Aug 30, 2017

Obituary: Joseph M. Hilbe 1944–2017

Joseph Hilbe


Joseph M. Hilbe, born in Los Angeles, California (December 30, 1944), passed away at his home on March 12, 2017. He was an American statistician and philosopher, the founding President of the International Astrostatistics Association (IAA), Emeritus Professor at the University of Hawaii, Solar System Ambassador with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at California Institute of Technology, and Adjunct Professor of Statistics at Arizona State University.

Early in his career, Hilbe started making contact with prominent names in different fields. During his doctoral studies at University of California, Los Angeles, he had the opportunity to be a graduate reader of the Nobel Laureate in Economics, Friedrich von Hayek, and a personal assistant of one of the founders of the Logical Positivism and Vienna Circle, Rudolf Carnap.

Hilbe was also a two-time track and field US national champion, and was the University of Hawaii track and field coach in the 1970s and early 1980s. During this period the shot put world record was broken there and the university also produced an NCAA champion in the long jump. In his coaching activities, Hilbe already showed one strength which would forever mark his career and his personal life: an overwhelming dedication to fostering younger generations. Gwen Loud-Johnson (the 1984 NCAA long jump champion), remembers fondly the role Hilbe played in her story: “I came to Hawaii a girl, and left a woman, a wahine… and Joe was like a conductor—he orchestrated it.”

Back in his academic life, Hilbe also made a number of contributions to the fields of count response models and logistic regression. Among his most influential books are two editions of Negative Binomial Regression (Cambridge University Press, 2007, 2011), Modeling Count Data (Cambridge University Press, 2014), and Logistic Regression Models (Chapman & Hall/CRC, 2009). Modeling Count Data won the 2015 PROSE Honorable Mention Award for books in mathematics as the second best mathematics book published in 2014.

Joseph always had great love and energy for statistics, and he was a huge supporter of astrostatistics in particular. Without his drive and enthusiasm to bring the statistics and astronomy communities together, the IAA would not exist today. He worked with stamina and energy to strengthen the IAA and the field of Astrostatistics, and never failed to provide immense support to young researchers.

This commitment was what brought us together. In 2014 he sponsored the creation of the Cosmostatistics Initiative (COIN) under the umbrella of the IAA: a group of young researchers working at the frontier of statistics and astronomy, and committed to creating a truly interdisciplinary community. Joseph embraced the broad proposal and worked closely with the newly formed group. Within a few years, this initiative had grown into a network involving more than 60 young researchers from 15 different countries, and five scientific papers. The group also nursed the project for his last book Bayesian Models for Astrophysical Data: Using R, JAGS, Python, and Stan (Cambridge University Press, 2017), which was finished just a few days before his passing. He worked tirelessly and with passion until his last moments.

During our long talks—which ranged from academic life, astronomy, statistics, the Brazilian carnival, beaches or the last adventures of his dog, Sirr—we were many times surprised about the limitless energy and the enthusiasm he presented in any conversation. Another precious characteristic of Joseph was that his caring nature was not restricted to humans. As the German philosopher Immanuel Kant once said, “We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals”. On one particular occasion, Joseph missed one of our telecon meetings, for which he promptly explained the reason: He had spotted a small puppy in the street and immediately ran to rescue it from potential coyote attacks, common in the Arizona area. His unique qualities as a researcher and human being will be deeply missed.

He is survived by his loving wife Cheryl Hilbe; his children Heather Hilbe-Redfield and her husband James Redfield; Michael Hilbe; Mitchell Hilbe and his wife Ciara Hilbe; his grandchildren Austin, Shawn, Jordan and Kimber, and Joe’s daily companion, Sirr.

Written by Rafael de Souza, UNC-Chapel Hill, and Emille Ishida, Université Clermont-Auvergne


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