Sunday, August 1, 2010

Dr. David Blackwell, Mathematician

From: Marvin X Jackmon
List Editor: Abdul Alkalimat
Editor's Subject: Fw: David Blackwell Passes Away
Author's Subject: Fw: David Blackwell Passes Away
Date Written: Mon, 19 Jul 2010 08:33:07 -0500
Date Posted: Tue, 19 Jul 2010 09:33:07 -0400
*From:* Lee O. Cherry of the African Scientific Institute

* *

*Dr. David Blackwell was one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th
century. He was featured in our African Scientific Institute's /"Blacks
In Science Calendars"/ during the 1990s. We will miss him.*
/ /
/ /
/from New York Times, Published: July 16, 2010/
/ /
David Blackwell, Scholar of Probability, Dies at 91

By William Grimes

David Blackwell, a statistician and mathematician who wrote
groundbreaking papers on probability and game theory and was the first
black scholar to be admitted to the National Academy of Sciences, died
July 8 in Berkeley, Calif. He was 91.

The death was confirmed by his son Hugo.

Mr. Blackwell, the son of a railroad worker with a fourth-grade
education, taught for nearly 35 years at the University of California,
Berkeley, where he became the first black tenured professor.

He made his mark as a free-ranging problem solver in numerous
sub-disciplines. His fascination with game theory, for example, prompted
him to investigate the mathematics of bluffing and to develop a theory
on the optimal moment for an advancing duelist to open fire.

“He went from one area to another, and he’d write a fundamental paper in
each,” Thomas Ferguson, an emeritus professor of statistics at the
University of California, Los Angeles, told the Berkeley Web site. “He
would come into a field that had been well studied and find something
really new that was remarkable. That was his forte.”

David Harold Blackwell was born on April 24, 1919, in Centralia, Ill.
Early on, he showed a talent for mathematics, but he entered the
University of Illinois with the modest ambition of becoming an
elementary school teacher. *He earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics
in 1938 and, adjusting his sights, went on to earn a master’s degree in
1939 and a doctorate in 1941, when he was only 22. *

After being awarded a Rosenwald Fellowship, established by the clothing
magnate Julius Rosenwald to aid black scholars, he attended the
Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton but left after a year when,
because of his race, he was not issued the customary invitation to
become an honorary faculty member. At Berkeley, where the statistician
Jerzy Neyman wanted to hire him in the mathematics department, racial
objections also blocked his appointment.

Instead, Mr. Blackwell sent out applications to 104 black colleges on
the assumption that no other schools would hire him. After working for a
year at the Office of Price Administration, he taught briefly at
Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., and Clark College in Atlanta
before joining the mathematics department at Howard University in
Washington in 1944.

While at Howard, he attended a lecture by Meyer A. Girshick at the local
chapter of the American Statistical Association. He became intensely
interested in statistics and developed a lifelong friendship with
Girshick, with whom he wrote “Theory of Games and Statistical
Decisions” (1954).

As a consultant to the RAND Corporation from 1948 to 1950, he applied
game theory to military situations. It was there that he turned his
attention to what might be called the duelist’s dilemma, a problem with
application to the battlefield, where the question of when to open fire
looms large.

His “Basic Statistics” (1969) was one of the first textbooks on Bayesian
statistics, which assess the uncertainty of future outcomes by
incorporating new evidence as it arises, rather than relying on
historical data. He also wrote numerous papers on multistage

“He had this great talent for making things appear simple,” Peter
Bickel, a statistics professor at Berkeley, told the university’s Web
site. “He liked elegance and simplicity. That is the ultimate best thing
in mathematics, if you have an insight that something seemingly
complicated is really simple, but simple after the fact.”

Mr. Blackwell was hired by Berkeley in 1954 and became a full professor in

the statistics department when it split off from the mathematics
department in 1955. He was chairman of the department from 1957 to 1961
and assistant dean of the College of Letters and Science from 1964 to
1968. He retired in 1988.

In 1965 he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

In addition to his son Hugo, of Berkeley, he is survived by three of his
eight children, Ann Blackwell and Vera Gleason, both of Oakland, and
Sarah Hunt Dahlquist of Houston; a sister, Elizabeth Cowan of Clayton,
N.C.; and 14 grandchildren.

Mr. Blackwell described himself as a “dilettante” in a 1983 interview
for “Mathematical People,” a collection of profiles and interviews.
“Basically, I’m not interested in doing research and I never have been,”
he said. “I’m interested in /understanding/, which is quite a different
thing. And often to understand something you have to work it out
yourself because no one else has done it.”

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