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One of the first known uses of statistical technique was in England in the mid-1800s, when a disastrous epidemic of cholera broke out in a section of London. A local physician named John Snow decided to conduct a survey to determine what sections of the city were affected by the disease. He then constructed a map showing how the infection was distributed and interviewed people who had survived the illness about their living habits. He discovered that everyone who had contracted the illness had drawn water from a certain pump in the area. Once the pump was sealed, the cholera epidemic subsided. Snow's research enabled medical professionals to learn that cholera was transmitted through an infected water supply. His use of statistical methods therefore uncovered a fact that has since saved countless lives.

In its simplest form, statistics is a science that organizes many facts into a systematized picture of data. Modern statistics is based on the theory of probability, and the work of statisticians has been greatly enhanced by the invention of computers.

The need for statisticians has grown by leaps and bounds in modern times. Since 1945, the number of universities with programs leading to graduate degrees in statistics has jumped from a half-dozen to more than 140. One reason for the increased demand is that statistical methods have many important uses. For example, methods similar to those used to study waves from distant galaxies can also be used to analyze blood hormone levels, track financial market fluctuations, and find concentrations of atmospheric pollutants. Experts predict that the demand for such useful statistical methodology will continue to grow.

Statistics are now used in all areas of science as well as in industry and business. Government officials are especially dependent on statistics—from politicians to education officials to traffic controllers.

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