My mum and dad never agreed on the best way to make a cup of tea.
Mum always put the milk in first, Dad always put the milk in second.
My art director, Gordon Smith, and I had the same problem.
Gordon insisted on putting the milk in first, I say it makes more sense to put it in second.
My wife agrees with Gordon, but George Orwell is on my side – he wrote a famous article about why milk should go in second.
Ronald Fisher was a mathematician working at Rothamsted Experimental Station in Hertfordshire, in 1920.
He offered to make his colleague, biologist Muriel Bristol, a cup of tea.
She watched him make it and said: “Stop.”
Fisher asked what the problem was.
She said: “You’re putting the milk in first, I don’t like it that way.”
Fisher said she was being ridiculous – it’s a matter of simple thermodynamics: liquid A added to liquid B is exactly the same as adding liquid B to liquid A, the order is irrelevant.
She insisted it wasn’t and she could taste the difference.
As they were both scientists, there was only one logical way to test her assertion.
Scientists gathered round as Fisher made eight cups of tea, identical in every way except one.
In four of the cups the milk was added first, in the other four it was added second.
As a blind test, Bristol had no way of knowing which was which.
But everyone watched as, one after the other, she identified immediately from taste alone which cup of tea was which.
And she was correct eight times out of eight.
Her point was proved, but Fisher wasn’t convinced and it bothered him.
Logically it made no sense, as a mathematician there must be a formula for it.
There was truth in numbers, so he began to devise equations.
What was the chance of pure luck? What was the possibility of mistakes? What if he used a larger sample size? What if he added random variations?
Without realising it, he had moved on from simply analysing a tea-test into devising the correct way to run tests to arrive at a more accurate statistical analysis.
And Fisher didn’t realise he was inventing the Null Hypothesis, which became the bedrock of the science of statistical analysis.
In 1925, he published Statistical Methods for Research Workers, which is still the foundation work on statistics taught in universities today.
Anders Hald called Fisher “a genius who almost singlehandedly created the foundations for modern statistical science”.
Richard Dawkins called him “the greatest biologist since Darwin”.
I don’t understand a word about the science of statistics or anything Fisher’s written.
But I do know that inspiration will come from the unlikeliest places, even making a cup of tea, so we should look where we don’t expect it to be.
George Lucas didn’t think he was founding a multibillion-dollar empire when he began making a science fiction B-movie.
Andy Warhol didn’t think he was creating an art movement when he silk-screened the soup that was all he could afford to eat.
Steve Jobs didn’t think he was revolutionising computers when he bunked into typography classes without paying.
Quentin Tarantino didn’t think he was changing cinema when he was working in a video store watching bad foreign films.
You never know where an idea is coming from, because ideas are new combinations.
And it’s no good looking in lectures or books or art galleries for inspiration.
They are just places where the creativity has been pre-digested for you to look at.
Dave Trott is the author of Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three