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Dr Frank Carter Duckworth MBE: oration

Read Professor Gregory Kumar Sankaran's oration on Dr Frank Carter Duckworth MBE for the honorary degree of Doctor of Science in December 2015.


Chancellor, it is my pleasure to introduce to you and the congregation Dr Frank Duckworth.

Frank Duckworth has spent his career clarifying, simplifying and explaining things by the use of statistics. Badly or wrongly used, statistics can easily become misleading or confusing. In skilled hands, such as Dr Duckworth's, they can also be used to clarify, to simplify and to explain. Quite incidentally, doing this has made him famous. In fact, since almost every Indian knows his name, he may well be the most famous person present here today.

Dr Duckworth's fame arises from his work with the mathematician Dr Anthony Lewis, in which they used statistics to solve a particularly difficult problem that arises in the game of cricket: namely, what to do when it rains. This may not seem very important, because cricket is often perceived as a minority sport played in only a few countries. That is wrong: in reality, it is the second most popular sport in the world. The value of television rights for major tournaments runs into billions of pounds. The fairness of the outcome of cricket matches is, consequently, a matter of considerable economic importance as well as being of great interest to a very large number of people.

Two peculiar features of cricket combine to create a problem here. Firstly, despite having been invented in England, it cannot be played in the rain. Secondly, it is fundamentally asymmetric. Instead of two teams both trying to do the same thing at the same time, the teams take turns to bat. So if a match is curtailed by rain, one cannot simply look at the score at that point and see which team has scored more runs. One side has had its complete innings, and the other has not. Some estimate of the likely final score is needed; and estimates are the realm of statistics.

Several systems were tried to solve this problem. None of them worked, until Dr Duckworth and Dr Lewis devised a mathematical model to construct the celebrated Duckworth-Lewis method, which is generally accepted as fair. But it is not enough to invent a good system. It needs to be adopted for actual use: in the modern terminology, there needs to be impact. Somebody had to explain it to the administrators.

Fortunately, Frank Duckworth has been explaining statistics for a long time. His own initial training was not in statistics at all: he was a metallurgist. After graduating from Liverpool, he worked at the Berkeley Nuclear Laboratory of the Central Electricity Generating Board. There he came to realise the importance of statistics, not just to ensure reactor safety but also to assure the public that the reactors are safe. At that time there were no statisticians working at the laboratories, so he set about making himself into a statistician. Then he had to convince his colleagues and others of the power of statistics, and spreading that idea has been at the core of everything he has done since. Persuading the cricket administrators that statistics could help them was just another example of that.

Both cricket and nuclear reactors are specialised applications of statistics. Dr Duckworth reached a different audience through his voluntary work for the Royal Statistical Society. For two decades he edited their news magazine, often contributing editorials on matters relating to the public perception of risk. Quietly, but effectively, in boardrooms and in public, he has encouraged the use of statistics and mathematics, and overcome distrust and misunderstanding of them. He has now carried that message to hundreds of millions of people.

And South Africa should have been asked to score four, not twenty-two, off the last ball of that semi-final against England.

Chancellor, I present to you Frank Duckworth, who is eminently worthy to receive the Degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa.

Professor Gregory Kumar Sankaran

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