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If we could put a face to the famous quote ‘age is just a number’, it would be that of CR Rao. The 102-year old legendary mathematician and statistician, Calyampudi Radhakrishna Rao aka CRRao, has been recently awarded the 2023 International Prize in Statistics. Considered the statistics’ equivalent of the Nobel prize, the award is given every two years to either a person or team for “major achievements using statistics to advance science, technology and human welfare”.
But, one question remains, why was this award given to CR Rao after so long?
Incorrectly reported as the ‘Nobel prize’ in Statistics by certain publications, the recent award conferred to Rao tries to address the biggest need for acknowledging statisticians as a world phenomenon. In comparison, the Nobel prize is awarded for physics, chemistry, physiology, medicine, literature and peace.
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The International Prize in Statistics, with an award money of $80000, was only started in 2016 stemming from the need of bringing recognition in the field of statistics. Moreover, statistics is referred to as “invisible science” and not considered a key contributor to research by most scientists in other fields.
The award is managed by a foundation comprising representatives from five major statistical organisations – American Statistical Association, Institute of Mathematical Statistics, International Biometric Society, International Statistical Institute, and Royal Statistical Society. Interestingly, Rao has won awards from all the above organisations.
Statistician Peter Rousseeuw believes there is a lack of recognition for statistical research. He said that handing out prestigious awards has an effect, and giving out Nobel prizes, which are available for certain disciplines only, helps in attracting students, researchers and even funding. With the increasing need for prizes in the field of statistics, Rousseeuw Prize awarding a $1 million prize in statistics is the next big award (released in the year 2022), after the International Prize for Statistics.
Rousseeuw Prize for Statistics. Source: Rousseeuwprize
As per the committee rules, the winner must be living at the time of selection of the award. The award was first given in the year 2016 to Sir David Cox for his 1972 work ‘Cox Model’. He was 92 years old at the time, and he died at the age of 97 in 2022. Then 84-year old Bradley Efron won the award in 2018 for his 1977 work on the ‘Bootstrap method’ for assessing uncertainty of scientific results, and 80-year old Nan Laird won in 2021 for her 1982 work that accelerated a field on “random effects modeling for longitudinal data analysis”.
Rao is not only the oldest recipient of the award, but the work for which he won the award dates back to 1945 – the oldest when compared to the other winners.
The award is given for Rao’s 1945 renowned paper ‘Information and Accuracy Attainable in the Estimation of Statistical Parameters’ that led to three fundamental results, including the Cramér-Rao inequality and Rao-Blackwellization which has shaped modern statistics. The award adds another feather to his already decorated cap of life-long achievements.
The award-winning 1945 paper was first published in the ‘Bulletin of the Calcutta Mathematical Society’ which went on to be included in the book ‘Breakthroughs in Statistics Vol.1, 1890 – 1990’. The paper on statistical estimation theory and geometrization of statistics, laid the foundation for future applications in not only information geometry, but have been extended in applications across quantum physics, biostatistics, signal processing, spectroscopy, radar systems, statistical inference, and probability theory.
The concepts presented in the paper have influenced the development of statistical and machine learning methods that are used in AI as well.
Solid Foundational Support
Centenarian CR Rao’s life is nothing short of marvellous. Born on 10 September 1920, he had a very humble beginning. Rao was the eighth child of the ten children born to a Telugu family in Hadagali (now part of Bellary, Karnataka). He completed his schooling across towns Gudur, Nuzvid, Nandigama and Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh.
Rao’s parents were instrumental in shaping his education, and he attributes his mother for influencing his studies in his formative years. It is said that his mother used to wake him up at four every morning to help him study with the help of an oil lamp. Rao’s father was the one who encouraged him to pursue mathematics as he discovered his son’s interest in the subject.
C.R. Rao at age 15. Source: Onlinelibrary
Education and Service
In 1940, Rao graduated with a MA in Mathematics with First-Class Honours from Andhra University. On a chance encounter in Calcutta with a person being trained at the Indian Statistical Institute, Rao applied for a year’s training in statistics. Thus, started his journey in Statistics. By 1946, he had over 30 published papers.
During his days in the Indian Statistical Institute. Source: Bhavana: The Mathematics Magazine
He went on to get his PhD from King’s College at Cambridge University, and a DSc from Cambridge. He became the director of Research and Training School at the Indian Statistical Institute. Before reaching the retirement age of 60, Rao left the Institute after serving for 40 years to join University of Pittsburgh.
In 1988 he moved to Pennsylvania State University in Pittsburgh where he worked for another 25 years as University Professor, and as Eberly Professor of Statistics at the Pennsylvania State University.
Even when he retired from active service at the age of 81, he was unstoppable. He continued his research activities as Eberly Professor Emeritus, and Director of the Center for Multivariate Analysis at the Pennsylvania State University. He has authored over 14 books and published over 400 journal publications.
C.R Rao receiving Padma Vibhushan from President K.R. Narayan in 2001. Source: Bhavana: The Mathematics Magazine
His sheer hard work and dedication in the field of statistics has been widely acknowledged. Rao has won over 45 awards and honours for his exemplary work throughout his life. He has also won the Padma Bhushan in 1968, and Padma Vibhushan in 2001. He also received the National Medal of Science in 2002 from then President of the United States, George W Bush.