounter not only Ronald Fisher's theories (and their repercussions), but the ideas of dozens of men and women whose revolutionary work affects our everyday lives. Writing with verve and wit, author David Salsburg traces the rise and fall of Karl Pearson's theories, explores W. Edwards Deming's statistical methods of quality control (which rebuilt postwar Japan's economy), and relates the story of Stella Cunliff's early work on the capacity of small beer casks at the Guinness brewing factory.

The Lady Tasting Tea is not a book of dry facts and figures, but the history of great individuals who dared to look at the world in a new way.

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Review:

Science is inextricably linked with mathematics. Statistician David Salsburg examines the development of ever-more-powerful statistical methods for determining scientific truth in The Lady Tasting Tea, a series of historical and biographical sketches that illuminate without alienating the mathematically timid. Salsburg, who has worked in academia and industry and has met many of the major players he writes about, shares his subjects' enthusiasm for problem solving and deep thinking. His sense of excitement drives the prose, but never at the expense of the reader; if anything, the author has taken pains to eliminate esoterica and ephemera from his stories. This might frustrate a few number-head readers, but the abundant notes and references should keep them happy in the library for weeks after reading the book.

Ultimately, the various tales herein are unified in a single theme: the conversion of science from observational natural history into rigorously defined statistical models of data collection and analysis. This process, usually only implicit in studies of scientific methods and history, is especially important now that we seem to be reaching the point of diminishing returns and are looking for new paradigms of scientific investigation. The Lady Tasting Tea will appeal to a broad audience of scientifically literate readers, reminding them of the humanity underlying the work. --Rob Lightner

About the Author:

David Salsburg is a former Senior Research Fellow at Pfizer, Inc., and currently works as a private consultant. He is a fellow of the American Statistical Association and received a lifetime achievement award from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturing Association. The author of three technical books and over fifty scientific articles, Salsburg has taught at Connecticut College, Harvard School of Public Health, Rhode Island College, Trinity College, the University of Connecticut, and the University of Pennsylvania. He lives in New London, Connecticut.

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