Archive for September 8, 2015

The Essence of Cosmology is Statistics

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on September 8, 2015 by telescoper

I’m grateful to Licia Verde for sending this picture of me in action at last week’s conference in Castiglioncello.

McVittie

The quote is one I use quite regularly, as the source is quite surprising. It is by George McVittie and appears in the Preface to the Proceedings of the Third Bekeley Symposium on Mathematical Statistics and Probability, which took place in 1956. It is surprising for two reasons. One is that McVittie is more strongly associated with theoretical cosmology than with statistics. In fact I have one of his books, the first edition of which was published in 1937:

DSC_0170

There’s a bit in the book about observational cosmology, but basically it’s wall-to-wall Christoffel symbols!

The other surprising thing is that way back in 1956 there was precious little statistical information relevant to cosmology anyway, a far cry from the situation today with our plethora of maps and galaxy surveys. What he was saying though was that statistics is all about making inferences based on partial or incomplete data. Given that the subject of cosmology is the entire Universe, it is obvious we will never have complete data (i.e. we will never know everything). Hence cosmology is essentially statistical. This is true of other fields too, but in cosmology it is taken to an extreme. George McVittie passed away in 1988, so didn’t really live long enough to see this statement fulfilled, but it certainly has been over the last couple of decades!

P.S. Although he spent much of his working life in the East End of London (at Queen Mary College), George McVittie should not be confused with the even more famous, or rather infamous, Jack McVitie.

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