A brief news item on the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) web site announces the death of Professor Debabrata Basu (DB) at Kolkata on 24 March 2001. From all accounts, Prof Basu was ailing. He was also nearly blind. So his end probably came when it was indeed time to go.

ISI’s obituary note also contains a paragraph about DB’s many contributions to the theory and foundations of statistical inference — which my more learned friends at ISI tell me were strikingly original and profound. From all accounts, ISI in the 1950’s and 1960’s — when DB was also at his prime — was a remarkable abode of learning, and I sometimes worry if C R Rao’s more towering success during that period will dwarf the accomplishments of other equally gifted masters like D Basu.

It is not my intention to discuss DB’s research contributions here; I am in no way qualified to do so. I would however like to comment on DB as a teacher because he taught us probability theory during 1973-75 when we were B.Stat. students at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata (“Calcutta” was so much better!).

25 years later, memories of DB’s classes are still so fresh and enjoyable! His smiling “good morning” … which was almost immediately followed by the day’s first problem. Examples: “At least one of Mrs Roy’s two children is a boy, what is the probability that both the children are boys?” or “the lazy secretary randomly put the letters in the envelopes without checking, what is the chance that no letter went into the correct envelope?”

I don’t know of a better teacher of probability than DB, which is not such a surprise. But what is more worrying is that I don’t know of any good teachers of probability, apart from the few at ISI, Indian Institute of Science (IISc) or other premier national institutions. Certainly I don’t think that our high school or undergraduate students have ever met a good probability teacher.

To verify, I try the first of DB’s two examples, which is easier, on Bangalore University’s MCA students and I almost never get the correct answer. In fact it is a little hard to explain the idea of conditional probability in simple terms to the uninitiated; the best way, I had found, was to ask how the probability of an Indian one-day cricket victory changed, given that Sachin Tendulkar was or wasn’t out. Now I have a better way: it is to talk of how the use of the 50:50 option in Kaun Banega Crorepati  (KBC) can change the probability of guessing the correct answer. While sociologists can debate the wider implications of this TV phenomenon, KBC is certainly wonderful to explain ideas of statistics and probability!

This paucity of good science teachers in high school and early college is worrying. We have to come up with ways to solve this problem. My dear friend and colleague Dr U N Sinha has a radical solution: “Make it compulsory for R&D scientists and IISc professors to go out” — not just to give one lecture but to give “a full blown course!”

I volunteer to do a course on elementary probability theory — although, to my great sorrow, I will never be able to scale the lofty  heights of the late Professor Debabrata Basu.

One thought on “Thinking of D Basu

  1. It was nice to read your memories of D Basu. My late father was also one of his students and he used to reminisce about the abode of teaching called ISI.
    On a side and sad note it is better not to have another teacher like D Basu otherwise we will never understand his genius. In today’s world D Basu would have struggled to find students who were genuinely interested about the subject per se than running after fat salary. Geniuses are born once and they fortunately cannot be commoditized.
    ISI is one of the few creations in India we could treasure. We do not have Berkeley and Princeton but at least whatever we have if we can upkeep it then we will keep something better for our next generation.

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