Dec 19, 2012

Blackwell Lecture

Contributing Editor Peter Bickel writes:

David Blackwell died on July 8, 2010. Since that time there have been a number of celebrations of his life and accomplishments: memorial sessions in Berkeley in October 2010, at the Information Theory and Applications Workshop in San Diego in March 2011, at a conference in his honor at Howard University in March 2012, and at the JSM in San Diego in August 2012. A broad perspective on his life and works presented by a collection of his admirers appeared in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society in August 2011, and an account appeared in this Bulletin in October 2010. His remarkable life and achievements bear at least a brief retelling.

Born in 1919 in Centralia, Illinois, Blackwell earned his PhD at the age of 22, at UIUC under the mentorship of Joseph Doob. Following an initial period in which he built up Mathematics at Howard University, his academic life was spent in the Statistics Department at UC Berkeley. During his lifetime he made fundamental contributions in at least seven areas of the mathematical sciences and statistics. These include the Rao-Blackwell theorem, comparison of experiments (which he essentially founded), the foundations of dynamic programming, information theory, queueing and renewal theory, and mathematical logic.

All but one of these works resulted in a “Blackwell” object, the Blackwell channel, the Blackwell renewal theorem, and Blackwell games. The Howard conference in March had presentations by a number of distinguished speakers on all of these areas. A recurring topic in their presentations were the difficulties that Blackwell had to endure as an African-American, and his contributions to minority (as well as general) education as a superbly gifted teacher, a remarkable scholar and a highly acclaimed scientist, member of the National Academy of Sciences, member or fellow of other learned societies and holder of 11 honorary doctorates. Featuring last, but not least, were people’s memories of Blackwell as a person: he was kind, modest, and not bitter but optimistic.

To honor Blackwell’s life and achievements a group of colleagues proposed to the IMS that money be raised for the institution of Blackwell Lectures, to run in some parallel fashion with the Wald, Rietz, Neyman, Le Cam, and Schramm Lectures. The necessary funds were collected quickly [thanks again to the donors listed in the previous issue] and the IMS President and Council acted with speed.

The purpose of this David Blackwell Lecture is to honor Blackwell, to keep his name alive and to inspire young people to emulate his achievements. The first lecture is expected to be presented in 2014. We’ll bring you more news about the inaugural lecture as plans develop.

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