Gilbert Hunt Jr., 92; Math and Tennis Ace
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
Gilbert Hunt Jr., 92, an improbably good tennis player as a young man growing up in the District and one of the world's foremost authorities on probability theory and analysis as a mathematics professor at Princeton University, died May 30 of respiratory failure at his home in Princeton, N.J.
Probability theory is an area of mathematics that allows for forecasts in any complex system, including the weather and quantum mechanics. The Hunt process, a key mathematical model used in probability theory, is named for him.
He is famous among probability theorists for his foundational work on mathematical models known as 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," said Edward Nelson, a Princeton mathematics professor and an expert on probability theory. "Betting on the lottery is a Markov process. Your chances of winning are not affected by how many times you have lost in the past."
Years before Dr. Hunt's renown as a math theorist, he won fame as a tennis prodigy whose eccentricities made it difficult to predict whether he would win or lose any given match.
At 16 and again at 18, he was ranked No. 1 nationally in junior indoor tennis and was rated one of the top 10 national tennis players during his college years. He talked to himself incessantly, often played barefoot and sometimes wore a floppy farmer's hat to ward off the sun. If he wasn't playing well or if it got too hot, he would simply walk off the court.
"He 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," Washington Post sportswriter Bob Considine observed in a 1939 column.
"This, we might add, is done with a strange faraway look in his brooding black eyes, and an air of complete detachment," Considine wrote. "But shoeless or shod, when he is hot, he is the hottest thing in an otherwise cold and clammy crop of cup defenders."
During the last half of the 1930s, he was "hot" more often than not. In a 1938 match at Forest Hills, N.Y., against Bobby Riggs, the nation's second-ranking men's player, Dr. Hunt scored a stunning upset. Riggs, known to a later generation for his match against Billie Jean King, was a 10-1 favorite, "but the frail Washington mathematician constantly out-maneuvered and pressed the husky Chicago 'play boy,' " The Post reported.
(Years later, Dr. Hunt recounted to family members how he got more oomph into his power serves in the Riggs match by hollowing out his wooden racket and filling it with lead.)
On a July day in 1939, The Post reported, "Giddy Gilbert Hunt, George Washington University's mathematical wizard and eccentric extraordinary, forgot his cute capers long enough to come up with one of his great local tennis performances and whip Byran (Bitsy) Grant in an exhibition on Rock Creek courts."
Grant, a world-ranked player at the time, was so impressed with his young opponent's play that at one point he put down his racket and joined the 1,200 spectators in applause.