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A towering statistician

A towering  statistician

Prof CR Rao. PTI file photo

Atanu Biswas

LEGENDARY Indian-American statistician Prof CR Rao passed away recently, weeks before he would have turned 103. I remember studying the Cramér-Rao inequality, the Rao-Blackwell theorem and Rao’s score test during undergraduate classes at the University of Calcutta in the late 1980s. I did not know then that Rao’s ‘breakthrough’ research paper (1945) was published when he was only 25. The theory of his famous score test was published in a paper in 1949. The idea germinated during his PhD at Cambridge in 1946-48, which he did under the guidance of renowned statistician Sir Ronald A Fisher, known as one of the founders of modern statistical science.

I first met Prof Rao at a conference during the first year of my master’s course at the university. By that time, I knew that Calyampudi Radhakrishna Rao was a big name in the world of statistics. When I expressed interest in doing PhD, he told me to write to him during the second year of my MSc. Rao, 71 at that time, was settled in the US after his retirement from the Indian Statistical Institute. I, however, decided to do my PhD in India. But there were multiple opportunities to meet him and listen to his lectures thereafter, both in India and abroad.

Rao was in the news earlier this year when he was awarded the biennial International Prize in Statistics, regarded as the statistical science equivalent of the Nobel Prize. This, in fact, was in recognition of his 1945 paper.

He, of course, received numerous awards and honours throughout his long, illustrious career. In 2002, Rao was feted by then US President George W Bush as a ‘prophet of a better age’ at the White House and awarded the National Medal of Science “for his pioneering contributions to the foundations of statistical theory... and their applications, enriching the physical, biological, mathematical, economic, and engineering sciences.”

In India, the road in front of the University of Hyderabad is named after him. The CR Rao Advanced Institute of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science is housed on the university campus. Also, India’s national award in statistics is named after Prof Rao.

Like numerous other students of statistics, my introduction to him was through his book, Linear Statistical Inference and Its Applications. Afterwards, Rao’s 1989 book, Statistics and Truth, became one of my favourite books. It was described as “a powerful illustration of the nature of statistical arguments” by legendary British statistician Sir David Cox. “I can think of no better book to introduce the subject, in particular to a general reader.” Cox wrote. And I can think of no better statistician than Prof Rao.

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