STATISTICIAN on A MISSION: Prof. Jones (purple wizard hat) ponders probabilities as he directs human chess game at Renn Fayre in 1997. On the left, Prof. Bill Peck [philosophy 1961–2002] clutches curtain-rod of doom.

STATISTICIAN on A MISSION: Prof. Jones (purple wizard hat) ponders probabilities as he directs human chess game at Renn Fayre in 1997. On the left, Prof. Bill Peck [philosophy 1961–2002] clutches curtain-rod of doom.

The Unpredictable Statistician

Prof. Albyn Jones [math 1986–2017] retires after 30 years at Reed

By Katelyn Best ’13 | December 1, 2017

Albyn Jones is one of those people who demonstrates what Reed is by the very fact of his existence.

Get him talking about any of his interests—in research or in life—and the newly retired math professor lights up. The thing is, he’s interested in just about everything.

The afternoon we met, Prof. Jones had just been quizzing himself on French verbs, which he’s been working on so he can chat with his petanque buddies in their native language. That morning, he’d done a 30-mile bike ride up the Springwater Corridor. On the desk in his office, nestled among an assortment of pens and pencils, were a set of juggling bean bags.

All this follows a 30-year career at Reed where he was less a math professor than a stats wizard for hire.

“When I came to Reed, the ad I responded to was asking for somebody who could consult with people in other departments,” he remembers. “I interviewed all over the place: psychology, sociology, economics, math. So when I came to Reed, I became a complete generalist. I started getting statistics questions from people and trying to answer them.”

Over the years, the projects Jones worked on included a study of killer whale calls by Monika Wieland ’07 and her thesis advisor, Prof. Suzy Renn [biology 2006–], as well as a psycholinguistics paper by Prof. Enriqueta Canseco-Gonzales [psychology 1992–] and Prof. Michael Pitts [psychology 2001–]analyzing word recognition in Spanish-English bilinguals. His thesis students have applied their statistics knowledge to everything from recreational fishing to cancer survival rates.

That’s not to say Jones doesn’t have his own research questions, though. One longstanding interest has been ratings systems—both for chess players and for soccer teams.

A competitive chess player in his youth and a recreational footballer in college, Jones first got into rating soccer teams with a thesis student, Marcin Stawarz ’98. The rating model he developed correctly predicted much of the 1999 Women’s World Cup. “I was I think the only person rating women’s soccer at the time,” he says. “There were teams, like Russia, for instance, that I knew were good that nobody else knew were good.” The professor eventually became a respected voice in the NCAA soccer world, where fans on message boards would wait with bated breath each year for his ratings.

In 2006, geologist Jim Jackson ’70 hooked him up with some colleagues at the Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Washington, sparking an interest in applying statistics to seismology. “I spent that year hanging out at the volcano observatory,” Jones recalls. He worked on several projects, including the history of seismic activity at Mount Saint Helens and Mount Rainier.

Eruptions at Mount Rainier tend to be clumpy, alternating between periods of activity and dormancy. “In the space of a few hundred years,” Jones says, “you might see five or six eruptions. Then a few hundred or thousand will go by with no eruptions.”

To try to predict future eruptions, statisticians like Jones might use the hidden Markov model, which takes into account whether a volcano is active or not—with the catch that we don’t actually know whether it’s in an active or dormant state.

Another of his interests is that bogeyman of the Pacific Northwest, the Cascadia Subduction Zone, an offshore fault that’s been predicted to cause a 9.0 earthquake sometime in the coming decades. He says the science on the Big One is fraught with uncertainty—and we should be wary of attempts at giving a hard number on the probability of a major earthquake. “The probability in, say, the next 50 years might be 5%, or it might be 50%. We just don’t know.”

Jones lives in the Woodstock neighborhood, where he and his wife, Heidi Alford, raised their two kids, Eli and Kelsey. When he’s not crunching numbers, he juggles, a hobby he first acquired after picking up a thin volume called How to Juggle in a west LA bookstore as a teenager, then maintained at Reed. In fact, he has played a pivotal role in the growth of the sport in Portland and is one of the kingpins behind the annual balancing act known as the Portland Juggling Festival.

For a guy who’s spent his career making predictions, you could say that Jones has a knack for the unexpected.

Tags: Professors