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Mathematics world marks Rao’s 100th birthday

C.R. Rao. .

Calyampudi Radhakrishna Rao is widely recognized as one of the world’s greatest statisticians, a pioneer in the field who laid the foundation for modern statistics. He has been a member of the UB faculty since 2010.

By BARBARA BRANNING

Published October 16, 2020

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“To know the field of statistics is to know the contributions of C.R. Rao. ”
Gregory Wilding, professor and chair
Department of Biostatistics

When noted statistician C.R. Rao, research professor in the Department of Biostatistics in the School of Public Health and Health Professions, turned 100 years old on Sept. 10, the world turned out to celebrate his life and legacy.

Celebrating such a major milestone in the midst of a global pandemic required quite a bit of creativity and compromise, but by all accounts, the worldwide festivities — which began in late 2019 and are still taking place — exceeded all expectations.

Called a “living legend of statistics,” Calyampudi Radhakrishna Rao is widely recognized as one of the world’s greatest statisticians, a pioneer in the field who laid the foundation for modern statistics.

Rao brought nine decades worth of knowledge to UB in 2010.

“It is a distinct honor to count such a trailblazing and world-renowned scholar among our UB faculty,” said UB President Tripathi. “We are exceptionally fortunate that Professor Rao has continued his scholarly pursuits at UB for the past decade, and that he continues to make seminal contributions to his field.”

Tripathi recalled that, upon finishing his master’s degree in statistics at Banaras Hindu University, he wanted to join the Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkata because Rao was working there at the time. “Professor Rao has led—and defined—the statistics discipline for better than three-quarters of a century—a true testament to his sustained excellence and dedication to scholarship.”

During a virtual symposium by the Government of India Ministry of Science & Technology earlier this year, Ashutosh Sharma (PhD '88), Science & Technology secretary, said: “C.R. Rao was working on the science of data 70 years ago and was much ahead of his times. He is not only a scientist but also an institution builder. The country and the world will always be indebted to Prof. Rao for his pioneering contributions to the field of statistics.”

C. R. Rao.

Colleagues and students of C.R. Rao have celebrated his 100th birthday with numerous conferences and symposiums held in his honor.

Rao’s birthday has been celebrated with conferences and symposiums held in his honor despite the COVID-19 pandemic, according to his daughter, Tejaswini (Teja) Rao, a former professor in the Nutrition Department at SUNY Buffalo State. She said at least 10 events were held in his honor in India alone.

“To know the field of statistics is to know the contributions of C.R. Rao. Not only is he one of the most significant figures in statistical theory, but it may be argued that his pioneering work in areas such as statistical inference, linear models and multivariate analyses resulted in substantial impact across all of science,” said Gregory Wilding, professor and chair of UB’s Department of Biostatistics.

The most significant of the global events might have been the Joint Statistical Meetings, the largest gathering of statisticians and data scientists held in North America. During a Special Invited Session in the Honor of C.R. Rao’s Birth Centenary (Virtual) on Aug. 5, three renowned statisticians — Sir David Cox from University of Oxford, Bradley Efron from Stanford University and Donald Rubin from Harvard University — were featured guests.

On a more personal level, there were several Zoom sessions, in which students and colleagues from Rao’s past participated, as well as numerous FaceTime calls, emails and other forms of congratulations.

“I have been overwhelmed and deeply touched by the number of people who have connected with him and various conferences and symposiums that have been arranged despite the current situation,” Teja said. “It has been a beautiful emotional experience to see the love, affection and respect bestowed on my father.”

The most beautiful aspect of the celebrations, she said, was connecting with so many people from her father’s past on Zoom.

One session included students who graduated from the Indian Statistical Institute in the 1960s. Also attending were many associates whom he had not seen in more than 50 years. An additional two sessions included other ISI graduates and colleagues from all over the world.

On Rao’s actual birthday, the Zoom call featured a virtual cake-cutting, a signing of his portrait, a book release by the Indian Statistical Institute retiree association in his honor, and music by one of the participants.

“My father was delighted to see so many people, and he kept pointing to the screen, calling out their names and waving to them,” Teja said. “It was delightful.”

A 25-minute documentary about Rao was shown at all the conferences. The film, “C.R. Rao: A Life in Statistics,” can be found on YouTube. A longer version, with more interviews, including an interview with Tripathi, will be released soon.

Before the pandemic hit, Teja had planned an event at UB’s Center for the Arts, which many of his colleagues, students, family and friends from all over the world had planned to attend.

Instead, the Rao family, which includes his son, Veerendra, an electrical engineer and computer scientist; daughter-in-law Malini, a speech pathologist; and two grandchildren, Amar and Rohith; granddaughter-in law Mitra; Rohith’s girlfriend, Hannah; and Teja’s partner, Vincent O’Neill, as well as close family friends, held a 30-minute celebration — with masks and social distancing — in the backyard of the Amherst home Rao shares with his daughter.

“Dad was in great spirits being with the entire family,” Teja said. “We of course missed my mother (Bhargavi), who passed away three years ago. She was his friend, confidant, constant companion, biggest support and the love of his life for 69 years.”

A Facebook page, titled “Dr. C.R. Rao Birth Centenary,” currently has more than 775 members. The page includes articles, personal recollections, photos and conference announcements.

Rao’s interest in mathematics and statistics reaches back to his childhood in the Madras region of India, then under British rule. The eighth of 10 children, the young Rao would arise before dawn — when the mind is sharpest — to work his beloved math problems.

“When I was 11, I could do complicated arithmetical problems without paper and pencil,” he recalled.

“My father appreciated my interest in mathematics and my good performance in school, and he thought that I should eventually get a degree in mathematics and proceed to do research to get a doctorate degree,” Rao said. “He presented me with the book, ‘Problems for Leelavathi,’ a collection of problems set by a mathematician for his daughter to solve. He asked me to work out five to 10 problems in the book every day. I enjoyed solving these problems, which aroused further interest in me to pursue mathematics.”

Rao’s father referred to the boy as “my hope, my pride, my joy,” the elder Rao said. “Thus, my entry into mathematics resulted from the encouragement I received from my father, my own interest in solving mathematical problems and my desire to fulfill my father’s wish about me.”

C.R. Rao received the National Medal of Science in 2002 from President George W. Bush.

C.R. Rao receives the U.S. National Medal of Science from President George W. Bush in 2002.

Rao holds an MA in mathematics from Andhra University and an MA in statistics from Calcutta University. He holds a PhD from Cambridge University (1948). In 1965, Cambridge awarded him the higher doctorate degree, ScD, the academic achievement he values most, he says, because it was based on peer evaluation of his published work and its contribution to knowledge. Kings College later gave him the rare honor of life fellow.

Rao also holds 39 honorary doctorates from universities, including UB, in 19 countries on six continents.

Early in his college education, Rao attended a one-year program at the Indian Statistical Institute, where he later spent 40 years of his professional career. It was at ISI that he became known worldwide as one of the foremost authorities on statistics, during a time often called the golden age of statistics. He made numerous discoveries in the field. He is best known for three major contributions by the age of 25: the Fisher-Rao Metric, the Cramer-Rao Bound and Rao-Blackwellization. This work set the groundwork for statistics becoming a field of study separate from mathematics.

In 1979, Rao took mandatory retirement from ISI and moved to the United States, where he held teaching positions at the University of Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania State University. He came to UB in 2010.

Rao is the recipient of numerous awards, including the India Science Award in 2014 and the U.S. National Medal of Science, presented by President George W. Bush in 2002. In 2013, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

In 2002, Rao established the C.R. Rao Advanced Institute of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science in Hyderabad, India.

He authored 476 research papers — 201 between 1940 and 1980 in India, and 275 between 1980 and 2010 in the United States. He has written 15 books, including leading textbooks in the field.

Rao continued to do research projects until about six months ago, according to his daughter. He has one publication with a student this year, and one more due for future release. Although he does not actively do research now, he continues to go through the statistical journals he receives with great interest, his daughter said.   “I was fortunate to have made some fundamental contributions to the field of statistics and to see the impact of my work in furthering research,” Rao said.

“In my lifetime, I have seen statistics grow into a strong independent field of study based on mathematical — and more recently computational — tools. Its importance has spread across numerous areas, such as business, economics, health and medicine, banking, management, physical, natural and social sciences.”

Rao considers his greatest contribution to the field “the encouragement I provided to my PhD students, 51 of them, some of whom have made outstanding contributions to statistics. They have in turn produced 649 PhDs as of 2019. This is a matter of pride to me.”

When asked about her father’s longevity and success, Teja credited his “immense discipline.”

Looking to the future, Rao reflected that “statistics is the science of learning from data. Today is the age of data revolution. There is, therefore, a heightened need for statistics — both in terms of training in statistics to help analyze and interpret the data, and in terms of research to answer new questions arising from the data. 

“The demand for statisticians is growing worldwide,” he says. “For instance, the U.S. Bureau of Labor lists statistics as one of the fastest growing career fields — and predicts it will grow by 33% between 2016 and 2026.”