Hannan consistency marks mathematical statistics legacy
James Hannan studied research papers the way a powerful microscope uncovers the depth of what can escape our eyes.
“Often I start on a paper and look up a reference. I find the reference interesting and follow up on a reference to the reference. Thus, I may stray far away from where I started,” he said in a 2008 interview in Statistical Science (2010), a publication of the Institute of Mathematical Statistics.
Known for a collaborative spirit, enviable contributions and a wholehearted dedication to his profession, the impact of James Hannan’s high standards in research was multiplied by the students and colleagues who regularly sought his counsel.
His wife, Bettie Creighton Hannan, chose to honor her husband’s legacy with a gift establishing an endowment to support visiting scholars in theoretical statistics and probability. Jim passed away on January 26, 2010 at the age of 87. He retired from the College of Natural Science in 2002, following nearly 50 years of service.
Jim served in World War II as a meteorologist forecasting weather at army airbases in India and China. In transit to these locations, Jim played poker games with little interruption. Curiously, his later research discoveries included strategies for repeated play of a game and that those strategies apply to selecting a best forecaster. He first published his fundamental research in game theory in 1957, but its consequence was not fully appreciated until the 1990s when online learning communities in computer science rediscovered his work and coined the term Hannan consistency.
His friend, colleague and former student Dennis Gilliland recalls another Hannan consistency, that of his generosity in helping others. “Rarely a day found Jim away from his office where he interacted with many colleagues,” he said, noting that Jim directed or co-directed the doctoral research of twenty students, many of whom now enjoy academic careers.
Jim joined the mathematics faculty in 1953 and played a central role in the development of the Department of Statistics (now the Department of Statistics and Probability). The James Hannan Endowment for Visiting Scholars in Theoretical Statistics and Probability is a fitting tribute to Jim’s influence as the visiting scholars will collaborate with other faculty, enhance the research atmosphere and contribute to graduate education in the department.
Bettie met Jim at the University of North Carolina where she graduated with a master’s degree in art history and he completed his doctorate. With an extensive background in classical languages, she studied French and Russian at MSU and translated scholarly articles in statistics, probability and mathematics in support of her husband’s research.
Photo: Bettie and Jim at a 1998 celebration. The cake reads “Jim, Thank you for all you have done. –Your Friends.”
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