As it happens, he’d already done some work on coding theory—in the area of biology. The digital nature of DNA had been discovered by Jim Watson and Francis Crick in 1953, but it wasn’t yet clear just how sequences of the four possible base pairs encoded the 20 amino acids. In 1956, Max Delbrück—Jim Watson’s former postdoc advisor at Caltech—asked around at JPL if anyone could figure it out. Sol and two colleagues analyzed an idea of Francis Crick’s and came up with “comma-free codes” in which overlapping triples of base pairs could encode amino acids. The analysis showed that exactly 20 amino acids could be encoded this way. It seemed like an amazing explanation of what was seen—but unfortunately it isn’t how biology actually works (biology uses a more straightforward encoding, where some of the 64 possible triples just don’t represent anything). ❧
I recall talking to Sol about this very thing when I sat in on a course he taught at USC on combinatorics. He gave me his paper on it and a few related issues as I was very interested at the time about the applications of information theory and biology.
I’m glad I managed to sit in on the class and still have the audio recordings and notes. While I can’t say that Newton taught me calculus, I can say I learned combinatorics from Golomb.
The Most-Used Mathematical Algorithm Idea in History
An octillion. A billion billion billion. That’s a fairly conservative estimate of the number of times a cellphone or other device somewhere in the world has generated a bit using a maximum-length linear-feedback shift register sequence. It’s probably the single most-used mathematical algorithm idea in history. And the main originator of this idea was Solomon Golomb, who died on May 1—and whom I knew for 35 years.
Solomon Golomb’s classic book Shift Register Sequences, published in 1967—based on his work in the 1950s—went out of print long ago. But its content lives on in pretty much every modern communications system. Read the specifications for 3G, LTE, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or for that matter GPS, and you’ll find mentions of polynomials that determine the shift register sequences these systems use to encode the data they send. Solomon Golomb is the person who figured out how to construct all these polynomials.
A fantastic and pretty comprehensive obit for Sol. He did miss out on more of Sol’s youth as well as his cross-town chess rivalry with Basil Gordon when they both lived in Baltimore, but before they lived across town from each other again in Los Angeles.
Many of the fantastical seeming stories here, as well as Sol’s personality read very true to me with respect to the man I knew for almost two decades.
Despite all his contributions to the infrastructure of the computational world, Sol himself basically never seriously used computers. He took particular pride in his own mental calculation capabilities. And he didn’t really use email until he was in his seventies, and never used a computer at home—though, yes, he did have a cellphone. ❧
Ha! I should take a little bit of pride here as I was the one that helped Sol to finally set up and get his email working. I’d have to look, but I suspect that it wasn’t until around 2004ish when I saw him somewhat regularly and frequented his and Bo’s annual Christmas parties.
A great little introduction and start to what portends to be the science biography of the year. The book opens up with a story I’d heard Sol Golomb tell several times. It was actually a bittersweet memory as the last time I heard a recounting, it appeared on the occasion of Shannon’s 100th Birthday celebration in the New Yorker:
In 1985, at the International Symposium in Brighton, England, the Shannon Award went to the University of Southern California’s Solomon Golomb. As the story goes, Golomb began his lecture by recounting a terrifying nightmare from the night before: he’d dreamed that he was about deliver his presentation, and who should turn up in the front row but Claude Shannon. And then, there before Golomb in the flesh, and in the front row, was Shannon. His reappearance (including a bit of juggling at the banquet) was the talk of the symposium, but he never attended again.
While I was updating Indieweb/site-deaths, I was reminded to download my TwitPic archive. It sold to Twitter almost two years ago this week and has been largely inactive since.
It includes some of the earliest photos I ever took and posted online via mobile phone. Looking at the quality, it’s interesting to see how far we’ve come. It’s also obvious why photo filters became so popular.
02/07/2009 UCLA is spanking Notre Dame on an early rainy morning basketball game.
05/07/2009 Beverly Hills Hotel
05/17/2009 A gray sunset in Laguna Beach
01/20/2010 Breakfast with a Hopkins Student at One World Cafe
12/16/2009 Veggie Cafe with Rama Kunapuli
12/12/2009 A visit out to Jason Calacanis’ office
11/26/2009 Visit to In-N-Out Glendale
05/22/2009 Excellent breakfast at Athenaeum & tour of interesting microscopy lab at Caltech; only photo I got was this??
07/19/2008 Back down to the first floor @WholeFoods
07/17/2008 Dinner at Hugo’s
07/19/2008 Meat! (at Whole Foods Market Pasadena)
07/19/2008 The 2nd floor of @WholeFoods in Pasadena is bigger than most average grocery stores. Is that a restaurant over there?
05/16/2009 Hello Laguna Beach…
06/26/2009 Massive media zoo at UCLA for passing of Michael Jackson! 32 SAT trucks. LAPD army camped out.
11/13/2009 (The house on Dartmouth Drive that I bought.)
The world has certainly lost one of its greatest thinkers, and many of us have lost a dear friend, colleague, and mentor.
I was getting concerned that I hadn’t heard back from Sol for a while, particularly after emailing him late last week, and then I ran across this notice through ITSOC & the IEEE:
Solomon W. Golomb (May 30, 1932 – May 1, 2016)
Shannon Award winner and long-time ITSOC member Solomon W. Golomb passed away on May 1, 2016.
Solomon W. Golomb was the Andrew Viterbi Chair in Electrical Engineering at the University of Southern California (USC) and was at USC since 1963, rising to the rank of University and Distinguished Professor. He was a member of the National Academies of Engineering and Science, and was awarded the National Medal of Science, the Shannon Award, the Hamming Medal, and numerous other accolades. As USC Dean Yiannis C. Yortsos wrote, “With unparalleled scholarly contributions and distinction to the field of engineering and mathematics, Sol’s impact has been extraordinary, transformative and impossible to measure. His academic and scholarly work on the theory of communications built the pillars upon which our modern technological life rests.”
In addition to his many contributions to coding and information theory, Professor Golomb was one of the great innovators in recreational mathematics, contributing many articles to Scientific American and other publications. More recent Information Theory Society members may be most familiar with his mathematics puzzles that appeared in the Society Newsletter, which will publish a full remembrance later.
A quick search a moment later revealed this sad confirmation along with some great photos from an award Sol received just a week ago:
As is common in academia, I’m sure it will take a few days for the news to drip out, but the world has certainly lost one of its greatest thinkers, and many of us have lost a dear friend, colleague, and mentor.
I’ll try touch base with his family and pass along what information sniff I can. I’ll post forthcoming obituaries as I see them, and will surely post some additional thoughts and reminiscences of my own in the coming days.