Professor Richard S. Ellis, Renaissance Man
by Donald St. Mary

This article appeared on pages 3–4 of the 1998-1999 Newsletter of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Massachusetts Amherst, Volume 14.



Since he was an undergraduate at Harvard University, Professor Richard S. Ellis, a member of our department since 1975, has had two passions: mathematics and literature. During the past year he enjoyed great success in both areas. Before I discuss his literary activities, let me tell you something about his work in mathematics.


Professor Richard S. Ellis

Richard’s research specialty is applications of probability theory to queueing systems and to mathematical physics. Problems to which his research is potentially applicable include the efficient design of communication networks and the modeling of large-scale features of the earth’s oceans and atmosphere. Richard is an acknowledged world expert in the theory of large deviations, which is a highly active area of probability that gives detailed information on rare events. For example, in applications to communication networks, the rare event could represent an overload to the network. Large deviation methodology could lead to an optimal redesign so that the overload does not occur.

Richard’s 1985 book, entitled Entropy, Large Deviations, and Statistical Mechanics, is now considered as one of the authoritative texts on the subject. In addition, his name has become attached to a body of work and a key theorem (the Gärtner-Ellis Theorem), which have become a part of the lexicon of fundamental research tools used by mathematicians and scientists from a broad spectrum of disciplines, including statistics, engineering, information theory, and statistical mechanics.

In addition, Richard has co-authored with Paul Dupuis of Brown University and formerly of UMass a second research-level monograph entitled A Weak Convergence Approach to the Theory of Large Deviations. It was published in 1997 by John Wiley & Sons. Since receiving his Ph.D. in 1972 from New York University, Richard has published the two monographs and more than 50 research papers. In May 1999, in recognition of his outstanding research contributions, he was elected to Fellowship in the Institute of Mathematical Statistics. The fellowship is an honorary award and will be presented in August at the Joint Statistical Meeting in Baltimore. Professor Donald Geman, also a member of our department (see Faculty Highlights), received this honor in 1997.

Richard’s research is currently being supported by grants from the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy. The Department of Energy grant is a three-year award to him and to Professor Bruce Turkington, who is also a member of our department. They are applying probabilistic and numerical techniques, including the theory of large deviations, to study statistical theories of turbulence, which are a source of some of the most important, outstanding problems of applied mathematics and mathematical physics. A better theoretical understanding of turbulence could be used, for example, to predict long-term trends in the earth’s ocean-atmosphere system and hence is relevant to weather forecasting and climate modeling.

In addition to his research in mathematics, Richard has remained actively involved in literary pursuits. A comparative paper of his on the human-Divine encounter in the poetry of Emily Dickinson and the Hebrew Bible was published in the Spring 1999 issue of The Emily Dickinson Journal. In her letter of acceptance, the editor, a Dickinson scholar with an international reputation, says the following: “I think that your essay is brilliant — not only in your erudition and thoughtful analysis in Dickinson studies and Biblical scholarship but [also] in your ability to shift lenses ... so as to bring genuine insight to and from both disciplines. Your essay makes a real contribution, and we will be proud to publish it.” Richard has been invited to present his paper at the 1999 conference of the Emily Dickinson International Society.

During the past year, another essay by Richard — this one on the near-sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham — was accepted for publication in Conservative Judaism. In 1997 this same journal published an essay of his entitled “The Book of Leviticus and the Fractal Geometry of Torah.” Besides his writings, Richard has shared his insights into Biblical narrative by teaching classes both at his local synagogue and at UMass Hillel entitled “The Art of Biblical Narrative: Torah as Literature.” Recently, Richard completed a novel on Israel and the Holocaust entitled Blessings from the Dead, which he is trying to get published. Set in Jerusalem in the mid 1980’s, his novel depicts the quest of a Jewish- American scientist for the truth about his mother, a woman he never knew. In recognition of his writings and his teaching, Richard has been appointed an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies at the university.

In future mathematical research, Richard plans to continue his collaborative project with Bruce Turkington on statistical theories of turbulence. During the coming academic year, he will teach a graduate course on analysis in our department and a course on The Book of Job at UMass Hillel. He will also continue his studies of Dickinson’s poetry and the Hebrew Bible.


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