Sep 2, 2016

XL-Files: Peter Hall of Fame

Xiao-Li Meng writes:

For many statisticians, “Peter Hall” is a synonym for prolificacy. In his 40 years of professional career since his PhD in 1976, Peter had published over 600 papers, mostly in top journals. However, if Peter’s legacy were remembered only by his scholarly accomplishments, we would be missing a once-in-a-(professional-)lifetime opportunity to inspire generations to come.

When we academics hear of a peer publishing far more than ourselves, a few internal dialogues inevitably take place, from the self-comforting, “Well, these papers can’t be all that good,” to the self-motivational, “Gosh, I need to work much harder!” Regardless of whether we are jealous, envious, or simply couldn’t care less, the thought that “Hmmm, that author must be a very generous person” has, perhaps, never entered these internal dialogues. On the contrary, we might have local priors to support the stereotypes that someone who is insanely devoted to research is statistically more likely to be an over-bar eccentric or an under-bar citizen, or minimally someone who has no time for others even if she/he wants to.

Peter broke all these stereotypes. For anyone with a soupçon of skepticism, check out over 150 unsolicited testimonies and reflections at http://www.stat-center.pku.edu.cn/Peter_Gavin_Hall, a memorial site established right after Peter’s passing in January at the prime age of 64. It is practically impossible to read all these stories without being moved, humbled and inspired. A most telling sign of Peter’s quality as a human being is the word cloud (below) summarizing these testimonies, where the largest two words are kind and generous.

Word cloud of tributes to Peter Hall (up to February 8)  by a Melburnian. Note the two biggest words… [Thanks to Song Xi Chen for the image]

Word cloud of tributes to Peter Hall (up to February 8) by a Melburnian. Note the two biggest words… [Thanks to Song Xi Chen for the image]

Peter’s generosity was of the most precious and noble kind: with his time and his ideas. I have direct data to testify to this fact as I had the honor to have him on the editorial board of Statistica Sinica. When I asked him I had my doubts, fueled by the stereotypes of busy scholars, whether he would even be willing to serve. But the reality is that not only did he say yes right away, he was the minimal order statistic in terms of time taken for handling submissions, just as he was the maximal order statistic in terms of research publications. As I report in the upcoming issue of Annals of Statistics published in Peter’s honor, he responded to my first assignment to him, in less than 12 hours, with a detailed AE report filled with insightful ideas. Offering research ideas anonymously is not something that most of us would be willing to do, and indeed the academic world has no shortage of stories of nasty fights over scientific priorities.

In contrast, the stories told at Peter’s memorial session at this year’s JSM repeatedly confirmed how Peter had given the highest priorities to requests from reviewing grant proposals to writing promotion letters, and how he would have his ideas and derivations neatly laid out in a manuscript within a few days after an initial conversation with his collaborator(s). Although to my deep regret I never had an opportunity to be among Peter’s 240 co-authors, these stories strongly suggest that the number of people with “Hall Number 1” would grow indefinitely had Peter been still with us.

Peter was also deeply devoted to mentoring and helping future generations. This is well summarized by Rudy Beran and Nick Fisher in their obituary for Peter (JRSSA, 2016): “Peter regarded it as his responsibility to ensure that his graduate students and post-doctoral fellows had strong credentials for their first job, through having published a number of papers by the end of the study period. His periods of supervision were marked by remarkable pastoral care—ensuring introductions to other researchers, inclusion in social events and genuine concern for personal wellbeing.” They also wrote about how Peter generously supported many international visitors to his group, from payment arrangements to social programs, and, of course, to idea-sharing opportunities.

Many of us miss Peter deeply and will continue to do so for a long time to come. Aurore Delaigle and Ray Carroll, in their obituary for Peter (IMS Bulletin, 2016), put the reasons beautifully: “Peter was someone really special. He was an extraordinary, kind, gentle and generous person, of the type most people do not even have the chance to meet once in their lifetime. … His absence will leave a huge hole in the hearts of many people all over the world.”

Peter was a formidable scholar, but a gentle soul. Our (academic) world surely will benefit from having many more of such people. So let us establish a Peter Hall of Fame to honor those who have a beautiful mind for research and a beautiful heart for helping others, especially the younger generations.

Who would you nominate for inclusion in a Peter Hall of Fame?

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