I love statistics! Anyone who knows me knows that. To me, it is the most relevant math class a student can take. Within the first few weeks of class, students can already see its usefulness, and never in 16 years of teaching AP Stats did I EVER have a student say “When am I ever going to use this stuff in real life?” Stats is the perfect blend of math and English, critical thinking and analysis, and can be applied to a whole range of different subjects: Sports, research, gambling, climate change, election polling. The list goes on and on.
I also love my city, New Bedford, Massachusetts. And there happens to be a connection between New Bedford and one of the greatest statisticians ever, John Tukey. John Tukey was born on June 16, 1915 in New Bedford. His father was chair of the Latin department at New Bedford High, where I taught for 20 years, and his mother was a teacher who was not able to continue teaching once her son was born. Realizing how smart John was, she homeschooled him, with the help of the wonderful New Bedford Public Library where John spent many hours reading about math and chemistry.
John stumbled into statistics. He went to Brown University for his undergraduate and graduate studies in chemistry and then went to Princeton, intending to earn his Ph.D. in chemistry. But at Princeton he was not allowed to serve as a chemistry lab assistant as he had at Brown, so he transitioned to math. Eventually his work took him into the world of statistics, where he found his passion. As well as working numerous jobs for the government, Tukey spent his entire career also teaching at Princeton, becoming a full professor at age 35, and the founding chairman of the statistics department in 1965. He also helped NBC design the polls they used in predicting election results. As John Tukey once said, “The best thing about being a statistician is you get to play in everyone’s backyard.”
AP Stats students may not know Tukey, but he is responsible for the box and whisker plot and the stem and leaf display they are taught, among many other statistical contributions. Tukey also coined the word “bit” and is credited with the first published use of the word “software.”
So during STEM week, let’s celebrate the great mathematicians and scientists who hail from Massachusetts. To me, top of the list is John Wilder Tukey. If you want to learn more about John Tukey’s contributions to the field of statistics, give him a search. You’ll be glad you did!