Crystallographers and statisticians

If you like podcasts, and you like science, you should listen to Jim Al-Khalili‘s Life Scientific, on BBC Radio 4. (I suppose if you’re in Britain you could listen on an actual radio.). Al-Khalili, a nuclear physicist, interviews prominent (mostly British) scientists about their life and work.

The most recent program was with Elspeth Garman, Professor of Molecular Biophysics at Oxford University. Garman’s work is in X-ray crystallography of proteins, which, as the BBC website puts it, is ”
…a technique that’s led to 28 Nobel Prizes in the last century.” Perhaps the one that comes to mind most easily is the prize that Watson, Crick, and Wilkins won for the structure of DNA. How many people remember Rosalind Franklin? (Fortunately for the Nobel committee, they could exclude her on the basis that she was dead by the time the prize was awarded…). There’s some interesting discussion in the interview about how crystallographers are generally working to improve methods that other scientists will use – so they are rarely the public face of the research.

Much the same is true of statisticians, at least before the current data surge of interest in “data science”. Tukey put it as “the best thing about being a statistician is that you get to play in everyone’s backyard” – but they don’t necessarily let you into the house, and you’re certainly not going to be on the Christmas card.

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