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July 28, 2000, Friday
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John Tukey, 85, Statistician; Coined the Word 'Software'


John Wilder Tukey, one of the most influential statisticians of the last 50 years and a wide-ranging thinker credited with inventing the word ''software,'' died on Wednesday in New Brunswick, N.J. He was 85.

The cause was a heart attack after a short illness, said Phyllis Anscombe, his sister-in-law.

Mr. Tukey developed important theories about how to analyze data and compute series of numbers quickly. He spent decades as both a professor at Princeton University and a researcher at AT&T's Bell Laboratories, and his ideas continue to be a part of both doctoral statistics courses and high school math classes. In 1973, President Richard M. Nixon awarded him the National Medal of Science.

But Mr. Tukey frequently ventured outside of the academy as well, working as a consultant to the government and corporations and taking part in social debates.

In the 1950's, he criticized Alfred C. Kinsey's research on sexual behavior. In the 1970's, he was chairman of a research committee that warned that aerosol spray cans damaged the ozone layer. More recently, he recommended that the 1990 Census be adjusted by using statistical formulas in order to count poor urban residents whom he believed it had missed.

''The best thing about being a statistician,'' Mr. Tukey once told a colleague, ''is that you get to play in everyone's backyard.''

An intense man who liked to argue and was fond of helping other researchers, Mr. Tukey was also an amateur linguist who made significant contributions to the language of modern times. In a 1958 article in American Mathematical Monthly, he became the first person to define the programs on which electronic calculators ran, said Fred R. Shapiro, a librarian at Yale Law School who is editing a book on the origin of terms. Three decades before the founding of Microsoft, Mr. Tukey saw that ''software,'' as he called it, was gaining prominence. ''Today,'' he wrote at the time, it is ''at least as important'' as the '' 'hardware' of tubes, transistors, wires, tapes and the like.''

Twelve years earlier, while working at Bell Laboratories, he had coined the term ''bit,'' an abbreviation of ''binary digit'' that described the 1's and 0's that are the basis of computer programs.

Both words caught on, to the chagrin of some computer scientists who saw Mr. Tukey as an outsider. ''Not everyone was happy that he was naming things in their field,'' said Steven M. Schultz, a spokesman for Princeton.

Mr. Tukey had no immediate survivors. His wife of 48 years, Elizabeth Rapp Tukey, an antiques appraiser and preservation activist, died in 1998.

Mr. Tukey was born in 1915 in New Bedford, a fishing town on the southern coast of Massachusetts, and was the only child of Ralph H. Tukey and Adah Tasker Tukey. His mother was the valedictorian of the class of 1898 at Bates College in Lewiston, Me., and her closest competition was her eventual husband, who became the salutatorian. Classmates referred to them as the couple most likely to give birth to a genius, said Marc G. Glass, a Bates spokesman.

The elder Mr. Tukey became a Latin teacher at New Bedford's high school, but, because of a rule barring spouses from teaching at the school, Mrs. Tukey was a private tutor, Mrs. Anscombe said. Mrs. Tukey's main pupil became her son, who attended regular classes only for special subjects like French. ''They were afraid that if he went to school, he'd get lazy,'' said Howard Wainer, a friend and former student of John Tukey's.

In 1936, Mr. Tukey graduated from nearby Brown University with a bachelor's degree in chemistry, and in the next three years earned three graduate degrees, one in chemistry at Brown and two in mathematics at Princeton, where he would spend the rest of his career. At the age of 35, he became a full professor, and in 1965 he became the founding chairman of Princeton's statistics department.

Mr. Tukey worked for the United States government during World War II. Friends said he did not discuss the details of his projects, but Mrs. Anscombe said he helped design the U-2 spy plane.

In later years, much of his important work came in a field that statisticians call robust analysis, which allows researchers to devise credible conclusions even when the data with which they are working are flawed. In 1970, Mr. Tukey published ''Exploratory Data Analysis,'' which gave mathematicians new ways to analyze and present data clearly.

One of those tools, the stem-and-leaf display, continues to be part of many high school curriculums. Using it, students arrange a series of data points in a series of simple rows and columns and can then make judgments about what techniques, like calculating the average or median, would allow them to analyze the information intelligently.

That display was typical of Mr. Tukey's belief that mathematicians, professional or amateur, should often start with their data and then look for a theorem, rather than vice versa, said Mr. Wainer, who is now the principal research scientist at the Educational Testing Service.

''He legitimized that, because he wasn't doing it because he wasn't good at math,'' Mr. Wainer said. ''He was doing it because it was the right thing to do.''

Along with another scientist, James Cooley, Mr. Tukey also developed the Fast Fourier Transform, an algorithm with wide application to the physical sciences. It helps astronomers, for example, determine the spectrum of light coming from a star more quickly than previously possible.

As his career progressed, he also became a hub for other scientists. He was part of a group of Princeton professors that gathered regularly and included Lyman Spitzer Jr., who inspired the Hubble Space Telescope. Mr. Tukey also persuaded a group of the nation's top statisticians to spend a year at Princeton in the early 1970's working together on robust analysis problems, said David C. Hoaglin, a former student of Mr. Tukey.

Mr. Tukey was a consultant to the Educational Testing Service, the Xerox Corporation and Merck & Company. From 1960 to 1980, he helped design the polls that the NBC television network used to predict and analyze elections.

His first brush with publicity came in 1950, when the National Research Council appointed him to a committee to evaluate the Kinsey Report, which shocked many Americans by describing the country's sexual habits as far more diverse than had been thought. From their first meeting, when Mr. Kinsey told Mr. Tukey to stop singing a Gilbert and Sullivan tune aloud while working, the two men clashed, according to ''Alfred C. Kinsey,'' a biography by James H. Jones.

In a series of meetings over two years, Mr. Kinsey vigorously defended his work, which Mr. Tukey believed was seriously flawed, relying on a sample of people who knew each other. Mr. Tukey said a random selection of three people would have been better than a group of 300 chosen by Mr. Kinsey.

Correction: July 31, 2000, Monday

An obituary on Friday about John Wilder Tukey, a statistician, referred incompletely to a book being edited by Fred R. Shapiro that will credit Mr. Tukey with having coined the word ''software.'' It will be a dictionary of quotations with information on the origin of terms, not solely about the origin of terms.

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Related Terms:
Deaths (Obituaries); Biographical Information

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