Monday, August 01, 2005

Calyampudi Radhakrishna Rao

Calyampudi Radhakrishna Rao

In 1941 a bespectacled young man came to Calcutta to secure a job. He had a first class first in M.A. mathematics from Andhra University. As he could find no place offering him research facilities, he was ready to take up any career. By chance he met a student of the Indian Statistical Institute. Curiosity made him accept an invitation to visit the institute, which he had not even heard of. What the young man saw in the three rooms of the Presidency College, to which the institute was then confined, fascinated him.

The rattling calculating machines, the colorful charts and sheets full of data were exciting. He immediately persuaded his father to allow him to join the institute for the M.A. course in statistics. He passed the course with honours, winning a gold medal.

The young man was Calyampudi Radhakrishna Rao, who came to be a renowned statistician. He was born on September 10, 1920, at Hadagali in Karnataka. His parents named him Radhakrishna because, like Lord Krishna, he was their eighth male child. He had his schooling at several towns in Andhra Pradesh. For college education he went to Vishakapatnam. In his schools and college he won several prizes and scholarships. Although he was greatly interested in physics, his father convinced him to take up mathematics, which, he said, was in the Indian tradition.

Rao first caught the attention of the world of statistics when in 1945 he put forward the "theory of estimation". The theory enables one to find an unknown quantity for a pile of data. In due course, he developed several statistical tools. His formulae and theorems, for instant the "Cramer-Rao inequality", "the Fisher-Rao theorem" and "Rao-Blackwellisation" are now part of any standard text on statistics.

Rao considers statistics to be a "very human science". What looks like a collection of numbers has indeed an immense significance in daily affairs. For example, his own technique of orthogonal (rightangular) arrays in the "design of experiments" assists industry in increasing production to the maximum. His contributions to multivariate analysis can be used in medical diagnosis, plant breeding and biometry. Biometry is the mathematical study of measurements in biology such as height, skull size, size of tail and geometry of flowers.

Earlier, in 1948, while doing his Ph.D. at Cambridge, Rao applied statistical methods to anthropology. He measured old skeletons of an African race to trace its origin statistically. In 1965 he worked in collaboration with Ronald A. Fisher, the celebrated statistician, on a genetics problem. Using statistics he mapped chromosomes in mice.

For his significant contributions Rao received the S. S. Bhatnagar Award, the Meghnad Saha Medal and the Guy Medal. In 1967 he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society.

Rao has written more than half a dozen books on statistics. His Linear Statistical Inference and Its Applications has been translated into several languages. He is at present editor of Sankhya, the Indian statistical journal.

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