Ars Conjectandi is not a book that non-statisticians will have heard of, nor one that many statisticians will have heard of either. The title means ‘The Art of Conjecturing’ – which in turn means roughly ‘What You Can Work Out From the Evidence.’ But it is worth statisticians celebrating it, because it is the book that gave an adequate mathematical foundation to their discipline, and it was published 300 years ago this year.
More people will have heard of its author. Jacob Bernouilli was one of a huge mathematical family of Bernoullis. In physics, aircraft engineers base everything they do on Bernoulli’s principle. It explains how aircraft wings give lift, is the basis of fluid dynamics, and was discovered by Jacob’s nephew Daniel Bernoulli.
There are a lot of scary things to face when doing a PhD: supervisor's ideas of 'normal' working hours, reviewers whose sole aim in life is to reject as many papers as possible, or the experimental equipment that only works when the right amount of Blu-Tack is in the right place and you karate chop the on-button. But possibly the scariest of all is the journalist.
This is why sense about science has set up their Standing up for Science media workshop: a one day workshop, specifically for early career scientists that gives a bit of insight into how science gets translated into news. It's a great workshop that combines a session of scientists talking about successful (and less successful) experiences with journalists, with a session of journalists talking about what they actually do during their busy days. But most of all, it gets us early career scientists away from our lab benches for a day to talk about why we think it is so scary in the first place.
In a recent article I reported the results of the internet-test, where the takers had to tell the prose of Charles Dickens from the prose of the little known Victorian novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton. The test-takers failed the task. The article met a flood of rash criticism most of which I had already refuted. However, one objection still stands: I used small excerpts rather than complete novels. From reading an excerpt, one can evaluate an author’s prose style. Thus my opponents concluded that Dickens was famous not for his prose but for his plots and characters. To evaluate such things one has to read the whole novel. It is technically impossible to include whole novels in the test. Fortunately, in the case of poetry it is possible to use complete literary works.
According to Britannica, Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) “has often been considered his country’s greatest poet and the founder of modern Russian literature.” In contrast, his contemporary, Nikolay Yazykov, is not even mentioned in the British Encyclopedia. I wrote a test1 where the takers are to tell between their verses. Actually, I suspect that in spite of having an entry in Britannica Pushkin is not familiar to most of the readers. To help the British public fully comprehend the importance of the discovery I am about to convey, I will give some additional information: Pushkin’s great granddaughter Nadejda Mountbatten is an aunt of Prince Phillip.
I was listening with half an ear (as one does) to Melvyn Bragg’s academic-intellectual-historical-philosophical-scientific educate-us-all-in-things-that-every-civilised-person-ought-to-know-but-probably-doesn’t programme on Radio Four yesterday, (and I think it is wonderful by the way). It was on Voltaire (1694-1778 as Melvyn was careful to inform us); and one of the experts gave us a little throwaway remark. ‘Voltaire became rich early in life by teaming up with a statistician to win the French national lottery.’ That was it.