Arlie Petters Is First Recipient of Blackwell-Tapia Prize

December 8, 2002

Arlie Petters (center), honored for both his research accomplishments (in mathematical physics, specifically gravitational lensing) and his effectiveness as a mentor for minority students, received the first Blackwell-Tapia prize at a November conference at MSRI. On hand to congratulate him are the two outstanding mathematical scientists/mentors in whose honor the prize was created: Richard Tapia (left) and David Blackwell (right).
Robert E. Megginson

"When you are a little boy in Belize, in a town of about 3000 people and barely any electricity, you just have Mother Nature with you at night, and as a child you have all these philosophical questions about how the stars got there, how they stay there. I just couldn't stay away from that." (From Arlie O. Petters's talk, "Gravitational Lensing: Universal Properties and Applications," given at the 2002 Blackwell-Tapia Conference at MSRI, November 2, 2002.)

In the years since his childhood in Central America, Arlie Petters has most certainly not been able to stay away from learning more about the universe and how it works. During the past decade, he has added greatly to the understanding of gravitational lensing through his pioneering contributions to the mathematical underpinnings of the theory. For this work, as well as for his efforts to help others from underrepresented minority groups find their way through the educational pipeline leading to advanced degrees in the mathematical sciences, Petters has been named the first recipient of the David H. Blackwell-Richard A. Tapia Prize.

Building on the success of the Blackwell-Tapia Conference held at Cornell University in May 2000, Cornell and the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley established the Blackwell-Tapia Prize. The prize is to be given to mathematical scientists who have contributed significantly to their fields of expertise, and who have served as role models for mathematical scientists and students from underrepresented minority groups or have addressed in other significant ways the problem of the underrepresentation of minorities in mathematics. The prize will be presented every even-numbered year at a conference in honor of the recipient and the prize's two namesakes, featuring talks in the awardee's area of mathematical expertise.

Distinguished Math Scientist, Outstanding Mentor/Adviser
Arlie O. Petters is the William and Sue Gross Associate Professor of Mathematics at Duke University, where he works on problems in mathematical physics. His current research interests include the development of a rigorous mathematical theory of light deflection in gravitational fields and the investigation of the observational consequences of the theorems in such a theory.

His many awards and honors include Duke's Bass Chair in Recognition of Excellence in Research and Teaching, a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Award, an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship, and induction into the Hall of Fame of Hunter College of the City University of New York.

Petters emigrated from Belize to the United States in 1979 and became a U.S. citizen in 1990. After receiving bachelor's and master's degrees in mathematics and physics from Hunter College, he was awarded a Bell Laboratories Cooperative Research Fellowship to continue his graduate studies. He did his doctoral work in mathematics at MIT and Princeton, receiving his PhD from MIT in 1991 under the direction of Bertram Kostant (MIT) and David Spergel (Princeton). His thesis title was Singularities in Gravitational Microlensing. After five years as a member of the faculty at Princeton, he accepted the William and Sue Gross Chair at Duke, becoming the university's first tenured African American in mathematics.

A popular and effective adviser and mentor of undergraduates, Petters received the 1996 Service Award of the Princetonians of Color Network. He is a frequent guest speaker at events for minority students at all levels, from elementary through graduate school, where he describes his work with infectious excitement. A co-organizer for the Seventh Conference for African American Researchers in the Mathematical Sciences, held at Duke in 2001, he helped bring minority professionals together with graduate students to foster men-toring relationships and provide the students with evidence that others from backgrounds like their own are succeeding in mathematics-based fields.

Inspiration for More Than a Generation
The Blackwell-Tapia Prize was established in honor of David Blackwell and Richard Tapia, distinguished mathematical scientists who together have inspired more than a generation of African American and Latino students and professionals in the mathematical sciences.

Blackwell, the seventh African American to obtain a PhD in mathematics (in 1941), did his graduate study at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he wrote his thesis, Some Properties of Markoff Chains, under Joseph Doob. After holding positions at the Institute for Advanced Study, Southern University, Clark College (now Clark-Atlanta University), and Howard University, where he chaired the Mathematics Department from 1947 to 1954, Blackwell joined Berkeley's Department of Statistics in 1954. He remained at Berkeley for the rest of his career; he served as chair of the statistics department from 1957 to 1961. His eighty papers contain many original and important contributions to the mathematical sciences, with the Rao-Blackwell theorem probably being the most familiar to students of statistics, from their earliest introduction to the field.

Blackwell's many honors include election to the National Academy of Sciences in 1965 as its first African American member, as well as election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is an honorary member of the Royal Statistical Society, and has served as president of the Institute of Mathematical Statistics and vice president of the American Statistical Association, the International Statistical Institute, and the American Mathematical Society. Now a professor emeritus, he remains active in his field as well as in activities affecting the representation of minorities in the mathematical sciences; he serves on MSRI's Human Resources Advisory Committee as its only permanent member.

Richard Tapia, the son of immigrants from Mexico, spent his precollege years in the Los Angeles Public School System. He attended Harbor Junior College and then moved to UCLA, where he received a BA and MA in mathematics, and, in 1967, a PhD; his thesis was titled A Generalization of Newton's Method with an Application to the Euler-Lagrange Equation. After holding faculty positions at UCLA and the University of Wisconsin, he moved to Rice University in 1970, where he chaired the Mathematical Sciences Department from 1978 to 1983 and, since 1991, has been the Noah Harding Professor of Computational and Applied Mathematics. He has published more than eighty papers and given numerous invited addresses on a wide-ranging collection of topics.

A partial listing of Tapia's awards and honors includes election to the National Academy of Engineering (1992) as its first native-born Hispanic American member and appointment to the National Science Board (1996). He was the recipient of a U.S. Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring in 1996, the 1997 Lifetime Mentor Award from the AAAS, and the 1999 Giants in Science Award from the Quality Education for Minorities Network. Finally, proving that mathematicians really can have a very broad range of outside interests, he and his twin brother set a major world record for drag racing in 1968.

2002 Blackwell-Tapia Conference
Arlie Petters received the Blackwell-Tapia Prize at a conference held at MSRI, November 1-2, 2002; MSRI and Cornell sponsored the conference, with support from the Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics at UCLA. The program featured lectures by Petters and his Princeton thesis adviser, David Spergel, on gravitational lensing; Richard Tapia, in an exciting talk on the mathematics of drag racing, explained how modern drag racers have been able to break through the theoretical limitations thought to hold in the early days of the sport. Shown in conjunction with Tapia's talk was a striking video by Josef Sifuentes, an undergraduate studying mechanical engineering and art at Rice University; the video featured a show car owned by Tapia, and Sifuentes was on hand to discuss the role played by the Navier-Stokes equations in the preparation of the video.

A major highlight of the conference was the awarding of the prize to Petters---presentation of a plaque by Blackwell and Tapia, and then of a $3000 check by Carlos Castillo-Chavez, a professor of biometrics at Cornell and the lead organizer for the Blackwell-Tapia Conference at Cornell in 2000. It was a moving experience to see these four people together-they have been responsible for the success of so many in the mathematical sciences, through the example of their scholarly excellence and their efforts to help others follow in their footsteps. Future Blackwell-Tapia conferences should provide many more such moments, but this one will be hard to top.

The members of the 2002 Blackwell-Tapia Prize and Conference Organizing Committee were Carlos Castillo-Chavez, David Eisenbud, Fern Y. Hunt, William A. Massey (co-chair), Robert Megginson, Juan Meza (co-chair), and Michael Singer. Additional information about the prize and the conference can be found at MSRI's Web site, The talks by Petters and Spergel are available from the MSRI streaming video library, which can be accessed from MSRI's home page.

This article was adapted from "Arlie Petters Receives First Blackwell-Tapia Prize," Emissary (MSRI newsletter), Fall 2002.

Robert Megginson is deputy director of the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley and a professor of mathematics at the University of Michigan.

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