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Long before the ISI came to stand for the Pakistan's spy outfit Inter-Services Intelligence, it was an acronym for the more prosaic Indian Statistical Institute, founded in Kolkota by the great scientist P C Mahalonobis. While desi ISI's importance has faded in India, its alumni and associates continue to quietly garner accolades, nowhere more than in the US, which actually copied its model to set up a similar institution in North Carolina's Research Triangle. No more than half dozen people of Indian origin have won the prestigious US Presidential Medal for Science over the years (among them Nobel laureautes Hargobind Khorana and Subramanyam Chandrashekhar); two of them happen to be from ISI, Kolkota.
In 2002, then President George Bush pinned the medal on Calyampudi Radhakrishna Rao calling him "one of the pioneers who laid the foundation of modern statistics, as well as one of the world's top five statisticians". The remarkable thing is that Rao, who was 82 at that time, came to the US at age 62 only after retiring as director of the ISI, when typically grandparents come to America to visit their grandkids. Following a speaking gig, he was invited to join the statistics faculty at the University of Pittsburgh at 62, went on to a chair at Pennsylvania State University at 70, became a US citizen in 1995 at 75, before winning presidential laurels at 82. "In India, no one respects you after you retire. Even the darwan will salute you only when you are in service, " Rao told The Times of India in an interview at that time. "Even colleagues respect authority, not scholarship. "
But remarkably enough, an acolyte who looked up to Rao was also awarded the US Presidential Medal for Science last week.
Sathamangalam Ranga Iyengar Srinivasa Varadhan came from ISI to New York University in the 1960s (he was recommended by Rao who was his doctoral thesis guide). In nearly half a century of work, the two men, working on different countries and continents but on the same plane, made some of the most seminal contributions in the field of statistics, resulting in White House honors for both. Rao's research in multivariate analysis, for example, has been used to improve economic planning, weather prediction, medical diagnosis, tracking the movements of spy planes and monitoring the course of spacecrafts. His contribution to the world of statistics includes such eponymous terms as Rao Distance, Rao's Score Test, Cramer-Rao Inequality, Rao-Blackwellization, and Fisher-Rao Theorem.
Varadhan, according to the White House citation this week, won the award for his work in probability theory, especially his work on large deviations from expected random behavior, "which has revolutionized this field of study during the second half of the twentieth century and become a cornerstone of both pure and applied probability. " Not that the Government of India didn't recognize them;Rao was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, the country's second highest civilian award, in 2001;Varadhan is a Padma Bhushan awardee. But outside the rarified world of statistics, they are relatively unknown. They brought glory to India and its ISI - the good one.
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