STEM GLAM GALLERY: Persi Diaconis
At age 14, Persi Diaconis left home to follow Dai Vernon, one of the most influential magicians of the past century. He dropped out of high school regardless of his exceptional grades, knowing full well what his passion in life was all along – magic. He had taught himself magic tricks from the age of five, and growing up, magic had been (and still is!) his favorite hobby. When the world-class expert spotted his talent and extended a hand towards him, of course Diaconis had to accept it. So he packed a little bag with some deck of cards and some socks... and this was how his magical career began.
As planned, Diaconis worked as Vernon’s apprentice, eager to uncover Vernon’s secrets of magic that he had never shared with anyone else, learning and pursuing magic as an academic discipline. Then after a couple of years, Diaconis left Vernon and started to work independently. As he played clubs in Chicago, he invented tricks, gave lessons, and collected old books on magic. He recalls in an interview, “(Magic) It was just my life, I did it with all my energy.”
Little did he know then, he would stumble across a book that would change his career forever. It was William Feller's Introduction to Probability Theory and its Applications, a book that his mathematical physicist friend Charles Radin introduced for him to learn probability. As Diaconis read the book, he realized that he did not have enough knowledge to understand the material; however, he was very intrigued to learn about the connections between probabilities and the games of chance, and he forced himself to keep reading it.
At age 24, Diaconis went back to school at the City College of New York to learn more mathematics. He took evening classes and continued doing his magic shows to support his education. Soon, in 1971, he earned a Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics, yet he was hungry for more. By then, he was spellbound by the magic of mathematics, and he wanted to continue to graduate school, and one school in particular, Harvard University.
As luck (and talent too of course) would have it, the famed mathematics writer Martin Gardner was able to help him through the strength of a recommendation letter. Gardner wrote to the head of the Statistics department at Harvard, Frederick Mosteller, “This young student is one of the best card mechanics in the country. He does a fantastic second deal and bottom deal.” Mosteller, who was known to be a magic buff, responded, “If he's willing to major in statistics, I can get him into Harvard.” Once again, Diaconis accepted the extended hand. In 1974, he graduated with a PhD in Statistics from Harvard University.
Diaconis has not strayed from mathematics or magic since then. He has earned multiple honorary degrees, and many awards and fellowships throughout his career. He has written 3 books: Group Representations of Probability and Statistics in 1988; Magical Mathematics: The Mathematical Ideas That Animate Great Magic Tricks in 2011; and Ten Great Ideas about Chance in 2017. Today, he is a Professor of Mathematics and Statistics at Stanford University, and he continues to work his magic in the field of statistics and probability.
He writes in his bio, “I am a mathematician and statistician working in probability, combinatorics, and group theory with a focus on applications to statistics and scientific computing. A specialty is rates of convergence of Markov chains. I am currently interested in trying to adapt the many mathematical developments to say something useful to practitioners in large real-world simulations.”