David H. Blackwell dies at 91; pioneering statistician at Howard and Berkeley
David H. Blackwell, 91, who rose from poverty in Southern Illinois to become one of the country’s most prominent statisticians and the first African American to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences, died July 8 at a hospital in Berkeley, Calif., of complications from a stroke.
Dr. Blackwell was also the first black tenured professor at the University of California at Berkeley, where he became chairman of the statistics department. A wide-ranging scholar, he was known as an elegant theoretician who made important contributions to a number of fields, especially in statistics and probability.
His analysis of bluffing as a poker strategy, as well as his research on dueling — using statistics to determine the most opportune moment for a dueler to shoot — helped establish him as an expert in game theory.
He conducted groundbreaking work on the mathematics of multistage decision-making that has been applied in defense and finance, and he wrote a textbook on Bayesian statistics, a method of incorporating knowledge about past events into predictions about the likelihood of future events.
“I’m sort of a dilettante,” he was quoted as saying in “Mathematical People,” a 1985 book of profiles and interviews. In 1986, he received one of the most prestigious honors in the field of statistics, the R.A. Fisher award from the Committee of Presidents of Statistical Societies.
David Harold Blackwell was born April 24, 1919, in Centralia, Ill. His father, who had a fourth-grade education, worked for the railroad, and his grandfather ran a store.
Dr. Blackwell taught himself to read at the store by examining the pictures and letters on seed packages.
At 16, he planned to become an elementary schoolteacher and entered the University of Illinois, where, at the time, there were no black professors. Six years later, he had discovered a passion for mathematics, earned a doctorate in that subject and won a fellowship to Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced Study.
While at Princeton in the early 1940s, he sent job applications to 104 historically black colleges — working as a professor elsewhere, he believed, wasn’t a possibility.
However, he was courted by Berkeley and was nearly offered a job there until the idea met with protest from the wife of the mathematics department chairman. She was a Texas native who liked to invite the math faculty to dinner occasionally, and she said she “was not going to have that darky in her house,” according to Dr. Blackwell’s recollection in an oral history interview.
He joined the Howard University faculty in 1944 and became the head of the mathematics department.
While in Washington, he became interested in statistics after hearing a lecture by Agriculture Department statistician Meyer A. Girshick. After Dr. Blackwell challenged one of Girshick’s assertions, the two met and became friends and colleagues.
They wrote a 1954 book, “The Theory of Games and Statistical Decisions.” It established them as leaders in the burgeoning field of game theory, which uses mathematics to understand winning strategies in situations that can be applied to economics, biology, engineering, political science and international relations.
Dr. Blackwell was again courted by the University of California. He became a Berkeley professor in 1955 and 10 years later was admitted to the National Academy of Sciences. He was a member of numerous other professional organizations, including the Institute of Mathematical Statistics and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
His wife, Ann Madison Blackwell, died in 2006 after 62 years of marriage. Four of his eight children also preceded him in death: Julia Madison Blackwell, David Harold Blackwell Jr., Grover Johnson Blackwell and Ruth Blackwell Herch.
Survivors include four children, Hugo Blackwell of Berkeley, Ann Blackwell and Vera Gleason, both of Oakland, Calif., and Sarah Hunt of Houston; a sister; and 14 grandchildren.
Dr. Blackwell taught introductory- through graduate-level courses and mentored 65 doctoral students in his career. “Why do you want to share something beautiful with somebody else?” he said in “Mathematical People.” “It’s because of the pleasure he will get, and in transmitting it, you appreciate its beauty all over again.”
Emma Brown (Washington Post 2010)
Born: about 1680 BC in Egypt
Died: about 1620 BC in Egypt
Ahmes is the scribe who wrote the Rhind Papyrus (named after the Scottish Egyptologist Alexander Henry Rhind who went to Thebes for health reasons, became interested in excavating and purchased the papyrus in Egypt in 1858).
Ahmes claims not to be the author of the work, being, he claims, only a scribe. He says that the material comes from an earlier work of about 2000 BC.
The papyrus is our chief source of information on Egyptian mathematics. The Recto contains division of 2 by the odd numbers 3 to 101 in unit fractions and the numbers 1 to 9 by 10. The Verso has 87 problems on the four operations, solution of equations, progressions, volumes of granaries, the two-thirds rule etc.
The Rhind Papyrus, which came to the British Museum in 1863, is sometimes called the ‘Ahmes papyrus’ in honour of Ahmes. Nothing is known of Ahmes other than his own comments in the papyrus.
Article by: J J O’Connor and E F Robertson
In last week’s video – “The Learning Brain” you learned that the brain controls everything we do and is the center of all thinking, remembering and feeling. The brain generates up to 25 watts of power which is enough to illuminate a light bulb! The largest part of the cerebrum which is made up of two halves. The left half control the right side of your body while the right side controls the left side of your body. The “bridge” between the two hemispheres (halves) of the brain is called the corpus callosum. The cerebrum is where our short and long term memory centers reside and is also responsible for creativity and imagination. The cerebrum is what helps us to reason and solve problems. The brain is made up of 100 billion neurons – nerve cells that communicate with each other to make everything we do possible. Learning creates pathways between neurons. These pathways strengthen the connections between neurons the more we learn. Once we’ve learned a skill it becomes easier and easier to perform.
The brain is also where our emotions reside. Emotional states can impact the way we learn. Feeling threatened or worried causes the brain to release chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol into the body. These chemicals will affect how we think, feel, and behave. Scientists believe that we learn best when we are happy and relaxed because this is when our brains process information most efficiently. Our brains ability to function well is also impacted by our diet – including hydration. Diets high in sugar and artificial chemicals found in processed foods can make it difficult to concentrate. Being tired, hungry, too hot or too cold can also affect the brain’s ability to work efficiently. When studying, it’s good to take short breaks and get blood flowing through the body with physical exercise. Exercise increases oxygen in the blood stream which helps neurons to fire.
In this video, we also learned that intelligence is not fixed and that it possible with effort and practice to become smarter. Challenging yourself and setting goals helps the brain to grow stronger neural connections. Over time, you will be able to do things that you may have thought difficult or even impossible in the past! Doing puzzles, reading, playing music, and drawing are some good ways to challenge and expand your brain.