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

David Salsburg
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
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Book Description

May 1 2002
An insightful, revealing history of the magical mathematics that transformed our world.

At a summer tea party in Cambridge, England, a guest states that tea poured into milk tastes different from milk poured into tea. Her notion is shouted down by the scientific minds of the group. But one man, Ronald Fisher, proposes to scientifically test the hypothesis. There is no better person to conduct such an experiment, for Fisher is a pioneer in the field of statistics.

The Lady Tasting Tea spotlights not only Fisher's theories but also the revolutionary ideas of dozens of men and women which affect our modern everyday lives. Writing with verve and wit, David Salsburg traces breakthroughs ranging from the rise and fall of Karl Pearson's theories to the methods of quality control that rebuilt postwar Japan's economy, including a pivotal early study on the capacity of a small beer cask at the Guinness brewing factory. Brimming with intriguing tidbits and colorful characters, The Lady Tasting Tea salutes the spirit of those who dared to look at the world in a new way.

Frequently Bought Together

The Lady Tasting Tea: How Statistics Revolutionized Science in the Twentieth Century + The History of Statistics: The Measurement of Uncertainty before 1900 + Statistics on the Table: The History of Statistical Concepts and Methods
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Product Description

From Amazon

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 illuminates 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. This drives his 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 --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

The development of statistical modeling in primary research is the underreported paradigm shift in the foundation of science. The lady of the title's claim that she could detect a difference between milk-into-tea vs. tea-into-milk infusions sets up the social history of a theory that has changed the culture of science as thoroughly as relativity did (the lady's palate is analogous to quantum physics' famous cat-subject), making possible the construction of meaningful scientific experiments. Statistical modeling is the child of applied mathematics and the 19th-century scientific revolution. So Salsburg begins his history at the beginning (with field agronomists in the U.K. in the 1920s trying to test the usefulness of early artificial fertilizer) and creates an important, near-complete chapter in the social history of science. His modest style sometimes labors to keep the lid on the Wonderland of statistical reality, especially under the "This Book Contains No Equations!" marketing rule for trade science books. He does his best to make a lively story of mostly British scientists' lives and work under this stricture, right through chaos theory. The products of their advancements include more reliable pharmaceuticals, better beer, econometrics, quality control manufacturing, diagnostic tests and social policy. It is unfortunate that this introduction to new statistical descriptions of reality tries so hard to appease mathophobia. Someone should do hypothesis testing of the relationship between equations in texts and sales in popular science markets it would make a fine example of the use of statistics. Illus.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Where's the beef? June 28 2003
This is another of those books about mathematics that avoids displaying any mathematical equations or formulas, like Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time." Hawking explained that his publishers told him that every line of mathematics would cut the sales by 50%. Unfortunately, the lack of mathematics makes it much harder to transmit the ideas. In many places in this book, I miss the math sorely. This book is actually harder to understand as it is, then if it gave us the relevant equations and formulas. Maybe Salsburg (or some other generous soul) could put together a web site that provides the math, referenced to chapters in the book.
Nevertheless, the book tells its stories well, and rewards (and challenges) the reader with some ideas and concepts I'd like to at least remember, if not explore further.
Chapter seven briefly outlines "the Fisherian versus the Pearsonian view of statistics," a philosophical theme that is fundamental to the application of statistics to reality. "Karl Pearson viewed statistical distributions as describing the actual collections of data he would analyze. According to Fisher, the true distribution is an abstract mathematical formula, and the data collected can be used only to estimate the parameters of the true distribution.... Pearson viewed the distribution of measurements as a real thing.... To Fisher, the measurements were a random selection from the set of all possible measurements." I'm not sure what this means, exactly.
At the end of chapter six, there is a review of a math text (Gumbel's "Statistics of Extremes," an out of print collectible being offered through amazon...) from the 1950's that makes me want to find the book and read it.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars This Book Has Been Overpraised March 5 2003
This book is loaded with technical terms that are barely explained. True, the stories of the people involved in developing these ideas are presented in a vivid and clear style. But this does little to aid the reader in grasping these mathematical concepts so that they have meaning. After all, this book asserts that statistics has revolutionized science, and I did not feel anything like this at the end of this book. Moreover, the author glibly rejects all of chaos theory in a little bit more than 3 pages[93-6], at another point calls the law of cause and effect " a vague notion that will not withstand the batterings of pure reason"[ p 186] But what "pure reason" happens to be, the author never bothers to tell us. Moreover, he earlier asserts that "the statistical model that defines the quest of also based on a statement of faith." This comment then merits a discussion of what axioms are being put forth. But again there is a conspicuous vacuum of thought.At the conclusion, Salsburg casts doubt on the entire subject of his book by stating :"I do not believe that the human mind is capable of organizing a structure of ideas that can come close to describing what is really out there." This self-contradiction coming from the mouth of a supposed science educator is a perfect reflection of the philosophical mess that constitutes this book. Not recommended.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best book for the general reader on statistics Feb. 17 2002
Most people don't realize that the very notion of proof, at least in the field of medicine, did not exist until 1934, when the founder of modern statistics, R.A. Fisher, invented it. He would undoubtedly have some scathing remarks on what currently passes for proof for new medical treatments. You'll read about all the great statisticians of the 20th century, many of whom fled the Nazi's, or the Russians, and wound up in the United States. One accomplished American statistician was laid off by Department of Agriculture bureaucrats in the great Depression and could only find a job in the Soviet Union under Stalin. What a great story! I met some of these guys at Stanford when I was getting my Masters Degree in Statistics in the 1970s. While they sometimes can be boring on the surface, underneath lurks a passion for reality rarely found in more superficially interesting folk. I used the text of Gumbel on how to compute the probability of a 100 year flood as the basis of my Ph.D. thesis on carcinogenesis at the University of Colorado School of Medicine Department of Biometrics in the 1980s. As a well rounded technologist, Gumbel also published a book on Four Years of Political Murder in 1922, followed by Causes of Political Murder in 1928, as a critique of the Nazis. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, he barely escaped Germany and had to hide out in Southern France. This is the best book of this type that I've read since Fermat's Enigma and it is best savored chapter by chapter over a cup of cappuccino in a Peets or Starbucks. A book for the general reader that every statistician should read!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Yes, But What do the Numbers Mean? Feb. 13 2002
By A Customer
I am a high school math teacher who has long thought that statistics is more important in the curriculum than calculus. This book is one I can now recommend to colleagues and parents who question the importance of the subject. (Usually these adults had miserable experience with statistics courses in the past where formulas and computation, rather than understanding, drove the class.)
This book accomplishes two things. First, it conveys the development of statistics in the 20th century as the science of science - i.e. how experiments and surveys form the basis for knowledge and how to evaluate that knowledge. Second, it puts a human face on those who contributed to the field. The author's stories of Fisher vs. Neyman are wonderful. I especially appreciated how Salsburg relates the role of women in the field. They were often would-be mathematicians who were directed into statistics as a more "appropriate" field for women. Fortunately, as government use of statistics expanded, women civil servants were often already in place to provide quality analysis.
This book will probably not be widely read, but it should be...especially by scientists, journalists, and teachers.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars What a great book about stats, a great read.
What a great book about stats, a great read. It helps to understand all the odd stories that helped to invent stats.
Published on March 13 2012 by Artie
2.0 out of 5 stars Just doesn't work.
Salsburg shows that the history of statistics is probably pretty interesting, but in trying to stay away from the math, he makes it harder to understand. Read more
Published on Jan. 29 2010 by Gord McKenna
4.0 out of 5 stars I don't like math but this book kept me reading
I thought this was a great book. The author uses interesting examples for the use of statistics in every day life and we discover how this complicated science has many everyday... Read more
Published on July 20 2004 by Karine Seidman
4.0 out of 5 stars What happened to Frank P. Ramsey?J M Keynes?
Salsburg(S) does an excellent job discussing the historical development of the field of statistics in the 20th century. Read more
Published on July 17 2004 by Michael Emmett Brady
4.0 out of 5 stars Noble effort, and entertaining.
It should come as no surprise to any reader that a 300 page collection of anecdotes might fall a bit short in realizing the implied goal in Salsburg's subtitle. Read more
Published on May 25 2004 by Peter A. Kindle
5.0 out of 5 stars Pleasing intro to statisctics for lay(wo)men
An intriguing story based introduction to the fast field of
statistics. No formulas but still plenty of math terms explained
as easily as possible. Read more
Published on Nov. 3 2003 by Per Kistler
4.0 out of 5 stars Engaging history of statistics, but illiterate on science
This book is almost wonderful. It presents an account of the history of statistics that I almost couldn't put down. Read more
Published on Oct. 24 2003 by Amazon Customer
3.0 out of 5 stars Math is never easy.
Writing a story of mathematics for a general audience is never easy (in addition to this book I am also thinking of Berlinski's "Tour of the Calculus"). Read more
Published on June 16 2003 by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful book for both mathematical and non-mathematical
This book is a wonderful depiction of the history of Statistics and its great contributors. Dr. Salsburg conveys the stories of the great minds of the statistical world in an... Read more
Published on Aug. 9 2002
4.0 out of 5 stars Statistics humanized and triumphant
The title refers to the story about the English lady who believed she could tell by tasting whether the milk had been added to the tea or the tea added to the milk. Read more
Published on July 24 2002 by Dennis Littrell
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