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Mathematician-Tennis Star Gilbert Hunt Dies at 92

July 9, 2008

Gilbert Hunt Jr., who was an authority on probability—and one of the nation's top 10 tennis players during his college years—died at the end of May at the age of 92. The Hunt process, a key mathematical model used in probability theory, is named for him.

Hunt is famous for his work on Markov processes. "Such a process models a random system in which knowledge of the past gives no more information about the future than does knowledge of the present," Edward Nelson of Princeton University said. "Betting on the lottery is a Markov process. Your chances of winning are not affected by how many times you have lost."

Hunt attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1934 to 1936 but dropped out to take his chances in tennis. He became known not only for his skill but also for his eccentricities on the court. Hunt, wrote Washington Post sportswriter Bob Considine in 1939, "is an extraordinarily gifted mathematics scholar and teacher, but somewhere in his curious makeup is a streak of daffiness that occasionally prompts him to remove his shoes in the middle of a match, and entertain galleries by picking up objects with his toes."

Hunt received his undergraduate degree in mathematics from George Washington University in 1938. After being drafted in 1941, he used his mathematical prowess to help develop weather forecasts for the Allied invasion of Normandy. From 1946 to 1949, he served as an attaché to John von Neumann at the Institute for Advanced Study. After Hunt obtained his doctorate from Princeton in 1948, he taught at Cornell University before returning to Princeton, where he taught until he retired in 1986. From 1966 to 1968, he chaired Princeton's mathematics department.

Lisa Hunt told the Washington Post that her father, in his later years, would recall match strategies and the precise mathematical angles that had helped make him perhaps the best tennis-playing mathematician ever seen in the Washington, D.C., area.

Source: Princeton University, June 9, 2008; Washington Post, June 11, 2008.

Start Date: 
Wednesday, July 9, 2008