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Dr. George Box Speaks at Discovery 2009

It is a rare and exhilarating opportunity to dine with a legend. And at Discovery 2009, that is exactly what attendees did.

After a full day of keynote speakers, breakout sessions, poster browsing and meeting the developers, conference-goers convened for deep-dish pizza and the chance to hear from Dr. George E.P. Box, who many would label “the father of modern-day statistics.”

The audience was filled with people who learned statistics from his many books, including “Statistics for Experimenters.” Each person received a copy and the chance to have it signed by the man for which Box-Cox transformations, Box-Jenkins models and Box-Behnken designs are named.

In the words of one audience member, his “book is one of the best. I look at it every week when helping people set up experiments.”

Dr. Bradley Jones, Director of R&D at JMP, opened the event, calling Box a “personal hero” and “the leading statistician of the previous millennium.”

Box entered to electrifying applause and a standing ovation from his many admirers. Clearly overwhelmed by the moving response, he jokingly likened the moment to a story he remembered of a sultan who, on his 21st birthday, attended a celebration in his honor where there were many concubines and “he didn’t know where to start!”

Infusing his entire presentation with humor and fascinating tales of his memories, Box focused on sequential design of experiments. He attributed much of what he knows about DOE to Ronald A. Fisher. Box explained that Fisher couldn’t find the things he was looking for in his data, “and he was right. Even if he had had the fastest available computer, he’d still be right,” said Box. Therefore, Fisher figured out how to study a number of factors at one time. And so, the beginnings of DOE.

Having worked and studied with many other famous statisticians and analytic thinkers, Box did not hesitate to share his characterizations of them. He told a story about Dr. Bill Hunter and how he required his students to run an experiment. Apparently a variety of subjects was studied, from baking cakes to experimenting with sex to finding a better way to get out of a spin in an airplane (according to Box, the student didn’t actually kill himself, although he came close).

At the conclusion of his presentation, audience members were invited to participate in a Q&A session. Dr. Dick De Veaux, professor of mathematics and statistics at Williams College and a Discovery Keynote Speaker, had a funny exchange with Box. It went like this:

De Veaux: “You invented a lot of things, and we are thankful for all of those. But the box plot, you didn’t invent. And you once confided in me you’d like to invent your own plot. I would like to know how that’s going.”

Box (chuckling): “Well, John Tukey was working in the same group as me at the time that he invented the box plot. And he decided to call it that. Why? I have no idea. He was a remarkable man. But on the other hand, I sometimes got irritated with him. I remember once, I had been asked to give a seminar. And he thought he knew what I would say and continued to interrupt me, but he didn’t know what I was going to say. I decided to take a vote, if it comes out in my favor, John Tukey will keep quiet. And it did come out in my favor.”

De Veaux: “So there!”

Box: “But he really was a remarkable person in most ways.”

His answer to the why DOE has not taken root in more organizations where Six Sigma and quality process control already occur was priceless as well. He said, “I don’t see why people doing Six Sigma shouldn’t do DOE. I’d say, if they aren’t, you should teach them and say it’s Six Sigma.”

Breakout session presenter and experimental design advocate Dr. Chris Nachtsheim asked Box if he had any comments on the state of the statistical profession today. Box explained that in order to teach statistics today, all you need is a math degree. He said that many professors “aren’t statisticians at all; they are actually mathematicians who didn’t quite make it.” Therefore, it is very unlikely that these mathematicians have ever run an experiment.

According to Box, the difficulty of getting DOE to take root lies in the fact that these mathematicians “can’t really get the fact that it’s not about proving a theorem, it’s about being curious about things. There aren’t enough people who will apply [DOE] as a way of finding things out. But maybe with JMP, things will change that way.”

Well said, Dr. Box. Thank you for sharing your time, talents and thoughts with us.

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1 Comment

John Hunter wrote:

Here is a link to my father's article 101 Ways to Design an Experiment, or Some Ideas About Teaching Design of Experiments, in it he lists 101 experiments students actually did: http://williamghunter.net/articles/101doe.cfm

You can also read some of Dr. Box's great articles online: http://curiouscat.net/library/georgebox.cfm