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Stephen Fienberg: Superman of statistics

  1. Larry Wassermana,1
  1. aCarnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA 15213

Stephen E. Fienberg died on December 14, 2016 after a 4-year battle with cancer. He was husband to Joyce, father to Anthony and Howard, grandfather to six, brother to Lorne, mentor, teacher, and a prolific researcher. Most of all, he was a tireless promoter of the idea that the field of statistics could be a force of good for science and, more broadly, for society.

Stephen E. Fienberg. Image courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University.

Steve was born in Toronto in 1942. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in mathematics at the University of Toronto in 1964 he went on to earn a PhD in statistics at Harvard, which he completed in 1968. After stints at the University of Chicago and the University of Minnesota, he landed in the Department of Statistics at Carnegie Mellon in 1980, where he stayed for the rest of his career, except for two years when he served as vice president at York University. He wore many hats over the years: department head, dean, cofounder of the Center for Automated Learning and Discovery (which eventually became the first machine learning department in the world), codirector of the Living Analytics Research Centre at Singapore Management University, member of CyLab (Computer and Communications Security Center), and codirector of the Center for Statistics and Applications in Forensic Evidence, to name a few.

Steve published hundreds of papers and seven books. He is best known for his work on log-linear models. These models are the foundation for virtually all data analysis that involves categorical variables. His book Discrete Multivariate Analysis, written with Yvonne Bishop and Paul Holland, is the bible on this topic. Walk into any statistician’s office and you will find it on the shelf. Steve continued to work on this subject throughout his career, bringing ever greater depth and breadth to the area. Ultimately, he led the effort to import tools from algebraic geometry into statistics to reveal subtle and exotic properties of statistical models.

It is hard to summarize Steve’s work because of its astonishing breadth. A list of topics he worked on is a tour of the field: networks, graphical models, data privacy, forensic science, Bayesian inference, text analysis, statistics and the law, the census, surveys, cybersecurity, causal inference, the geometry of exponential families, history of statistics, mixed membership, record linkage, the foundations of inference, and much more.

Steve’s impact goes far beyond his published work in statistics. He was inducted into the National Academy of Sciences in 1999 but was involved in working with the Academy for over 40 years. He served on 35 committees and panels and for many years was the cochair of the Report Review Committee. Steve oversaw the reviews of hundreds of reports each year. He chaired the 1989 report “Statistical Assessments as Evidence in the Courts” and the Committee to Review the Scientific Evidence on the Polygraph, which exposed the flaws of polygraphs. He chaired the Committee for National Statistics for six years. By my count, Steve testified before Congress at least a dozen times. Through his interdisciplinary work, government work, and service at the National Academy Steve made the case that statistics is a critical component in all aspects of science and policy analysis.

Despite his busy schedule, Steve found plenty of time for mentoring. He had 46 PhD students who have gone on to successful careers in academia, government, and industry. He supervised many postdocs and mentored junior faculty. His office door was quite literally always open. He worked tirelessly behind the scenes to make sure his students and colleagues received accolades. He took a quiet pleasure in the success of others.

Steve’s life was not just about work. He enjoyed fine dining, good wine, and the company of friends. If you needed a restaurant recommendation, you went to Steve. I remember a dinner with Steve a few years ago. After a long evening of wine, food, and good conversation, I had to go home and sleep. Steve had a different plan. He would go home to his wife, Joyce, sneak in another hour of work, and then head off to his late-night hockey game. This was typical: Steve could find time for work, friends, family, food, wine, and sports in a single day. His exceptional energy was his trademark and a source of wonder to his colleagues and friends.

My brief description of Steve’s life may smack of exaggeration. However, if anything, my account is incomplete. It has been suggested by some that perhaps there was more than one Steve Fienberg. This would explain a lot. The fact is, he was unique, and we will never know how one person could accomplish so much in one lifetime.

Footnotes

  • ?1Email: larry{at}stat.cmu.edu.
  • Author contributions: L.W. wrote the paper.

  • The author declares no conflict of interest.

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