Charles Stein, 1920-2016

A statistician of genius who was also a committed political activist has died

January 5, 2017
Charles Stein

Charles Stein was born in Brooklyn, New York on 22 March 1920 and studied mathematics at the University of Chicago (1940). He worked in the Air Force during the Second World War, analysing how the weather might affect military activity, but, although happy to take part in the fight against fascism, was critical of every single occasion in which the US got involved in subsequent wars.

His convictions soon had an impact on his career. Discharged in 1946, Professor Stein completed a doctorate at Columbia University in 1947 and went to work at the University of California, Berkeley. When the politics of the McCarthy era meant that he was required to sign a loyalty oath, he refused to do so on principle. It was this that led him to make his career at Stanford University, which as a private institution required no such oath. He was appointed an associate professor in 1953, promoted to full professor in 1956 and continued working there until he became emeritus in the late 1980s.

Although never very prolific as a writer, something he attributed to a combination of laziness and perfectionism, Professor Stein was known as “the Einstein of the Statistics Department” and had a deep impact on the whole field (sometimes for work written up by others). His legacy in the field lives on in the names of Stein's method, Stein's lemma and Stein's paradox. The last of these was described by Emmanuel Candès, Barnum-Simons chair in math and statistics at Stanford, as the most provocative result in our field of statistics in the last 60 years”.

“Many of the people in our department have lived off [his] ideas,” said Susan Holmes, professor of statistics at Stanford. “He was just a genius. He thought outside the box. He didn’t accept things for what they were.”

Alongside his path-breaking professional work, Professor Stein used the protection of his tenured post to speak out on the political causes he believed in. He refused to accept military funding and was the first member of faculty to be arrested for anti-apartheid protests in 1985. Even after retirement, he continued to live on or near campus, to go hiking in the hills and to spend time in the library – partly because a dream had encouraged him to try to use the method he had invented to prove the celebrated prime number theorem. He died in his sleep on 24 November and is survived by a son, two daughters and a grandson.

matthew.reisz@tesglobal.com

You've reached your article limit

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Most Commented

Laurel and Hardy sawing a plank of wood

Working with other academics can be tricky so follow some key rules, say Kevin O'Gorman and Robert MacIntosh

Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford will host a homeopathy conference next month

Charity says Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford is ‘naive’ to hire out its premises for event

women leapfrog. Vintage

Robert MacIntosh and Kevin O’Gorman offer advice on climbing the career ladder

Woman pulling blind down over an eye
Liz Morrish reflects on why she chose to tackle the failings of the neoliberal academy from the outside
White cliffs of Dover

From Australia to Singapore, David Matthews and John Elmes weigh the pros and cons of likely destinations