Image of computer code

Samuel Karlin

  • National Medal of Science
  • Mathematics And Computer Science

For his broad and remarkable researches in mathematical analysis, probability theory and mathematical statistics, and in the application of these ideas to mathematical economics, mechanics, and population genetics.

Mathematician Samuel Karlin was a passionate thinker, an enthusiastic debater and a lifelong student. Born in Poland but raised in Chicago, Karlin applied math to everything from statistics to game theory to biology, switching his direction of research every seven years to keep his perspective fresh.

Karlin’s most well-known legacy is the statistical foundation for BLAST, a software program used to compare DNA sequences to help researchers identify the known components of a new organism. The platform is often heralded as the Google of biology, drawing on the idea that every living thing is related to one another. But Karlin also devoted his intellectual talents to war strategy, working on airplane dogfights and inventory management during WWII, then pivoting to total positivity, or the probability that two objects in random motion will not collide. That method was used to study voting behavior.

Karlin was also a devoted teacher, molding and encouraging the more than 70 Ph.D. students he mentored at Stanford. He instilled his love of science in his three children, too, all of whom went on to pursue careers in chemistry, medicine and computer science.

By Lauren Clason