I recently attended a lecture where the speaker discussed investment plans, hedge funds and the stock market. Most of his talk was beyond my comprehension and I have no plans to be wealthy. I did learn one thing, however, which stemmed from a demonstration he gave.

The speaker showed everyone a large jar full of M&Ms and asked all of the attendees to guess how many there were. The answers ranged from 3,000 to 30,000, and the correct number was somewhat in the middle. According to the speaker, Sir Francis Galton was the first person to predict that the correct answer is always the average of guesses despite how far apart the highest guess is to the lowest. I wasn't sure if the speaker was correct, but did have some recollection about Francis Galton from my general reading on statistics and decided to learn more about him.

I learned that in 1907, Galton asked 787 English villagers to guess the weight of an ox. None of them guessed the right answer, but when Galton averaged their guesses, he arrived at a near perfect estimate. This was the classic demonstration of the "wisdom of the crowds," where groups of people pool their abilities to show collective intelligence. The speaker at the meeting was right.



Biography

Galton was born on Feb. 16, 1822, in Birmingham, England, and was the half cousin of the famous naturalist Charles Darwin. Galton and Darwin shared the common grandfather Erasmus Darwin, the famous naturalist and philosopher. He originally intended to become a physician, studying at King's College London, Trinity College and the University of Cambridge, but upon the death of his father, Galton inherited a fortune that allowed him to leave his medical studies and travel. His expeditions through unexplored parts of Africa won him a medal from the French Geographical Society and election to the Royal Society.



Accomplishments

Galton was a British science writer and an amateur researcher of the late 19th century who contributed to the fields of statistics, experimental psychology and biometry. He has been called a statistician, polymath, sociologist, anthropologist, eugenicist, tropical explorer, geographer, inventor, meteorologist, proto-geneticist and psychometrician (someone who practices the science of psychological measurement). Not withstanding his questionable theories of racial differences, he is considered one of the world's most productive men owing to the breadth of his work.

Galton is widely regarded as the originator of the early 20th century eugenics movement. Eugenics is a science that deals with the improvement (as by human mating) of hereditary qualities of a race or breed. He is one of the first scientists to apply statistics to heredity and held statistics in high regard.

According to Galton, "Some people hate the very name statistics, but I find them full of beauty and interest. Whenever they are not brutalized, but delicately handled by the higher methods, and are warily interpreted, their power of dealing with complicated phenomena is extraordinary. They are the only tools by which an opening can be cut through the formidable thicket of difficulties that bare the path of those who pursue the Science of man."

Galton was the inventor of scientific meteorology and developed the first weather map, publishing Meteor-graphica, or methods of mapping the weather, in 1863.

In the 1890s Galton established that fingerprints did not change as a person ages and confirmed that they could be used as a unique method to identify a particular individual. He also identified eight types of fingerprint patterns and a classification system still used to day. The results of his work on classification and indexing was summarized in a 200-page book titled simply “Finger Prints.”

To further his versatility, in his spare time he invented the Galton Whistle to evaluate hearing ability by determining that the normal upper limit of human hearing was around 18 kHz. He also established that the ability to hear higher frequencies declined with age. Galton adapted his whistle to test the hearing of various animals, and it is commonly used as a dog whistle.

While in his 80s, Galton was asked to consider writing his autobiography, and he readily agreed. The result, titled “Memories of My Life,” was one his most successful books, with good reviews and a first edition that sold out within a month. The book is not a self-revealing document; it is packed with reminiscences and anecdotes of the many eminent men he had the good fortune to know.

Unfortunately, according to a recent article in Nation magazine, eugenics as described by Galton are merely the weird stepuncle of modern, scientifically grounded genetics. Galton's theories on racial inferiority must be evaluated for evidence of racism and prejudice before implementing them and harming the innocent.

Max Sherman is a medical writer and pharmacist retired from the medical device industry. He has taught college courses on regulatory and compliance issues at Ivy Tech, Grace College and Butler University. Sherman has an unquenchable thirst for knowledge on all levels. Eclectic Science, the title of his column, touches on famed doctors and scientists, human senses, aging, various diseases, and little-known facts about many species, including their contributions to scientific research. He can be reached by email at maxsherman339@gmail.com.