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Updated: March 14, 2010 03:06 IST

At 90, wizard of numbers is still in the service of statistics

T. Lalith Singh
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Prof. C.R. Rao
The Hindu Prof. C.R. Rao

C.R. Rao is giving shape to an advanced institute

Statistics inspired and guided him since an early age, and at 90, the ‘Wizard of Numbers' is still indefatigable in his efforts to spread the science across the globe.

Calyampudi Radhakrishna Rao — popularly known as C.R. Rao and ranked among the world leaders in statistical science over the last six decades — believes that it has a role to play in every aspect of life, from a layman's daily calculations to the nation's defence.

After carving a niche for himself in the field with numerous national and international awards — 32 honorary doctoral degrees from universities in 18 countries, 14 books and 350 research papers and several technical terms bearing his name — Prof. Rao is now busy giving shape his passion as an institute on the sprawling premises of the University of Hyderabad.

The C.R. Rao Advanced Institute of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science — for which he raised Rs.1 crore, including a contribution of Rs. 25 lakh by his spouse — is fast turning into a reality, with the structure coming up and personnel being recruited.

Having given direction to it, Prof. Rao is now sculpting a form to his new conception, a first-of-its-kind museum on statistics to be named ‘Sankhya'.

“A registered society for setting up ‘Sankhya' has already been formed, and the members include Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Scientific Advisor to the Defence Minister V.K. Saraswat, and Chennai Mathematical Institute Director C.S. Seshadri,” Prof. Rao says.

His journey into the world of statistics began after he completed postgraduation in mathematics from the Andhra University and went to the Calcutta University for an M.A. in statistics in 1943.

His academic pursuits here were marked by a gold medal and unbroken record scores, and he got associated with Prof. P.C. Mahalanobis, founder of the Indian Statistical Institute.

Adding a Ph.D from Cambridge University in 1948 to his accomplishments, Prof. Rao went on to make pioneering contributions to statistical theory and applications.

Technical terms such as the ‘Cramér-Rao Inequality,' ‘Rao-Blackwellization,' and ‘Rao's Score Test' appear in all standard books.

“Statistics is going to be an important discipline and science and technology of future,” says Prof. Rao. “Take any human endeavour and one finds a role for statistics.

“If the government is a major user of it for economy planning and services, statistics has a crucial role in national security also, and even a layman ends up putting it to use in a wide ranging applications from daily chores to lifetime decisions.

“In Switzerland, statistical methodologies are used to detect fake stamps and fake currency, while it was deployed in the U.S. to study medical errors when several deaths were reported in hospital.”

Statistics was used even to resolve controversies such as whether Shakespeare had ghost writers, adds Prof Rao.

After 65 years in this stream of science, his observation is that statistics is changing fast like all others.

“In statistics, there is nothing like a fixed set of knowledge, and all previous knowledge goes obsolete once a new set is developed,” says Prof. Rao, who was honoured in 2002 with the National Medal of Science as ‘a prophet of new age' by the then U.S. President George W. Bush.

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