Feynman and Statistics

To my knowledge, Richard Feynman is an iconic figure among physicists and astrophysicists. Although I didn’t read every chapter of his lecture series, from other books like QED, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, and some essays, I became and still am fond of him. The way how this famous physicist put things is straight and simple, blowing out the misconception that physics is full of mathematical equations.

Even though most of my memories about his writings are gone – how many people can beat the time and fading memories! – like other rudimentary astronomy and physics stuffs that I used to know, statistics brought up his name above the surface before it sinks completely to the abyss.

Recently, I heard that the reason Prof. Feynman became famous outside of the physics community is

In this video, Prof. Feynman demonstrates the cause of the explosion while others, based on what I heard not the video, were trying to prove things with mathematical equations.

I was in the process of writing on “model uncertainty” to understand why the same term is used differently in astronomy and in statistics and planned to include some papers to show how statisticians handle uncertainty. One of them is Assessment and Propagation of Model Uncertainty by David Draper in JRSS B Vol. 57, No. 1 (1995), pp. 45-97. Draper used the O-ring data set, one of the most frequently cited data sets in statistics textbooks. (UCI archive has the data)

One of my favorite statisticians is John Tukey, of Fast Fourier Transform, higher criticisms, and exploratory data analysis which are all well known to astronomers. There is an interesting anecdotes of Feynman and Tukey, two most intellectual individuals, each of whom represented his field. It is an excerpt from Notices of the American Mathematical Society February 2002 Volume 49 Issue 2 pp.193-201 (pdf)

While living in the Graduate College, John came to know the physicist Richard Feynman, and he appears in various of the books by and about Feynman. One special story relates to keeping time. Feynman knew that he could keep track of time while reading, but not while speaking. He presented this as a challenge. Rising to it, JWT showed that he could speak and keep track of time simultaneously. Of this Feynman remarks: “Tukey and I discovered that what goes on in different people’s heads when they think they’re doing the same thing—something as simple as counting—is different for different people.” This may also be the source of JWT’s remark, “People are different.”

In 1939 Feynman and Tukey, together with Bryant Tuckerman and Arthur Stone, were members of the Flexagon Committee. This group formed directly following the discovery of certain origami like objects by Stone. Flexagons are folded from strips of paper and reveal different faces as they are flexed. A theory of flexagons was worked out by Tukey and Feynman, the theory being a hybrid of topology and network theory. Feynman created a diagram that showed all the possible paths through a hexaflexagon. The Feynman-Tukey theory was never published, but parts were later rediscovered.

After more than half a century since such conversation is made, after an almost quarter century since the explosion of Challenger, I wonder how many conversations have occurred between astronomers and statisticians casually. Did conversations ever happened, I wonder what kind problems scientifically intriguing and common to both fields were solved. Contradicting to Prof. Feynman’s simplicity of explaining causes, for two decades, there were statisticians and statistic practitioners spending time to explain their models and to argue that what they found was not discovered by predecessors’ model based on this O-ring data set. I wonder if such statistical modeling efforts help to prevent any disastrous results in space missions while contracting the Feynman’s report about the cause of the explosion.

I’d like to believe that there are occasionally many conversations among astronomers and statisticians in the world, which would produce more fruitful results than astronomers’ applying a century old statistics blindly without knowing its foundation and statisticians’ not talking astronomers because of complexity in physics.

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