I was surprised to read in The Hindu of 29 June 2005 that Professor Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis, the founder of the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), was also a sort of meteorologist. 40 years after he passed away and 120 years after he was born, the “Professor” (as everyone called him at ISI) still continues to surprise [The Professor was born on 29 June 1893 and passed away on 28 June 1972].
Mahalanobis was indeed a towering Indian. The finest statisticians of the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s spent long sabbaticals at ISI, Kolkata and respected Mahalanobis’s leadership and scholarship. While in England, Ramanujan was a ‘good friend’ of the Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru was another friend and J B S Haldane was … well, finally not a good friend.
It’s sad that the Professor is now all but forgotten; even at ISI there is a serious debate on how relevant is Mahalanobis’s prescription today – Mahalanobis visualized statistics as a ‘key tool’ that could be applied in every scientific endeavour and therefore believed that its study must necessarily be accompanied by a study of the other sciences. So he made sure that ISI had departments in physics, chemistry, biology, anthropology, sociology and economics. It seemed to work very well when the Professor was around, and in the decade or two after his passing, but the 2005 counter-view is that if ISI dabbles in all these sciences, it will end up embracing all-round mediocrity.
I’m not sure what’s my view on the matter, but if you replace yesterday’s ‘statistics’ with today’s ‘information’, the Professor’s wisdom seems to again come into sharp view.