Ian Hacking’s The Emergence of Probability (Cambridge University Press, 1975), was in many ways the launching pad for history of statistics as a scholarly topic in (but not limited to) history of science. Like its author, the book resists classification. Ian took his graduate training in philosophy at Cambridge, and he preferred simply “philosophy” to more cumbersome labels like “history and philosophy of science.” His first book (1965), The Logic of Statistical Inference, left him dissatisfied by the typical failure to distinguish aleatory from epistemological probability, that is, measures of uncertainty from distributions of chance events. “We seem to be in the grip of darker powers than are admitted into the positivist ontology” he wrote (15).
I first encountered A Midwife’s Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich twenty years ago when I was a teaching assistant for a course called Medicine and Society in America. For Professor Allan Brandt, the book was of interest mainly for its content. Based on the diary of an eighteenth century midwife in rural Hallowell, Maine, Ulrich’s book gives a wonderful sense of the system of “social medicine” that thrived in that time and place, a system sustained by women, often co-existing alongside but sometimes in open conflict with the more elite practice of “scientific” medicine dominated by male physicians. I was fascinated by the types of remedies employed by the midwife, Martha Ballard, who acted as “nurse, physician, mortician, pharmacist, and attentive wife” (40). Martha was a stalwart member of her community, in addition to delivering its hundreds of infants.
Johannes Kepler, Keppler, Khepler, Kheppler, or Keplerus was conceived on 16 May A.D. 1571, at 4.37 a.m., and was born on 27 December at 2.30 p.m., after a pregnancy lasting 224 days, 9 hours and 53 minutes. The five different ways of spelling his name are all his own, and so are the figures relating to conception, pregnancy, and birth, recorded in a horoscope which he cast for himself. The contrast between his carelessness about his name and his extreme precision about dates reflects, from the very outset, a mind to whom all ultimate reality, the essence of religion, of truth and beauty, was contained in the language of numbers.
On re-reading this opening paragraph of the Kepler chapters in Arthur Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers of 1959, I have no trouble perceiving what once made me, a 17-year old, aspiring history student with a high-school science major, read on, and on, and on. Certainly the catching, not to say gripping style. Almost certainly as well, albeit more dimly so, the virtuoso manner in which two brilliantly chosen, telling details are within the space of just three sentences being amplified into a sweeping characterization of the personality whose life and works remain from here on the author’s principal subject for some two hundred pages to come.