A conversation with Michael A. Stephens

In April 2007 I had a series of conversations with Michael Stephens in which we talked about his life before joining Simon Fraser. I’ve edited all these reminiscences into the form of a single conversation. RAL is me, Richard Lockhart; MAS is Michael and the A in both cases is Arthur.

RAL: Michael, let’s start with your early days.

MAS: I was born in Bristol, England, 200 km west of London, a city of about 400,000 people. My parents lived in a stone house in a rather poor part of the city aptly named Totterdown. The depression hit, my father lost his job, my mother couldn’t cope, and around 1930 they divorced. Divorce was very final in those days; my father got custody and I saw my mother only once or twice thereafter. My father found a job in Southampton, the big port city, and after a period with another family, I went in 1935 to live with my paternal grandparents. Grandfather had made a good living as a bookmaker, going to the horse races, standing on his box with a board which read ‘George Stephens, Bristol’ and chalking up the odds on the different horses. Bookies are usually portrayed as loud, dressed in huge tweed plaids, but my grandfather was a quiet and reserved man (his partner was louder and richer). Grandmother could not read or write, and I remember her looking through the picture magazine of the day in England, and fearing the worst as she saw pictures of Hitler addressing the crowds in Germany. Several of her sons had served in the first world war and one had been killed.

RAL: You went to an interesting school a bit later.

MAS: Yes, about 1937 my father remarried in Southampton, and in 1938 I won a scholarship to Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital (hospital appears to be a medieval name for a boys boarding school). As you know, there is, in Britain, a network of private (misleadingly called public) boarding schools for the sons (and a few of the daughters) of the rich, and these are privileged institutions with studies, extensive playing fields, squash courts and the like. QEH was completely the opposite; it had been founded in 1586 by a group of Bristol merchants ‘to educate poor boys and orphans’ from Bristol, then the second city of England. There were in my time 110 boarders and 90 day boys and the school was (and still is) housed in a magnificent Victorian building in the centre of Bristol. Education and sports (at playing fields in the suburbs) were foremost.

RAL: You’ve told me before about the school uniform.

MAS: Oh yes, the boarders wore an unusual and striking uniform: knee-length trousers buttoned with silver buttons, bright orange stockings and black shoes. In school this was topped by a single-breasted coat, but for the rare outings in the street there was a long coat, fitted at the top (more silver buttons) and a long cloak to the ankles. Around the waist was a thin leather belt (the girdle) and at the neck we wore the band, two starched strips of cotton similar to that worn by lawyers and some priests, although there the resemblance ends.

RAL: What was school life like?

MAS: Education and sports (at playing fields in the suburbs) were foremost. Life there was truly spartan; each boy had only a typical schoolroom desk in rows of eight, where we kept our books on and a few private possessions(letters from home, stamps, toffees), together with the band and girdle. We bathed once a week in a communal bath, with an ex-sergeant-major (the Marshal) watching to see there was no hanky-panky.

Life was rigidly organised from dawn to dusk. The school had, for over 300 years, strictly followed the original charter (given by the first Queen Elizabeth). With so few pupils, the curriculum was very limited; physics was the only science taught until the last two years when potential scientists could add chemistry. French was the only modern language, though of course Latin was obligatory (and Greek for a very few, including myself).

RAL: The war was on, of course.

MAS: Yes, my grandfather, now bedridden, died of illness just before heavy air-raids started on Bristol at the end of 1940. I stayed with my grandmother in the holidays from school, and each night we walked to my aunt and uncle’s house (they had an Anderson shelter in the garden). In 1941, on Good Friday, my father was killed in an air-raid on Southampton. My stepmother came to Bristol for a while, but finally returned to Southampton, and we lost contact.

RAL: How did you come to go to University?

MAS: My grandmother, who had had no education herself, had a respect for schoolteachers, and agreed to continue looking after me in my school holidays when my Headmaster suggested I should stay and prepare for University and in 1945, just as the war ended and we were allowed out of school to dance in the streets with the relieved citizens of Bristol, I gained an Open Scholarship in physics at Bristol University.

RAL: What sort of physics did you do?

MAS: Well I soon realised I was no good at making the old pre-war apparatus work; also Bristol, although small (only 3000 students total) was renowned in physics because a Professor C. F. Powell had won the Nobel Prize for obtaining nuclear collisions on photographic plates which he sent into the stratosphere on balloons, and hopefully received back when they landed among some startled sheep in Wales or Northumberland. I seemed to be the only physics student unattracted to mesons but I loved the ancillary mathematics taught by Professor Neville Mott, who later moved to Cambridge. He too became a Nobel laureate, and was knighted. I believe Powell never received this honour perhaps because rumour said that he was a communist.

RAL: So what did you do after Bristol?

MAS: Well, frankly, I wasn’t too happy at Bristol as I saw a future testing strength of materials for Cortaulds or Imperial Chemical. But one lucky day Mott came down the stairs as I was going up; I was probably late for class. He had a letter in his hand and invited Stephens into his study, a sanctum rarely entered by a lowly undergrad. The upshot was that I applied for the newly created Frank Knox fellowship (announced in the letter) to Harvard. After various letters, and after convincing an interview committee that I was devoted to the democratic ideal and didn’t suffer from moral turpitude, which I took to me some sort of STD, I became the first British holder.

RAL: Who was Knox?

MAS: Knox was the Secretary of the Navy for Roosevelt and a friend of Britain in the war—I believe it was he who arranged for loans of ships in the darkest days of 1943 when the U-boats were winning the North Atlantic, and had endowed the fellowships in his will. They were for students from each of the major countries in the Commonwealth, and were intended to start after Mrs. Knox died, but she was anxious to see them start and gave cash to fund one from Britain to Harvard and one from Harvard to Britain. My scholarship was $2000, out of which I could pay my fees and enjoy a student life far more comfortably than ever before.

I carried on with physics, as I was convinced that had I announced that I wished to study mathematics they would have sent me back on the next boat, but I vowed never to enter another lab, and mercifully, there were plenty of courses joint with mathematics and physics. Special functions were fascinating and were to stand me in good stead later when I worked on directional data. Also the quantum mechanics lectures of the brilliant young Julian Schwinger were superb; he too became a Nobel laureate (I have been taught by four in all). I got an AM (as Harvard mysteriously called my degree) in 1949.

RAL: You then stayed another year in the US?

MAS: Yes, and better than that, I realised clearly what I wanted to do in life. The contrast of Boston and Harvard with Britain, still heavily rationed and barely recovering from the war, was enormous, and I wanted to stay a little longer. I got a job at Tufts College (now University), in the Mathematics department, because a wonderful old lady who taught there told me that the Mathematics Chair ‘likes Englishmen’. Well he liked me enough, and I became an Instructor, teaching calculus. As soon as I walked out of my first lecture, despite the young lady who was knitting in the front row, I knew that teaching mathematics to adults was for me.

RAL: But you stayed only the one year?

MAS: Yes, the Americans wanted to call me up for the Korean war, so I fled back to England. I did another year at Bristol, catching up on more mathematics but actually at last enjoying a good student life (girls were no longer quite the mystery they had been to an 18 year old in 1945, who had spent 7 years in an all-male boarding school), acting in plays (I was an awful ham), taking an interest in politics, etc.

RAL: And after that?

MAS: Finally the money ran out, and I had to get a job. It was impossible, with degrees in physics, to get a job in mathematics in one of the few (and small) British universities, but I landed one first in Woolwich, then in Battersea Polytechnic, both in London. These institutions were benefitting from the huge influx of students after the war, and were offering London degree programs, mostly in Science and Engineering. I liked teaching Engineers a whole range of mathematics, because they wanted to know how to solve problems and deltas and epsilons interested them as much a mesons had interested me.

RAL: I imagine you liked the London life?

MAS: Oh yes, very much, what I could afford. But the salary was awful, and at 29 I was still living in an old lady’s back room. Out of the blue came an offer from Case Institute of Technology (now Case-Western Reserve) and off I went to Cleveland. Case had a huge Univac computer, all whirling tapes and flashing lights, and I decided to learn programming. Next to computing was Statistics, so I thought I would learn some of that too. I took some cook-book classes, and thought I was learning statistics. For the life of me, I cant understand why I didn’t wonder why the ratio of this to that would be called F and looked up on page 376.

RAL: From there how did you get to Toronto?

MAS: I am a slow learner when it comes to life, and when one day I went to the department head, a kindly astronomer, very middle-western, and asked when I would be made assistant professor, he told me I would need a Ph.D. He liked my teaching, and encouraged me to get one. I decided on statistics, as I wanted to be pretty sure of a job when in a few years, if I were lucky, I would have a Ph.D.

I wrote around, and Dr. Delury offered me a part-time job at Toronto. I could study full time as well as teach, so I decided at least to visit Toronto. A charming young fellow whose name I didn’t catch walked me around the campus and encouraged me to come. I asked if the Faculty were humane to grad students and from his rather surprised manner as he told me he had always got along well, I realised I was talking to Don Fraser. I came to Toronto, and on my first day met Geof Watson, an Australian, also on his first day. He took me on, and later suggested I work on directional data. I painted his house (well, helped) and that’s how I got a Ph.D.

RAL: Those were important years in other ways too, I believe!

MAS: Yes, while I was at Toronto I met Evelyne, a young couturi`ere from Normandy via Paris, where she was working in one of the top Paris fashion houses. She left France for much the same reason that I left England—a subsistence income. We married just after I obtained my Ph.D. in 1962; I spent another year at Toronto and then went to McGill. I was 35, and worked very hard to catch up on people who had graduated at a more conventional age. Montreal is an interesting city but we both hated the long winters. In 1967 our daughter Madeleine was born; in 1968 we spent a year at Nottingham University in England, and in 1970 I accepted a Professorship there. But after my Canadian experience, I did not adapt well to the return, and after a year in France at Grenoble, we returned to McMaster in 1972.

RAL: Tell me more about the family.

MAS: We finally came to Vancouver, or, rather, Burnaby and Coquitlam via New Westminster. Madeleine grew up and became a Vet; she went to UBC and to Saskatoon Veterinary College. After working in several practices, she accepted to become Director of the Animal Care Facility at this University, where she is overworked and underpaid. Along the way, she met a young man, Malcolm, while still at high school; he is a businessman, working in metals making huge chains for logging equipment, among other things. Madeleine and Malcolm married in 1991, and now live in Langley, near Vancouver. They have four sons, each with his own iPod. Needless to say, Evelyne and I think they are adorable, spoilt, and very badly brought up! Evelyne and I have both had health problems; but as a family we have been fantastically lucky.

As you know, recently I have suffered from macular degeneration, and can no longer read easily, especially cannot read the journals, but can still work a bit thanks to a large screen and large fonts. This has been provided by my colleagues and is part of my reward for being in a statistics department which has grown in stature over the years; it is a pleasure to have such talented and kindly colleagues.

RAL: I know you made annual visits to Stanford for many years. How did that start?

MAS: In the summers of 1962 and 1963, I went to work with GeofWatson at Johns Hopkins; he had good research money, and I met C. R. Rao, Jim Durbin, E. J. G. Pitman, and Rupert Miller, among others. David Duncan was on the Faculty and he and his wife were very kind to us. A little later, Rupert invited me to give a talk at Stanford. Herb Solomon met me and invited me to visit in the summer. It was a wonderful invitation, and I went every summer for 25 years. As you can imagine, apart from the brilliant Faculty, I met many statisticians from all over the world, and these invitations certainly helped my career and me to become better known, quite apart from the excellent companionship and the joys of San Francisco.

RAL: What made you come to SFU?

MAS: I was at Stanford in 1975, and I was told that SFU was looking for a statistician. I came to visit. I liked the atmoshphere at SFU; Alistair Lachlan and Norman Reilly were very welcoming and the visit was very pleasant. A year later I accepted an offer to join the Math Department. Isn’t the rest supposed to be history?