The Light Side: The Joy of Statistics with Bob Ross Paintings

April 25, 2014

Extraterrestrial Surgery with an In-Vivo Bot

Typical Project Meeting for an Engineer

Over the course of Bob Ross' illustrious career as a TV art instructor, he taught us a thing or two about meditation and doing things that come naturally. And he sure painted a lot of happy little trees. But just how many?

In "A Statistical Analysis of the Work of Bob Ross,"

Walt Hickey of the website FiveThirtyEight crunched the numbers on 381 works that Ross painted during the 1983-to-1994 run of his PBS program The Joy of Painting, using 67 keywords associated with his creations, such as "trees" and "mountains." Hickey coded all of Ross' paintings and came up with a data set of 3,224 tags. He determined that 91 percent of Ross' paintings contained at least one tree.

Hickey then, for fun, ran joint probability and conditional probability computations on the different events in Ross' creations. For instance, the probability that Ross painted a second tree after he painted an initial one is 93 percent. Hickey also determined that given a mountain Ross created, there is a 66 percent chance of snow on it. A beach appeared in 75 percent of Ross' 35 seaside paintings, but the sun only appeared in 31 percent of them.

As for trees, Hickey divided those events between coniferous and deciduous ones and found that Ross favored the latter -- but just barely (56 percent deciduous to 53 percent coniferous).

"I analyzed the data to find out exactly what Ross... painted for more than a decade on TV," Hickey writes about his detailed statistical analysis journey. "He painted 69 cabins, 25 fences in various states of disrepair, and 17 barns. Bridges appear only seven times..."

In Hickey's obsessive and arguably unnatural quest, his dedication to learn everything about the perm-haired artist (who passed away in 1995) led him to review "hundreds of Ross' landscapes" and an interview with Annette Kowalski, Ross' longtime business partner, who revealed some interesting non-statistical tidbits.

For one, Ross didn't like to have people in his paintings, Kowalski told Hickey, and that was reflected in the fact that his log cabins didn't have chimneys -- a sign of inhabitants. She recalled Ross painted people only twice in 11 years. Hickey, ever the devout analyst, later confirmed this through his spreadsheet but found that one Ross cabin did have a chimney.

Some other factoids that arose from Hickey's analysis: 1) Ross started but did not complete three of his paintings on TV, 2) it would take just over eight straight days to binge-watch

all of The Joy of Painting, and 3) if you google the phrase "happy little trees," Ross ranks first in the search results.

Photo credit: Nick Holmes at Tumblr

Extraterrestrial Surgery with an In-Vivo Bot


A new pair of miniature robot arms could be the key to conducting life-saving procedures on the International Space Station and other off-world venues.

While the ISS and space-faring vessels are certainly considered high-tech facilities, they lack proper emergency medical facilities. With walls of equipment meant to measure the most delicate of physical phenomenon, there's hardly any room for a surgical suite among the station's scientific labyrinth. To make up for that lack of space, researchers are working on a miniature surgical robot that can be inserted inside an ailing astronaut's anatomy.

Created by Virtual Incision, the currently unnamed sub-kilo robot is a two-armed device that would be inserted into patients through their belly buttons. Once inside the abdominal cavity, an astronaut's body would be filled with inert gases to allow the robot room to maneuver. With ample room at its disposal, Virtual Incision's mechanical surgeon will then get to work cleaving cancerous tissues or removing infected appendices.

In the near term, researchers are developing their robot to undertake procedures while being guided by the steady hand of a trained crew member. In the future, space-board medical machines could be loaded with libraries of surgical know-how and given free rein to clip, snip, and suture troubling tissue.


Although still being developed in labs here on Earth, the robo-surgeon's creators believe their machine's design could be useful to ambitious enterprises looking to stake claims on our solar neighbors. "While this work is in an early phase, the minimal invasiveness of this approach could enable its use in remote locations such as on a moon or Mars colony" write researchers in a Virtual Incision white paper.

With parabolic flight scheduled for later this year, Virtual Incision's in-vivo operator might be on board some of the first manned missions to Mars. If it does make it aboard, astronauts and their minders back in mission control will be able to breathe a bit easier knowing that complicated medical procedures aren't millions of miles away.


A Typical Project Meeting for an Engineer

You will feel the despair of this engineer (in short-sleeve shirt), as his situation in a project kick-off meeting likely shadows your experiences in being tasked to do the impossible. Illogical goals? Check. Management out of touch? Check. Just accept it? Check. The video appears on's Humor channel.


This article and the preceding article (by Kyle Maxey

) were originally published on

and are adapted in their entirety with permission. For more stories like this please visit



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