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Elwyn Berlekamp

Kentucky Life talks with Elwyn Berlekamp, a mathematician whose research helped to solve some of the trickiest problems in modern communications.

Many of the innovations that we take for granted in the modern world, from CD players to photographs from deep space, are due in large part to the mathematics worked out by the world-renowned Elwyn Berlekamp, once a student at Highlands High School in northern Kentucky. A leader in the fields of information theory, coding theory and combinatorial game theory, Berlekamp contributed research that has played a role in the development of everything from the ubiquitous CD player to the Hubble Telescope.

Born in Ohio, Berlekamp grew up in Fort Thomas, Ky. He excelled in school, participating in band, swimming, and the school newspaper, and he was elected class president. He formed a lifelong friendship with his eighth grade science teacher, John Deering, who recalls after-school conversations about a variety of topics. “Science was his main interest, and mathematics,” he said.

Berlekamp went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and a doctorate in electrical engineering — in just six years. Information theory captured his interest, specifically, decoding. The technology already existed to encode information, but decoding it after it arrived at its destination was another matter.

“In communication you’re trying to send information from here to there, whatever phone lines you’ve got or microwaves or whatever,” Berlekamp said. “If you send things fast enough you’re going to make a few mistakes, so that when you read it back, it’s not all there.”

His work at MIT in the heyday of the space race caught the attention of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Everyone was trying to solve how to decode the images that satellites sent back to Earth.

“It was trying to communicate with deep space, meaning further than the moon,” Berlekamp said. “Like satellites and probes way off to Mars and Venus. These are hard communication problems. You not only need your antenna, but you need a lot of coding—because particularly with pictures or whatever you’re trying to send back, you see. You’ve got a big antenna on the ground. And you can do quite a bit of computing on the ground. But you don’t have much power on the spacecraft,” he said.

In 1968, Berlekamp wrote “Algebraic Coding Theory,” a set of algorithms that are still considered cutting-edge technology. With this seminal work, Berlekamp made it possible for digital devices to transfer large amounts of information accurately.

Professor David Eisenbud, director of the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (in Berkeley, Calif.) explained that there’s a tradeoff between how much effort you expend and how many errors you can fix. “And Elwyn’s algorithm allowed people to do it much faster, which is the same as much cheaper. He really enabled communications and memory storage.”

Berlekamp’s mathematical program was used in the Voyager probes of Jupiter and the outer planets. When NASA was developing the Hubble Space Telescope, it again faced the problem of downloading large images. Once more, Berlekamp provided the decoding that made possible the beautiful and clear images from Hubble of galaxies and star formations.

Berlekamp formed his own company, Cyclotomics, to work with others to find useful applications for his algorithms.

As a mathematician, he always had a love of games (among his books is “The Dots and Boxes Game: Sophisticated Child’s Play”) and he continues to this day to lecture on game theory. He is professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley.

The 75-year-old takes pride knowing he is helping to lead the next generation of mathematicians. “Some people get alarmed, say, gee, I’m, over the hill,” he said. “No. We’ve succeeded. We’ve brought along a generation who is better than us. What more can we hope for? This is progress. This is good.”

This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2114, which originally aired on April 23, 2016. View the full episode here.