Survivorship Bias | The Curious Story of the Applied Mathematics Panel

The Misconception: You should focus on the successful if you wish to become successful.

The Truth: When failure becomes invisible, the difference between failure and success may also become invisible.

[In New York City, in an apartment a dozen blocks west of Harlem, above trees reaching out over sidewalks and dogs pulling at leashes and conversations cut short to avoid parking tickets, a group of professional thinkers once gathered and completed equations that would both snuff and spare several hundred thousand human lives.

Carry The One POSTER

Illustration by Brad Clark at http://www.plus3video.com

People walking by the apartment at the time had no idea that four stories above them some of the most important work in applied mathematics was tilting the scales of a global conflict as secret agents of the United States armed forces, arithmetical soldiers, engaged in statistical combat. Nor could people today know as they open umbrellas and twist heels on cigarettes, that nearby, in an apartment overlooking Morningside Heights, one of those soldiers once effortlessly prevented the United States military from doing something incredibly stupid, something that could have changed the flags now flying in capitals around the world had he not caught it, something you do every day.

These masters of math moved their families across the country, some across an ocean, so they could work together. As they unpacked, the theaters in their new hometowns replaced posters for Citizen Kane with those for Casablanca, and the newspapers they unwrapped from photo frames and plates featured stories still unraveling the events at Pearl Harbor. Many still held positions at universities. Others left those sorts of jobs to think deeply in one of the many groups that worked for the armed forces, free of any other obligations aside from checking in on their families at night and feeding their brains during the day. All paused their careers and rushed to enlist so they could help crush Hitler, not with guns and brawn, but with integers and exponents.

The official name for the people inside the apartment was the Statistical Research Group, a cabal of geniuses assembled at the request of the White House and made up of people who would go on to compete for and win Nobel Prizes. The SRG was an extension of Columbia University, and they dealt mainly with statistical analysis. The Philadelphia Computing Section, another group made up entirely of women mathematicians, worked six days a week at the University of Pennsylvania on ballistics tables. Other groups with different specialties were tied to Harvard, Princeton, Brown and others, 11 in all, each a leaf at the end of a new branch of the government created to help defeat the Axis – the Department of War Math.

Actually…no. They were never officially known by such a deliciously sexy title. They were instead called the Applied Mathematics Panel, but they operated as if they were a department of war math…….]

Read the full story:

Survivorship Bias

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