National Statistics Day and the Randomness of Life

Just about everything from ballpoint pens to lima beans have their own “days” on the calendar each year. As statisticians, we feel that it goes without saying that statistics, the system of collecting, analyzing, interpreting, presenting, and organizing data, is far more deserving of recognition than ball point pens and lima beans! We are thrilled to be celebrating National Statistics Day today, and we honor the man for which this wonderful day is commemorated.

National Statistics Day was officially recognized 12 years ago on June 29th- the birthdate of the late Professor Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis (1893-1972), who is most notably-known for the concept of Mahalanobis distance (a measure of the distance between a point P and a distribution D - a multi-dimensional generalization of the idea of measuring how many standard deviations away P is from the mean of D), which he introduced in 1936.

He also founded the Indian Statistical Institute in 1931, was one of the top members of the first Planning Commission of Free India, and instrumental in Free India’s plan for industrialization in the Second Five-Year Plan (1956-1961).

Mahalanobis gathered information on all sorts of things, such as consumer habits, public opinion and crop data, and he used that data to upgrade the quality of life of his people by identifying trends before anyone else did.

The grandfather of Mahalanobis, Gurucharan, was a key figure in the Brahmo Samaj, one of the most influential religious movements in the history of India. His father and uncles were also big players in reformist movements, sparking interest in social/economic issues at an early age. Mahalanobis was raised by a set of progressively-thinking parents, and they encouraged him to be involved in the intellectual discussions of his elders, in spite of his young age.

As we delve deeper into the life of Mahalanobis, we discover that much of this part of statistics’ history evolved out of a series of random events. (After all, for game-changing greats like Mahalanobis and his dear friend Robert Fischer, collecting data on random happenings was a way of life.)

Interestingly, Mahalanobis’ first love was physics. He graduated from Calcutta’s Presidency College with honors in physics, and signed up to study physics and mathematics at the University of London. As chance would have it, after missing a train back to London, he stayed with a friend at King’s College in Cambridge. In his brief time there, Mahalanobis became so enamored with the college, that he enrolled the very next day.  Mahalanobis completed his Tripos (final honors exam) in math and science, and was then scheduled to work as a physics researcher in the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge.

Before starting the job, Mahalanobis traveled back home to India for a brief vacation. He had become so obsessed with the journal Biometrika (the benchmark journal on statistical theory and methodology) while at King’s College, that he purchased the complete set of volumes to take on the trip. As legend tells it, he began working feverishly on problems in meteorology and anthropology during this voyage, and as he consumed the journals, he started applying the new knowledge to real-life situations in his homeland.

In another twist of fate, Mahalanobis could not return to the UK because of the traveling complexities caused by World War I, this time missing a crucial boat. As a result, he remained in India, with a job as a physics teacher at Presidency College. It was during this time that Mahalanobis began turning his collected data into real-life applications. He became instrumental in formulating the newly independent India’s strategy for industrialization, making a huge impact on the future of his countrymen, in addition to his remarkable contributions to the field of statistics.

It’s fascinating to ponder what direction this story of statistics would have taken in, if Mahalanobis hadn’t missed that train, or that boat, and continued his pursuit of physics. It makes us wonder how each of our lives would have been different if some random situation, or chance meeting, hadn’t altered the course of events that led us to our passion for statistics and dedication to our clients. Hmmm…how many lives might have been affected?

HAPPY NATIONAL STATISTICS DAY from all of us at DataCeutics!