Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Cora Layton

Cora Layton
By Bobby Neal Winters
Math folks, like everyone else, enjoy congregating with their own kind from time to time.  By own kind, I mean to say people of similar, if somewhat strange, interests.  We do this at conferences.  Over the years, I’ve attended conferences featuring talks in a variety of mathematical and mathematically-related topics.  Aside from the talks, the real purpose of these conferences is to establish human relationships between real, living human beings.
One problem with this is that it is hard for anyone to envision those of us who practice the arcane mathematical arts as human beings real, living, or any other way.  Nevertheless, I have, over the years, managed to get to know a few of my fellow math-types.  One of these is Cora Layton.
Cora worked for many years at Sutherland State University teaching statistics.  Statistics is not as some people think--including some mathematicians--a branch of mathematics.  It is a proud discipline of its own that uses mathematics.  
Cora had not only taught students, but she’d also done considerable work helping her colleagues in the sciences and social sciences with some of their statistical problems.  
At the last conference, I’d heard she’d retired.  Imagine my surprise at going to a mathematics meeting, looking up, and seeing her there.
“Cora,” I said.  “Is that you?”
Her smile let me know that indeed it was her.
“Well, who else would it be?” she replied coyly, her southern accent so thick and sweet that you could imagine honey dripping from it.
“I’d been told that you had retired,” I said.
“Can we ever really retire?” she asked.  I’ve heard this question asked a lot, mostly in relation to retirement accounts depleted by the stock market crash.
We left the conference and went for a coffee so that we could catch up with each other’s news.
As we sat there with our four-dollar designer coffees, I discovered that she had, in fact, retired from teaching.  However, she’d needed to keep busy and hung out her shingle as a consultant.  Doing this, she was able to stay only a bit busier than she wanted to be.
I said she’d hung out her shingle.  These days a shingle need only consist of a page on the Internet. Being a teacher, I am always on the look for real-life applications for the classes I teach.  I thought that in her new role she would be able to share some.
“So, Cora,” I began my inquiry, “have you run into any interesting problems that I could share with my students?”
Cora smiled.  
“I don’t know that I’d call this a real-life problem,” she said, “but I found it interesting.”
She took a sip of her coffee and related her tale.

At first, most of her work had been a continuation of her role in helping her former colleagues at Sutherland State with their projects.  Then one day she’d been contacted “out of the blue” as they say by a couple of men in their late twenties or early thirties.  
 The first contact had been by e-mail and had looked official enough.  They had given their names as William R. [redacted] and James J. [also redacted] and bottom of the e-mail boldly claimed them to be representatives of the Weather and Atmospheric Cloud Organization, WACO for short.  
Cora was to learn that they were more widely known as Billie Bob and Jimmie Joe. She’d smiled to herself when she read the acronym WACO, figured that they probably hadn’t called in a PR guy on the project, and thought no more about it until she met them.  When she met them she thought the acronym was quite descriptive.
They drove up in a brand new Dodge Ram truck.  It had a shiny, red finish and an even shinier chrome roll-bar.  Sitting in the back was some rather expensive-looking equipment and attached to the roll-bar there was rotating satellite dish.
Billie Bob and Jimmie Joe are tornado chasers.  While there are a good number of respected scientist who chase tornadoes, Billie Bob and Jimmie Joe are not among these.  They consider themselves scientists; they’ve printed up letter head and t-shirts for their WACO organization; they take pictures and have all sorts of fancy equipment; but they fall short in the area of credentials and any sort of grasp of the scientific method.
To their credit, having seen other, more reputable tornado chasers in their activities, they’d come to the decision they wanted to pursue their passion in a more serious way. For this reason they had come to Cora wanting help on a scientific project.  
The idea was this.  They had observed in their various storm chases the devastation that tornadoes wreck on mobile homes.  They are not unique in this observation and had began to wonder whether there was something about mobile home that attracted tornadoes.  They had seen Cora’s page out on the Internet where she helped scientists, and they were scientists that needed her help.
“I almost sent them away,” she told me there at the coffee shop. “I don’t know whether it was because they were about the same age as my grandsons or whether they offered me $1000 up front and I remembered that saying about a fool and his money.  In any case, I am a teacher and I can’t help but teach.”
Cora told them that they needed to collect data.  She said that they needed to visit mobile homes, those which had been hit by tornadoes as well as those that had not.  They should look for things that might reasonably be factors in attracting tornadoes.
She also introduced them to some simple statistical software and had instructed them in the use of it.
“I figured that I ought to be doing something useful for the money,” she said, looking only slightly guilty.
It was much to her surprise when they returned a few weeks later with data.
“They had taken by advice very seriously,” she said.
Billie Bob had noted the presence of car batteries in the yards of many mobile homes.  He’d figured that, as they could be used to produce electricity, it was conceivable this might have some effect on tornado-producing storms.  Jimmie Joe had noted the presence of old tires mounted on rusty wheels in the yards of many of these mobile homes.  He’d wondered whether the roundness of the tires might have anything to do with attracting tornadoes as tornadoes turned in a circle.
They’d made careful counts of these at numerous trailer parks and fed the data into the computer.  What they’d found had astounded them.

“They didn’t find any significant difference in the groups that had been hit by a tornado and the control group,” she said with her lips betraying just a hint of a mischievous smile. “What they did find and what did astound them was a correlation between the number of tires and the number of batteries.  The number of tires is approximately 3.95 the number of car batteries they found.  The 3.95 is accurate plus or minus a margin of error of 0.1.”
I thought about this myself a minute and began to share her smile.
“Did they, by any chance, in the course of collecting data, note the number of old cars up on blocks with their hoods open in these yards?” I asked.
She smiled even more broadly.
“They did not,” she said. “But I did suggest they broaden their study to include the width of satellite dishes and sofas on the front porch.  My sister lives in Florida and it’s been a while since I’ve seen her.  If they do a little more science, I might be able to afford the trip.”