Statistics comes to Swarthmore College

Some years ago, I studied mathematics and statistics. At that time, there was only one statistician among the mathematics department members, maybe the entire Swarthmore College faculty, Gudmund R. Iversen. He was my academic adviser. Professor Iversen was grey, tweedy and Norwegian. He always addressed me as Miss Kesselman, which helped alleviate my shyness at the time.

Professor Iversen got his PhD in statistics from Harvard University in 1969. I noticed only one other familiar name on that very short list of all Harvard Statistics PhD alumni: Columbia University political science and statistics professor Andrew Gelman PhD in 1990.

Lunch with Tufte

Professor Iversen had a group of colleagues, all statisticians from other academic institutions. They would visit Swarthmore to give lunchtime talks, or more typically, late Friday afternoon presentations to mathematical statistics students.

I recall one particular guest statistician. Edward Tufte was on the faculty of Princeton University, and had recently written his first book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. The venue was a small private room in Sharples dining hall. I was one of maybe 20 attending.

Tufte was high-strung and slightly fussy, with occasional flashes of humor. He handed out hardback copies of his book, admonishing us “not to dip them in the gravy” from lunch (there was no gravy at lunch). Tufte explained that he had to take out a third mortgage on his house to finance the production and publication of Visual Display. The book was gorgeous. The statistical graphs were unlike anything I had ever seen before. Tufte spoke at length about Charles Minard’s famous map representing Napoleon Bonaparte’s doomed Russian campaign. In the summer of 1812, Napoleon set out for Moscow with 440,000 troops. Only 10,000 returned.

Tufte spoke well. After a mild question and answer session, he retrieved copies of his book from us. I badly wanted to keep mine. For a little more Tuftese see my Chart Art post.

Statistics moves up in the world

During my time at Swarthmore College, statistics was considered a marginal field of study, at best. The current math department chairman, James England, referred to it as “cocktail party math”. Professor Iversen had tenure by the time I arrived, yet he didn’t have an office with the rest of the mathematics department. Instead, he still occupied the same room in the 1st level basement of the engineering building as he had since 1973, and a ten minute walk from the rest of the department.  It was an almost windowless room, with woven wool rugs on the floors and hung on the walls, which kept the air warm and dry. Naturally, the furniture was mostly mid-century Scandinavian modern.

Given that background, I was surprised and happy when Professor Iversen became the new department head in 1992! In 1993, the department name changed. Now it is the Swarthmore College Mathematics and Statistics Department. As far as I can tell, Professor Iversen kept his original office even while he was department chair. After twenty years, it was their turn to come to him.


I happened upon a pleasant review of Statistics in Society: The Arithmetic of Politics written by Iversen for the MAA (Mathematical Association of America) in February 2000. The book is actually a collection of 47 essays. Overall, the review is positive. Excerpt:

The book grew out of activities supported by what is known as the Radical Statistics group, a twenty-five year old group unknown to me before reading this book. Radical Statistics is “a group of statisticians and others who share a common concern about the political assumptions implicit in the process of compiling and using statistics, and an awareness of the actual and potential misuses of statistics and its techniques.”


Cornucopia of mathematics

This image was originally developed as the focal point of the Math Awareness Month poster of April 2000. The theme was “Math Spans All Dimensions”. It was too lovely to be retired, and appeared again at TFBCON2003.

According to the artist, Brown University professor Thomas Banchoff, it is suffused with joy, just as I had hoped!

It begins with mere points, then a curve that flares into a spiral and eventually a colorful 3-d cornucopia of mathematical plenty:

…suggesting the possibility of further dimensions yet to come.

Professor Banchoff’s art work has even graced some book covers, including this one, written by my favorite statistician.


Statistical analysis of science fiction authors and fans

The classic science-fiction related excerpt that follows after the jump is neither up to-date nor analytically robust. I tidied it a bit, but to do a decent job would require re-running the data, not to mention collecting data with a more recent vintage. But it is entertaining, and the concept may be of use to others. To whom? Well, I have spent a fair amount of time on Stack Exchange sites recently. Let me tell you all about it.

What is Stack Exchange?

Question and answer websites are popular. Stack Exchange is a free, mostly user-run Q&A site. It was co-founded and managed by Jeff Atwood a.k.a. @Coding Horror and Joel Spolsky. EDIT: Joel now runs Stack Exchange, as The Coding Horror has departed.

The prototype version of the site was known as Stack Overflow, and continues to thrive. There are many stacks on Stack Exchange. Most are computing or analytically-themed e.g. programming, systems administration, website design, mobile applications development, mathematics and quantitative finance. Others are more eclectic, and thus of a more experimental nature. They are labelled as such, by a beta designation, and guided along by the whimsically named Area51 Stack Exchange site. Now that you’ve been enlightened by that tangential aside, I’ll get to the point. I was thinking of Literature Stack Exchange in particular.

The problem at hand

Literature Stack Exchange was initially overrun by book-recommendation inquiries. This was unfortunate. Why? Because suggestions about subjective matters are nearly impossible to provide to friends and relatives, let alone on an online forum. Fortunately, the issue has resolved itself for the time being, through better site administration.

Update – The issue has resolved itself permanently, because the site was closed due to a general lack of interest in early May of this year. Stack Exchange does have a thriving Science Fiction community, which enjoys a great deal of activity! So let us continue, along the same, still relevant theme.

Perhaps the following approach might provide inspiration for those seeking reading material recommendations.

Classic science fiction writers and reader politics

Politics is the horizontal dimension, with the right-wingers at the right and the left-wingers at the left. Hard-science science fiction is the vertical dimension, with hard-science authors at the top and anti-hard-science authors at the bottom. While hard-science tended to be somewhat Righty, New Wave was strongly Lefty, having a correlation of -0.51 with politics. Not surprisingly, there is a correlation of -0.25 between hard-science and New Wave.

We learned all kinds of odd facts about fans and the things that inspired them to like different authors and styles.

  • Student fans like both Ellison and Heinlein more than  average, and like Vance and McCaffrey less.
  • Female fans are more likely than men to prefer McCaffrey and sword-and-sorcery fiction.

SourceNew Maps of Science Fiction by William Sims Bainbridge and Murray M. Dalziel, first published in Analog Yearbook 1977, pp 277-299.

To summarize, the chart captures the political leanings of sci-fi fans circa 1977, not the authors. H.P. Lovecraft is a good example, see the lower left quadrant of the chart. Lovecraft fans tend to be liberal sorts, supportive of all manner of progressive liberal ideology. H.P. Lovecraft has lain dreaming in R’yelah (or on Pluto, or in New Englander heaven) since 1937. If he were with us today, he’d probably support the Tea Party.

I find the heavy use of negative correlations rather confusing. (There are ways of remedying that though.)