Archive for Fields medal

introduction à la Statistique, by Cédric Villani

Posted in Books, Kids, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , on January 26, 2014 by xi'an

crossing Rue Soufflot on my way to IHP from Vieux Campeur, March 28, 2013On Tuesday, there was a series of talks (in French) celebrating Statistics, with an introduction by Cédric Villani. (The talks are reproduced on the French Statistical Society (SFDS) webpage.) Rather unpredictably (!), Villani starts from an early 20th Century physics experiment leading to the estimation of the Avogadro constant from a series of integers. (Repeating an earlier confusion of his, he substitutes the probability of observing a rare event under the null with the probability of the alternative on the Higgs boson to be true!) A special mention to/of Francis Galton’s “supreme law of unreason”. And of surveys, pointing out the wide variability of a result for standard survey populations. But missing the averaging and more statistical effect of accumulating surveys, a principle at the core of Nate Silver‘s predictions. A few words again about the Séralini et al. experiments on Monsanto genetically modified maize NK603, attacked for their lack of statistical foundations. And then, hear hear!, much more than a mere mention of phylogenetic inference, with explanations about inverse inference, Markov Chain Monte Carlo algorithms on trees, convergence of Metropolis algorithms by Persi Diaconis, and Bayesian computations! Of course, this could be seen more as numerical probability than as truly statistics, but it is still pleasant to hear.

The last part of the talk more predictably links Villani’s own field of optimal transportation (which I would translate as a copula problem…) and statistics, mostly understood as empirical distributions. I find it somewhat funny that Sanov’s theorem is deemed therein to be a (or even the) Statistics theorem! I wonder how many statisticians could state this theorem… The same remark applies for the Donsker-Varadhan theory of large deviations. Still, the very final inequality linking the three types of information concepts is just… beautiful! You may spot in the last minute a micro confusion in repeating twice the definition for Fisher’s information rather than deducing that the information associated with a location family is constant. (And a no-so-necessary mention of the Cramer-Rao bound on unbiased estimators. Which could have been quoted as the Fréchet-Darmois-Cramer-Rao bound in such historical grounds ) A pleasant moment, all in all! (There are five other talks on that page, including one by Emmanuel Candés.)

Nobel prize in statistics???

Posted in Kids, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , on January 4, 2014 by xi'an

Xiao-Li Meng asked this question in his latest XL column, to which Andrew replied faster than I. And in the same mood as mine. I had taken part to a recent discussion on this topic within the IMS Council, namely whether or not the IMS should associate with other organisations like ASA towards funding and supporting this potential prize. My initial reaction was one of surprise that we could consider mimicking/hijacking the Nobel for our field. First, I dislike the whole spirit of most prizes, from the personalisation to the media frenzy and distortion, to the notion that we could rank discoveries and research careers within a whole field. And separate what is clearly due to a single individual from what is due to a team of researchers.

Being clueless about those fields, I will not get into a discussion of who should have gotten a Nobel Prize in medicine, physics, or chemistry. And who should not have. But there are certainly many worthy competitors to the actual winners. And this is not the point: I do not see how any of this fights the downfall of scientific students in most of the Western World. That is, how a teenager can get more enticed to undertake maths or physics studies because she saw a couple old guys wearing weird clothes getting a medal and a check in Sweden. I have no actual data, but could Xiao-Li give me a quantitative assessment of the fact that Nobel Prizes “attract future talent”? Chemistry departments keep closing for lack of a sufficient number of students, (pure) maths and physics departments threatened with the same fate… Even the Fields Medal, which has at least the appeal of being delivered to younger researchers, does not seem to fit Xiao-Li’s argument. (To take a specific example: The recent Fields medallist Cédric Villani is a great communicator and took advantage of his medal to promote maths throughout France, in conferences, the medias, and by launching all kinds of initiative. I still remain sceptical about the overall impact on recruiting young blood in maths programs [again with no data to back up my feeling).) I will even less mention Nobel prizes for literature and peace, as there clearly is a political agenda in the nomination. (And selecting Sartre for the Nobel prize for literature definitely discredited it. At least for me.)

“…the media and public have given much more attention to the Fields Medal than to the COPSS Award, even though the former has hardly been about direct or even indirect impact on everyday life.” XL

Well, I do not see this other point of Xiao-Li’s. Nobel prizes are not prestigious for their impact on society, as most people do not understand at all what the rewarded research (career) is about. The most extreme example is the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel: On the one hand, Xiao-Li is right in pointing out that this is a very successful post-Alfred creation of a “Nobel Prize”. On the other hand, the fact that some years see two competing theories simultaneously win leads me to consider that this prize gives priority to theoretical construct above any impact on the World’s economy. Obviously, this statement is a bit of shooting our field in the foot since the only statisticians who got a Nobel Prize are econometricians and game-theorists! Nonetheless, it also shows that the happy few statisticians who entered the Nobel Olympus did not bring a bonus to the field… I am thus  remaining my usual pessimistic self on the impact of a whatever-company Prize in Statistical Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel.

Another remark is the opposition between the COPSS Award, which remains completely ignored by the media (despite a wealth of great nominees with various domains of achievements) and the Fields Medal (which is not ignored). This has been a curse of Statistics that has been discussed at large, namely the difficulty to separate what is math and what is outside math within the field. The Fields Medal is clearly very unlikely to nominate a statistician, even a highly theoretical statistician, as there will always be “sexier” maths results, i.e. corpora of work that will be seen as higher maths than, say, the invention of the Lasso or the creation of generalized linear models. So there is no hope to reach for an alternative Fields Medal with the same shine. Just like the Nobel Prize.

Other issues I could have mentioned, but for the length of the current rant, are the creation of rewards for solving a specific problem (as some found in Machine Learning), for involving multidisciplinary and multicountry research teams, and for reaching new orders of magnitude in processing large data problems.

statistics do not always lie

Posted in Books, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , on December 16, 2012 by xi'an

Le Monde weekend edition science leaflet (Le Monde[wes] from now on!) had several interesting entries this weekend. One was a blurb by Cédric Villani with the above title. Or in French “Les statistiques ne sont pas toujours des mensonges“. This most communicant of our Fields Medalists focussed on two recent scientific news to conclude about the relevance of statistics (herein considered as one of the mathematical sciences!) in scientific discoveries: the validation of the significance of the observations connected with the Higgs Boson and the invalidation of the significance of the Séralini et al. experiments on Monsanto genetically modified maize NK603. Villani actually reproduces the erroneous and quasi-universal interpretation of the statistical analysis of the Higgs Boson as establishing its existence with a probability of .999999, as already discussed in an earlier post. (The whole issue was discussed on the ISBA forum, following Dennis Lindley’s call.) I also mentioned the Monsanto experiment in an earlier post last month, experiment whose publication was surrounded by hyper mediatisation and later controversy, while being validated by the Elsevier journal Food and Chemical Toxicology.

Another interesting entry was the blurb of Marco Zito, physicist in CEA, on another Fields Medalist, Laurent Schwartz, the mathematician who formalised Dirac deltas into the theory of distributions. He first recalls his discovery of Schwartz’s wonderful Théorie des Distributions that I read with fascination in the early 1980′s. (And that most surprisingly does not seem to have been translated in English…) He then discusses the personality of Laurent Schwartz, as described in the wonderful A Mathematician Grappling with His Century, his autobiography where he describes his political involvement against the French war in Algeria, esp. about the disappearance and murder by torture of the young mathematician Maurice Audin. Laurent Schwartz was actually excluded a few years from the faculty at École Polytechnique for this involvement…

Théorème vivant

Posted in Books, University life with tags , , , , , , , on November 7, 2012 by xi'an

When I ordered this book, Théorème Vivant (Alive Theorem), by Cédric Villani, I had misgivings about it being yet another illustration of the, pardon my French!, universal “pipolisation” process that turns values upside down and sets mundane aspects of major contemporary figures above their true achievements like, say, winning a Fields medal! However, as soon as I started reading Théorème Vivant, I realised it was a fascinating delve into the way mathematicians operate and how they build theorems. Of course, as an “insider”, I can find many entry points to relate to, some quite mundane and unrelated like entering the common room of a conference centre in the middle of the night to “steal” some life-saving tea bags or an aversion to taxi rides, not mentioning an addiction to French cheeses… And I have the advantage of being able to read the math formulas given in the book (even though this is not at all my area of expertise and I find the wording of the theorems and proofs rather unusual at times). But I think Théorème Vivant can be read by non-mathematicians as well, provided they take those formulas and paper extracts as pictures, just like the drawings of mathematicians interspeded throughout the book and do not get annoyed at not understanding the meaning of them (I do not get the deepest levels either!). Nothing to be afraid of: Théorème Vivant is another impressive illustration of the ability of Cédric Villani to explain mathematics to the general public and to surf upon his popularity with the medias. (The book is currently available in French only, but should soon be translated into English. Possibly polishing the least politically correct statements…) Continue reading

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